The one on the right is Artie.

Artie is a Robothespian.  We met last week at Oxford Brookes University.  Artie showed me some of his moves.  He plays out scenes from Star Wars and Jaws with a range of voices, movements, gestures and special effects (including shark fins swimming across the screens which form his eyes).

Artie can’t yet hold an intelligent conversation but it won’t be long before his cousins and descendants can.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now beginning to affect all of our lives.

Every time you search the internet or interact with your mobile phone or shop on a big store online, you are bumping into artificial intelligence.  AI answers our questions through Siri (on the iPhone) or Alexa (on Amazon).  AI matters in all kinds of ways.

I’ve been exploring Artificial Intelligence for some time now.  In June I was appointed to sit on a new House of Lords Select Committee on AI as part of my work in the House of Lords.  The Committee has a broad focus and is currently seeking evidence from a wide group of people and organisations.  You can read about our brief here.

Here are just some of the reasons why all of this matters

Robot vacuum cleaners and personal privacy

A story in the Times caught my eye in July.  It’s now possible to buy a robot vacuum cleaner to take the strain out of household chores.  Perhaps you have one.  The robot will use AI to navigate the best route round your living room.  To do this it will make a map of your room using its onboard cameras.  The cameras will then transmit the data back to the company who make the robot. They can sell the data on to well known on line retailers who can then email you with specific suggestions of cushion covers or lamps to match your furniture.  All of this will be done with no human input whatsoever.

Personal boundaries and personal privacy matter. They are an essential part of our human identity and knowing who we are – and we are far more than consumers.  This matters for all of us – but especially the young and the vulnerable.  New technology means regulation on data protection needs to keep pace. The government announced its plans in August for a strengthening of UK protection law.

We need a greater level of education about AI and what it can do and is doing at every level in society – including schools. The technology can bring significant benefits but it can also disrupt our lives.

Self driving lorries and the future of work

AI will change the future of work.  Yesterday the government announced the first trials of automatic lorry convoys on Britain’s roads.

Within a decade, the transport industry may have changed completely.  There are great potential benefits.  As a society we need to face the reality that work is changing and evolving.

AI is already beginning to change the medical profession, accountancy, law and banking.  There is now an app which helps motorists challenge parking fines without the help of a lawyer (DoNotPay).  It has been successfully used by 160,000 people and was developed by Joshua Bowder, a 20 year old whose mission in life is to put lawyers out of business through simple technology.  The chat bot based App has already been extended to help the homeless and refugees access good legal advice for free.

Every development in Artificial Intelligence raises new questions about what it means to be human.  According to Kevin Kelly, “We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking what humans are good for”[1].

As a Christian, I want to be part of that conversation.  At the heart of our faith is the good news that God created the universe, that God loves the world and that God became human to restore us and show us what it means to live well and reach our full potential.

Direct messaging and political influence

The outcome of the last two US Presidential Elections has been shaped and influenced by AI: the side with the best social media campaigns won.  Professor of Machine Learning, Pedro Domingos, describes the impact algorithm driven social media had on the Obama-Rooney campaign[2].  In his excellent documentary “Secrets of Silicon Valley” Jamie Bartlett explores the use of the same technology by the Trump Presidential campaign in 2016 which again led to victory in an otherwise close campaign.

There are signs that a similar use of social media with very detailed targeting of voters using AI was also used to good effect by Labour in the 2017 election.

In July six members of the House of Lords led by Lord Puttnam wrote to the Observer raising questions about the proposed takeover of Sky by Rupert Murdoch.  In an open letter they argue, persuasively in my view, that this takeover gives a single company access to the personal data of over 13 million households: data which can then be used for micro ads and political campaigning.

The tools offered by AI are immensely powerful for shaping ideas and debate in our society.  Christians need to be part of that dialogue, aware of what is happening and making a contribution for the sake of the common good.

Swarms and drones and the weaponisation of AI

DroneKiller robots already exist in the form of autonomous sentry guns in South Korea.  Many more are in development.  On Monday 116 founders and leaders of robotics companies led by Elon Musk called on the United Nations to prevent a new arms race.

Technology itself is a neutral thing but carries great power to affect lives for good or for ill.  If there is to be a new arms race then we need a new public debate.  The UK Government will need to take a view on the proliferation and use of weaponry powered by AI.  The 2015 film Eye in the Sky starring Helen Mirren and directed by Gavin Hood is a powerful introduction to the ethical issues involved in remote weapons.  Autonomous weapons raise a new and very present set of questions.  How will the UK Government respond?  Christians need a voice in that debate.

The Superintelligence: creating a new species

It’s a long way from robot vacuum cleaners to a superintelligence.  At the moment, much artificial intelligence is “narrow”: we can create machines which are very good at particular tasks (such as beating a human at “Go”) but not machines which have broad general intelligence and consciousness.  We have not yet created intelligent life.

But scientists think that day is not far away.  Some are hopeful of the benefits of non human superintelligence.  Some, including Stephen Hawking, are extremely cautious.  But there is serious thinking happening already.  Professor Nick Bostron is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute in the University of Oxford.  In his book, Superintelligence, he analyses the steps needed to develop superintelligence, the ways in which humanity may or may not be able to control what emerges and the kind of ethical thinking which is needed.  “Human civilisation is at stake” according to Clive Cookson, who reviewed the book for the Financial Times[3].

The resources of our faith have much to say in all of this debate around AI: about fair access, privacy and personal identity, about persuasion in the political process, about what it means to be human, about the ethics of weaponisation and about the limits of human endeavour.

In the 19th Century and for much of the 20th Century, science asked hard questions of faith.  Christians did not always respond well to those questions and to the evidence of reason.  But in the 21st Century, faith needs to ask hard questions once again of science.

As Christians we need think seriously about these questions and engage in the debate.  I’ll write more in the coming months as the work of the Select Committee moves forward.

[1] Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future, Penguin, 2016, p. 49

[2] Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm, How the quest for the ultimate learning machine will remake our world, Penguin, 2015, pp.16-19.

[3] Nick Bostron, Superintelligence: paths, dangers, strategies, Oxford, 2014

My aim this year has been to begin to get to know the Diocese and begin to be known.  We’ve also begun discern together a common vision for the future…

For over a year now, I’ve been listening. In the months before I arrived I met with each of my new senior colleagues and have spent time reflecting on the qualities the diocese said they would like their new bishop to have.

I paid particular attention to two Bible passages which had been the focus of reading scriptures together during the two year vacancy: Luke 10.1-17 and Philippians 2.1-11.

Over the summer months I was gathering facts and figure and maps in preparation for an intensive discovery process. Then, in October and November, I visited all the clergy in my own episcopal area, and in December I began a tour of every deanery in the diocese.

As I travelled around the deaneries I asked two questions:  What kind of Church is God calling us to be as we look ahead together?  What are we therefore called to do together?

I’ve now completed 21 out of 29 deanery visits in which I have learnt so much about the challenges and opportunities in the many different places we serve.  Each visit has involved a Eucharist and lunch with the clergy; inspiring visits in the afternoon to meet the people who make a difference in their community; an evening meal with about a dozen lay people – and an evening gathering for PCC members and others to share something of my story and to listen to questions and concerns.

I’ve not kept count but so far, I would guess, over 2000 people have come to those evening gatherings.  I’ve begun each evening by introducing myself and then answering what I think is the first question people should ask me: Steven, what’s your vision for the Church in the Diocese of Oxford?

The talk that I give has changed and evolved a lot as I have gradually tuned in to what is happening in our parishes day to day, and where we are and where we might be going.  I’ve been grateful for people’s honesty and feel privileged that people have shared their experiences with me. There are still many more conversations to be had as together we envision the future for the diocese but my talk has now reached a fairly settled form and we recorded the address to Aylesbury Deanery last week.

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Scriptures have been a key part of this process and I’ve returned in a deeper way to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-10 as a guide as we look to the future.

As I met with the Bishop’s Staff and Bishop’s Council and in the annual meeting of Lay Chairs and Area Deans in January, I reflected on the Beatitudes and some provisional answers to the questions about what kind of church we are called to be, and what we need to do together, began to emerge.

Now we are moving onto the next stage of this process of discernment. Next week, 120 people from across the diocese will come together for three days at the High Leigh Conference centre.  At this meeting, I’m going to share with them some of what I have heard through all of this listening and seek their wisdom and counsel as we look to the future.

Please pray for us –  for a new Pentecost – as 120 gather all together in one place.  Please contribute to the ongoing conversation through comments on this blog or through the forum we plan to create on the diocesan website.

In the coming months, there will be other ways for you to be involved in envisioning the future for the Church in our diocese.

It’s been a real joy to make this journey and to try and catch the heartbeat of this wonderful diocese.  There are eight deanery visits still to come and they are really important.  But the next part of the journey is also about making sense of all that I have heard and, with others, finding good ways forward for the future.

In Christ

+Steven

A prayer for our meeting next week:

God of gentleness and love
Draw near to us as we draw near to you
Dwell in every heart and conversation
Fashion us in the likeness of your Son Jesus Christ
Help us to discern together all that you are calling us to be
And all that you are calling us to do.
Assist us, by your Spirit, to become a more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous Church
For the building of your kingdom and the glory of your Son.
Amen

Reconciliation

Many years ago, as a Vicar I met a man who had not spoken to his father for seven years. The quarrel had begun over something small.  But neither would apologise and make the first move.  Both were hurting.  The man’s two young daughters had no contact with their grandparents.

This was my first example of a deep family feud.  Sadly I’ve seen many more since then.  Sometimes they start because of an incident everyone remembers.  More often, people drift into not having any contact with close family.  Indifference leads to neglect which leads to division.  If we do not deliberately tend our relationships, they will fragment.  This is true of marriages and partnerships, of adult children and their parents, of siblings separated by distance, of friendship.

The same truth applies to relationships between communities.  I’ve been part of a group in Parliament looking at how to build a more cohesive society.  We’ve been trying to take the debate about immigration to a much deeper level than the slogans of the referendum campaign a year ago.  One of the most important factors in building a united city or town is having a plan.  Left to themselves, communities grow apart or fragment.  We need to be intentional about building a single society.  The task needs to be owned by central and local government, by civil society and by individuals.  It’s too important for the future to be left to chance.

And what is true between communities is true of nations.  We live in an age where powerful forces seem to be pushing countries further apart. Britain is now redefining its relationship with Europe.  The United Kingdom is under new pressures to fragment.  The global situation is tense.

Today is Good Friday.  This is the day when Christians reflect on reconciliation: working against this power to divide by drawing people and communities back together.  The Christian faith takes very seriously the truth that left to themselves, relationships fragment.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, offered his life on the cross to make peace. The cross makes possible a new peace between humanity and God so that people can find forgiveness, begin again and know God’s love for themselves.  But the cross also makes possible peace between people so that families and communities and nations can be reconciled and made one.

Reconciliation is a profound gift.  That is why the cross is placed at the centre of Christian life and worship.  Many Christians wear a simple cross or carry one in their pocket.  You will find crosses on display in every church, reminding those who come to pray that peace and reconciliation are the heart of our life together.  Many of our church buildings are built in the shape of a cross when seen from above.

That is why on Good Friday, Christians everywhere will take time to reflect and remember the events of that Friday long ago when Christ was crucified in hymns and prayers and silence, in private and in church services.  Sunday is Easter Day and we will celebrate the profound truth at the heart of our faith that God raised Jesus from the dead so that all can have life in his name.  But first, today, we pause and remember this one, special act of love at the heart of our faith.

Jesus taught his disciples a prayer which has reconciliation at it’s very centre.  He teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  We are reconciled to God.  But we are then called to be reconciled to others by taking the initiative and making the first move.  That can be very hard indeed.

I met the man who had not spoken to his father because he was preparing to be baptised as an adult.  He had recently become a Christian.  Now he was realising what his new faith would mean.  It meant he could not simply go on as before and be estranged.  He had to make the first move.  He did and there was a deep reconciliation in that family across three generations.

Good families, good communities and good international relationships do not happen by accident.  They happen because people invest in them and work at reconciliation.

For Christians, Good Friday is a powerful reminder of what we believe God has done in Jesus Christ for us and for the whole world.  Take time this week to ponder the reality of fragmentation and the wonder that is peace.

+Steven

Bishop Steven is the Bishop of Oxford

@Steven_Croft

Ed Sheeran released his third album, Divide, a few weeks ago. It went straight to Number 1 and 2 in the download album chart (there’s a deluxe version which costs a bit more). Just about every song was in the top fifty singles the following week.

The most unlikely song on the album (and my favourite so far) is ‘Supermarket Flowers’. It’s a tribute to the singer’s late grandmother and describes the simple actions and feelings and emotions which follow the death of someone we love:

I took the supermarket flowers from the windowsill

Threw the day old tea from the cup

Packed up the photo album Matthew had made

Memories of a life that’s been loved.

We live in a culture which finds it hard to think about and talk about bereavement and death. Yet grief is a universal experience. According to the Times columnist Alice Thomson, we need to learn to talk about death (Comment, 8 March 2017). She quotes a new book by the psychotherapist Julia Samuel, Grief Works. According to Samuel, four out of five people never discuss their own death, half of all couples have no idea of their partners end of life wishes and a quarter of GPs are reluctant to discuss death with their patients.

The very centre of the Christian faith addresses the universal mystery of being human: the wonder of the gift of life and the terrible finality of our death and the death of those we love.

We will tell again in the coming weeks the most profound and beautiful story the world has ever known: the story of the most perfect life ever lived followed by a terrible and undeserved death. We will remind one another of the awesome truths we hold to as Christians: that the death of Jesus on the cross was for our sake; that death could not bind or hold the beautiful life of the Son of God; that on the third day Jesus rose again; that through Jesus Christ the offer of eternal life is open to all.

In this season of the year we all need to dwell in this story so that the story comes to live in us more fully. We contemplate the mystery of God’s love in Christ so that we can live our own lives well, with compassion and with courage even in the face of death and bereavement. We have a calling in a world which cannot speak of death to give a tender witness to this powerful message of life and hope.

That story and that hope lives still in our wider culture, sometimes just below the surface. In the words of Ed Sheeran’s song:

“Hallelujah . . . Spread your wings and I know

That when God took you back, he said,

‘Hallelujah, you’re home.’”

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Thanks for your prayers for the General Synod as we met this week. It was a good meeting, in the end, with a good but difficult debate on human sexuality at its heart.

Emotions were understandably raw when Synod assembled on Monday and in the initial debate on the agenda (ably led by Oxford’s Sue Booys). More time was requested for Wednesday’s take note  debate. There were lots of questions on the Report by  the House of Bishops.

Tuesday and the first part of Wednesday were taken up with legislation of various kinds. At the end of Wednesday morning the Bishops of Norwich and Willesden set the scene for the group work on human sexuality.

Bishop Graham James’ address at this point is well worth listening to for an historical perspective on this issue going back over 50 years. People on all sides of the debate found it helpful.

Some LGBT members of General Synod didn’t feel able to share in the group work and gave good and understandable reasons for this. The Synod timetable was adjusted to allow more time for the debate itself. Every small group will have been different.  The one I was in was gentle, courteous and diverse and followed the commended process of conversation. Notes were taken to be fed back into the centre. Archbishop Justin took time to meet separately with some of those who did not feel able to be part of the groups.

The main debate began in the Synod chamber at 4.45 and ran through to just after 7.00 pm. Thousands were listening in online and the galleries were full. It was an excellent debate and well worth listening to from the Synod website. The speeches were passionate and powerful. As we expected, there was a wide range of views.

Although it had been a difficult and tense week, my own sense was that the debate itself was the General Synod at its best. I’ve been in difficult debates on several occasions (most noticeably on the legislation of women in the episcopate). This did not feel like those debates. Over 30 people spoke. There was a 3 minute time limit throughout. Jayne Ozanne, Martin Gorick and Sam Alberry all spoke well, from different perspectives. I saw other Oxford members standing seeking to make a contribution. Over 160 people wanted to contribute. The debate was expertly chaired by Aidan Hargreaves.

We came to the vote which is normally a formality in a take note debate. As expected, it was closely contested. The House of Bishops voted 43 in favour and 1 against (the Bishop of Coventry later admitted he had pressed the wrong button by mistake). The House of Laity voted 106 in favour, 86 against with 3 abstentions. The House of Clergy voted 93 in favour and 100 against with 4 abstentions. The take note motion was therefore defeated.

Given the strength of feeling across the Church and the Synod this seemed to me an appropriate outcome. The Bishop of Norwich said afterwards: “I can guarantee that the Bishops will listen carefully and prayerfully to all the contributions made in the debate today”.

Talking with people afterwards, this felt a very significant moment but not that the Church of England is in chaos or turmoil (as the newspaper headlines indicated the following day).

There were various interpretations yesterday of what would happen next. The Archbishops issued a letter yesterday evening which sets out a way forward. The letter is here and I commend it to you for careful study.

The Archbishops begin with a clear statement that “All people are loved and called in Christ. There are no “problems”, there are simply people called to a redeemed humanity in Christ. They call for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. They have established immediately a new Pastoral Oversight Group led by the Bishop of Newcastle to lead on this issue. The group will be inclusive of differing perspectives.

The Archbishops have asked each Diocesan bishop to meet again with General Synod representatives for an extended conversation following the debate. The House of Bishops will consider in May proposals to move forward with a new teaching document around human sexuality, again involving a group inclusive of different perspectives.

We will be giving some time at our Oxford Diocesan Synod on 18th March to reflection on the General Synod debate and subsequent developments. In the meantime, thank you to all those who have written to me or talked with me about GS2025 (and I am sure other Synod reps would express appreciation for this also).

The Bishops of Norwich and Willesden both expressed regret for the pain caused by the House of Bishops document and I would add my own apology to those who have been hurt and distressed over the last few weeks.

We do not need to wait as a Diocese before seeking to combat homophobia and improving our welcome to LGBTI people in significant ways. I will be seeking to convene some kind of reference group within the Diocese to advise us on ways forward.

The last few weeks have been a sharp and sometimes painful reminder to me of the wide spread of views across the Diocese on these issues. By the grace of God, I hope we will grow through these experiences, honouring and respecting our differences and seeing our diversity as a gift and, ultimately, a strength.

May God continually grant to all of us a deeper sense of unity in Christ and unite us through the Spirit’s grace in one body for his glory.

With love and prayers

+Steven Oxford.

 

 

 

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues

As you will know the General Synod meets this week.  On Wednesday the Synod will reflect in small groups on GS 2055 on Marriage and Same Sex relationships after the Shared Conversations and hold a take note debate on the report.

If you haven’t yet read the full report you can find it here.

Please do pray for the General Synod meeting this week and especially for those representing the Diocese of Oxford.  A suggested prayer is below.

I would encourage all of us to be mindful of and careful for those who will find this continued debate challenging or difficult either for themselves or out of concern for those they love.  The report touches on intimate and personal questions of identity and conduct.  This is a season for kindness and gentleness and bearing one another’s burdens as sisters and brothers in Christ.

I will write more on the outcomes of the debate and ways forward in due course.

With love and prayers

+Steven Oxford

Father of all mercies and God of all comfort

Send your Holy Spirit to refresh and renew your holy and beloved people.

May the members of our General Synod clothe themselves continually

with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

Guide and lead us into all truth as we seek your ways together.

Help us to bear with one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Above all bind our lives together in love for Jesus Christ your Son and for your world.

Make us a means of consolation, reconciliation and healing in the earth

Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

2 Corinthians 1.3 and Colossians 3.12-14

 

Twice in the first chapter of John’s Gospel we read the words “Come and see!”.  Two disciples follow Jesus.  He turns and asks them: “What are you looking for?”.  They ask him where he is staying.  Jesus replies “Come and see!”.  Jesus is inviting them to explore becoming disciples.

Then in the next few verses another disciple, Philip, also begins to follow Jesus.  Philip tells Nathanael he has found the Messiah.  Nathanael gives his scornful reply: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replies: “Come and see!”

This is one of the times of the year when the Church needs to make “Come and see” our song.  We need to issue the same gracious invitation to all those whose hearts have been stirred and shaken in recent months.

There was once a Bishop in North Africa called Augustine.  He lived in a small town called Hippo.  He was a bishop in the days of the early Church when, like today, the Church was called to make Christ known in a marketplace of religions and ideas.

Every year in this season, Augustine would preach his sermons especially to those who were on the very edge of faith and looking in: those on the very threshold of the church.  There were many every year.  Over these weeks between Christmas and the beginning of Lent, Augustine would urge them to “Come and see!”: to commit to further and deeper exploration of the Christian faith and to baptism at Easter.  The whole of the Church year was developed as a way of teaching Christian faith.

Augustine’s sermons would be taken away and discussed by his community.  They in turn would encourage family and friends, those for whom they were praying, to come and see: to learn about faith from the beginning and explore becoming a disciple of Jesus.

This ancient annual pattern has lessons for us as a Diocese.  Through the autumn, many thousands of people have come to Church for the festivals of harvest and Remembrance and Christmas.  Thousands more have attended school services and nativities.  As a Church we have ministered to many people over the last year at the most significant moments of their lives following a birth or at a marriage or through funeral ministry.

This is the season – between Christmas and the beginning of Lent – where we need to say to all those people in whom faith is stirring, who are on the threshold of faith: “Come and see!”.  Come and look and explore and learn and come know this Jesus, in whom is all the wisdom of the ages.

We need to be clear that we are not simply inviting people to come to church services.  We are inviting people to come and learn through something arranged especially for those on the threshold: a Pilgrim course, or Alpha, or Start, or Christianity Explored, or something tailored for your own situation.

There will be some people on the threshold of faith in every place.  We are called to support them, to work with them, to encourage them and give our best resources to welcoming and helping people see Jesus in our midst.

I continue my journey across the Diocese this month.  In January I’m in the Deaneries of Buckingham, Claydon, Witney and and Amersham.  In February I’m looking forward to visiting Wallingford, Bradfield, Sonning, Wycombe and Bracknell.  In every place I will be asking especially what churches and parishes are doing to welcome those on the threshold of faith, to say to one and all: “Come and see!”.

+Steven

I began a new part of my journey across the Diocese of Oxford last week.  In October there were four Welcome Eucharists, one in each Archdeaconry.  In November, I’ve travelled across the city of Oxford, visiting incumbents in the Cowley and Oxford deaneries (my own episcopal area).

In December I begin a much bigger journey: a day in every deanery of the Diocese to explore some of what God is doing in Church and community.  Abingdon was first on the list on a cold and clear November day.

I found the Church in the Deanery in very good heart.  We began at noon with a Eucharist for the clergy in St Helen’s Church in the centre of Abingdon.  I spoke on hope and the river of life from Ezekiel 47.  Lunch with the clergy followed.  We talked together of the challenges and joys of mission and church life.

By 2 pm we were at the Abingdon Food Bank.  The food bank opens twice a week and gives out 18-20 food parcels for the most deserving.  It’s run by volunteers and a wide range of churches support with gifts of food and toiletries.  Like most foodbanks, the clients come only for a short time when they are most in need but the need itself is ever present.

On then to Peachcroft Christian Centre, an ecumenical church plant on newish estates to the North of Abingdon which has grown steadily since its foundation.  The Church is gearing up to cook Christmas lunch for fifty or so people on Christmas Day who otherwise would be on their own.  Fifty volunteers from the church family are prepared to give up part of their own Christmas Day to help and support as cooks and drivers.

Kingston Bagpuize next: an ancient church; an expanding village; a group of Christians wanting to share their faith.  They told me about their first Mission Action Plan and how helpful they had found the process.  The Church is looking forward to a Festival and to faith sharing in the spring with a team from Wycllffe Hall.  The big issue in the village, as elsewhere across the Deanery is the influx of new homes and how the church will engage with all those who move in.  So far, every new person has received a home visit and a welcome pack.

Then onto Fyfield to meet members of two smaller communities in an ancient and beautiful church with no running water.  They make excellent cake in Fyfield.  I heard about the church’s plans for a building project; about the nativity play; about longing to do more to engage with children in the villages.

To Marcham Vicarage for a short break with Richard Zair, the outgoing Area Dean and then an evening meal with an invited group of lay people from across the Deanery: a local mayor, a senior charity worker; a headteacher; a youth leader; a street pastor; the lay chair of the deanery; a university lecturer – all people of influence in the community.  We talked of the challenge of new housing; of communication; of cuts in services; of the positive contribution the Church is making.

Finally back to Christ Church, Abingdon for an evening meeting.  Great refreshments (once again).  People from across the deanery.  A short time of worship.  I spoke and then an open question and answer time.  We ranged widely over church and society.

I came away very well fed and also inspired and encouraged by the people I met and the rich conversations through the day.  I’d seen just a snapshot of life in the deanery: I could have returned the next day and the one after that and still be learning new things.  The clergy and the lay people I spoke with were, indeed, full of hope, looking outwards, grappling with serious questions but not defeated by them.

Thanks be to God for the Church of Jesus Christ across Abingdon.  The journey continues next week in Newport.

From time to time, I try and write a new hymn.  Some are better than others.  I’m not a musician so I write them to an existing hymn tune.  For the last few years I’ve tried to write a new hymn as the verse on my official Christmas card.  I send several hundred cards as a bishop so they go far and wide.

Here is this year’s offering.  It’s loosely based on Psalm 96: O Sing to the LORD a new song.

I’ve pondered Psalm 96 for most of this year.  It was the text for my final sermon in Sheffield Cathedral and also the text for my sermon at four Welcome Eucharists across the Diocese of Oxford.

The psalm is a call to all the earth to hope, to joy and to worship: to sing a new song which has the power to change the world.

That is a message the world needs to hear especially at the end of 2016.

The words are written for the well known tune, Jerusalem, by Hubert Parry. Permission is given to reproduce the words in any context.  Let me know how it goes.

Whatever is happening the world over, the Church must never cease its praise and worship. Sing to the Lord a new song!

Sing songs of hope, new hymns of joy.
Sing to the Lord in all the earth.
Let lays of love all fear destroy,
The Church’s anthems of new birth.

For Christ is born in Bethlehem.
The kingdom comes, the Word takes flesh.
And so we sing of love come down
Of mercy, peace and tenderness.

This song is life to all who mourn,
To rich and poor, for young and old.
Our song breaks locks and bars and stone
The breath of life to hearts grown cold.

Let heav’n be glad, let earth rejoice
The Lord has come and justice reigns.
Sing to the Lord, earth, with one voice,
Jesus the name above all names.

Steven Croft, 2016
After Psalm 96
Suggested tune: Jerusalem (Hubert Parry)