To the clergy and people of the Diocese of Oxford

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Thank you for your various messages of welcome and for your prayers following the announcement of my nomination as the Bishop of Oxford. It’s an enormous honour and privilege to be appointed to this role and I look forward very much to serving the communities of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in the coming years.

My Confirmation of Election as Bishop of Oxford was held on 6 July, and I have now paid homage to Her Majesty the Queen and resumed my place in the House of Lords.  I will continue to meet with the senior team in Oxford and plan for the autumn.

Ann and I hope to move to the new See House in Kidlington at the end of August and I will be working to a normal diary in the diocese from early September.  My inauguration is set for Friday 30 September in the Cathedral.

There will then be four Welcome Eucharists at which I will preside and preach, one for each Archdeaconry:

 

Episcopal Area

 

Date

 

Day

 

Time

 

Venue

Reading

5 October

Wednesday

19.45

Reading Minster

Dorchester

9 October

Sunday

15.30

Dorchester Abbey

Oxford

12 October

Wednesday

19.30

Church of the Holy Family Blackbird Leys

Buckingham

13 October

Thursday

18.00

All Saints High Wycombe

I would like to meet as many people as possible over the first few weeks in post so please put one of these dates in your diary and I look forward to seeing you there.

I hope to visit the parish clergy of the Oxford Area in October and November. I am also planning a series of Deanery Days from November to July to begin to get to know and to listen to the whole Diocese.  During those visits I look forward to engaging with lay people and clergy and getting to know the wider community as well as the church.  I also look forward to being out and about across the whole Diocese Sunday by Sunday.

You can discover something about me in advance from the Diocesan website, should you wish to do so.  I was formed as a parish priest in Halifax.  I was shaped as a thinker and writer in Durham and through travelling the country as Archbishops’ Missioner.  I have been forged as a Bishop in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, seeking to recall the Church here and elsewhere to the mission of God.

I’m conscious I will have a much to learn in my early years in Oxford.  Please pray for me: for the gifts of humility, wisdom and gentleness for this new ministry.  Pray in the words of the ordinal that my heart may daily be enlarged to love this great Diocese to which God has now called me.

I’m looking forward very much to working with Bishop Colin, Bishop Andrew and Bishop Alan in the coming years and with the rest of the senior team.  I’m conscious that the Diocese owes a particular debt to Bishop Colin for his care and leadership during the long vacancy.

Based on the listening I have done so far, I will focus my ministry across the whole Diocese in three areas in the early years: on engagement with children, young people and young adults; on enabling lay discipleship in the world and on engaging with the poorest communities across the Diocese. These priorities are not a new Diocesan strategy.  That may emerge over time.  They are initial themes for my own engagement with the whole Diocese and I look forward to taking them forward with you.

I believe that the Christian faith and the Christian church will become ever more central in the life of our nation and the world in the 21stCentury as people seek again for meaning, for values, for purpose and for hope.

God has called the Church to be a community of mercy and kindness, reflecting the nature of Jesus Christ and telling the good news of his love. Together we are called to be a community of missionary disciples: faithful, united, hopeful, creative and rejoicing in God’s grace.

I look forward very much to meeting you, to knowing you and being known and to working with you,

In Christ

+Steven Oxford

PS: I would be very grateful if this letter could reach as many people as possible and be reproduced in parish newssheets, on websites and in magazines. Thank you.

“God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we should not fear, though the earth should change
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”

Psalm 46 has a special resonance today…  The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union.  This will be good news for some people but a genuine disappointment to others.  The coming years will be marked by uncertainty and change.  What does it mean and how should we respond?

A clear outcome

The outcome of the Referendum is clear.  52% of the electorate has voted to leave, 48% to remain.  Every English region outside London had a majority to leave.

The vote in the city of Sheffield was close but still 51% in favour.  The vote across the rest of the Diocese of Sheffield was even clearer (Doncaster 69% leave; Rotherham 67%; Barnsley 68%; East Riding 60%).

It is a more mixed picture in the Diocese of Oxford (where I become the bishop in a few weeks time).  Some local authority areas have clearly voted to remain, others to leave but the balance in the region is still for leaving.

How should we interpret the result?

I watched the television coverage up until 1.30 am and again from 5.30. The politicians were interpreting the outcome in different ways: as a protest against particular parties or politicians, as a comment on the state of the NHS or immigration.

I’m cautious about all of these interpretations. I may be wrong but I believe that such a large number of people voted Leave for two reasons.  First they genuinely want Britain to leave the European Union and to assert the right to self determination.  52% of the population in effect set the right to self governance above short and medium term economic prosperity.

Second 52% of the population voted for fundamental change in our country going forward even if that change brings some instability.  Those left behind by current economic policies and politics clearly believe they have most to gain from new beginnings. That should tell us something very important.

The ongoing debate

Three vital questions came into focus during the long campaign.  The result did not resolve them.  We need more reflection and public debate on each.

The first is global migration.  We heard again and again that “immigration” was an issue.  But for the most part, the campaign was framed in the language the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The issue for 2016 is not simply immigration but global migration.  We are living through and will live through the greatest migration of people in human history.  This movement of peoples is likely to increase through the effects of climate change, population growth, global inequality and armed conflict.  We need a comprehensive, deep conversation about how Britain and the world will respond.

The second is identity.  What does it mean to be British in 2016? We need leaders of vision able to articulate an inspiring vision for Britain and its future.  That positive vision did not emerge in the campaign from either side.

The third is a new kind of politics.  The murder of Jo Cox MP was an immense tragedy.  The response of politicians on all sides helped us see again how many good, honest people represent us in Parliament.  We need a style of public discourse which is more honest, more humble, more gentle and more kind.  This will take more than self-discipline on the part of those in public life.  We need some new symbolism.  Over the next ten years, the House of Parliament are to be refurbished.  Will we have the courage, I wonder, to reshape the chamber of the House of Commons to be less adversarial, less binary, more collaborative, seeking wisdom from every part of the community?

How should the Church respond?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a statement this morning calling for humility and courage.  They say “Unity, hope and gentleness will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen and emerge confident and successful”.

http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5743/eu-referendum-statement-by-archbishops-of-canterbury-and-york

The Church will respond with prayer for our government and Parliament and for all sections of our society.  We will respond by entering into hopeful dialogue with people on all sides of the debate with courtesy and kindness.  We will respond by cherishing the poor and the vulnerable and renewing our efforts to build a safe, just and peaceful world.  We will continue to welcome the stranger and show mercy to the needy here and around the world.  We will continue to build bridges and bonds of friendship across Europe and across the whole world.

In the words of Psalm 46, we will not be afraid though our world may be shaken.  We will take time today to pray, to think, to love and to speak gently in God’s name.

+Steven

 

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me”

These words from Psalm 23 have been in my mind this week following the atrocities in Orlando and the terrible murder of Jo Cox yesterday.

I’ve been in Parliament for my final week of duty there as the Bishop of Sheffield.  It’s been a sombre week.  The House of Lords kept a minute’s silence on Monday afternoon before prayers for the victims of the Orlando shootings.  On Monday evening I walked through Soho on the way to meet my son.  I was moved by the powerful display of solidarity by the LGBTI community there and across the world.

On Tuesday morning I attended the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster Hall with around 750 guests including 150 members of both Houses of Parliament.  Again we kept silence and prayed for the victims of Orlando.  The address by Bishop Angelaos of the Coptic Church was on the suffering of Christians throughout the Middle East.

On Wednesday I took part in a debate in the House of Lords on the European Union’s response to the global migration crisis and particularly, the role of Operation Sophia, the mission to disrupt people smuggling from North Africa to the coast of Italy.  There were powerful and compassionate speeches but, of course, no easy answers.

So it had already been a week of difficult news by Thursday when I heard first that Jo Cox MP had been attacked in Birstall and then, when I arrived home, that she had died from her injuries.  There has been a public outpouring of  prayers and vigils for Jo and for her family and friends.

The tributes  have been very moving and Jo will clearly be greatly missed. We do not yet know or understand the reason for the murder.  It is hardest to bear for her family of course, but hard as well for all Members of Parliament on every side of the House of Commons.  As has been said, the ordinary work of MP’s in meeting their constituents every week is seldom newsworthy but it is the very core of our democracy and a vital part of British life.  I join with those who have called for appreciation and thanks to be extended to those who represent us.

This has been a week for reflection on a series of tragedies.  In each of these, and all the others, I draw comfort from the words of Psalm 23:

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me”.

God is with us even in the depths and the darkest places and God is with those who suffer, in part through all of us extending our love and care and support to those who are hurting most.

We remember God’s love and we pray for those who mourn, for the injured, for the persecuted, for those in danger on land and sea.

But we must also be stirred by these events to engage afresh with the great challenges of our age: to work towards a world which is safe, secure and just for all peoples irrespective of sexual orientation or faith or ethnicity or the place in the world where you are born.

I am struck again at the end of this week by one of the prayers from the funeral service. In the face of such suffering it is vital for all of us to live our lives with purpose and with meaning:

Grant us Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth.  Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

When was the last time you thought about mental health and young people?

There is a major issue.  As many as 1 in 10 children and young people (aged 5-16) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.  The problems include depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders.  The problems are often linked to what is happening in their lives.

Last month I attended the annual Civic Breakfast organized by Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield.
bunsThis is an annual event which brings together Church leaders and faith leaders across the city with local councillors, heads of services, MPs and charities.

The subject this year was the connection between mental health and poverty.  Common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are distributed according to a gradient of economic disadvantage across society.  The less well off you are, the more likely you are to suffer from a range of common mental health problems.

We had a moving presentation at the breakfast from a woman in her twenties who described the mental health problems she experienced as a teenager, the care she received and the real difference it made.  In the discussion which followed, several people contributed stories from their own families.  We had expert opinion from people who work as advocates for those with mental health issues and from General Practitioners.

The most striking statistic was this (from a mental health commissioner):

“Mental illness accounts for 25% of mortality and morbidity in Britain but only 11% of the NHS budget is spent on these issues”.

We are not tackling this part of the problem.  During the last parliament, funding for mental health services were cut by 8.25%.

It’s impossible to read the four gospels and not be aware of Jesus’ compassion for those who are suffering and his care for the whole person.  In the first chapters of Mark, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit, a multitude in Galilee, someone declared unclean by his society, a man who is paralysed and full of guilt, another multitude by the lakeshore and a man with a withered hand.  Read on further and you will find that Christ ministers to children and young people and the elderly with both physical and spiritual diseases.  The gospels do not have our vocabulary for mental illness but it is impossible to read them and not find evidence of these conditions and of Jesus’ care for those who have them.

What can we do?

Christians and Christian congregations can help by raising awareness of mental health issues, especially among the young.  We can help by listening to one another: the first line of support and help.  We can help by reducing any stigma around mental health so that people feel able to talk about the problems they may be facing, whether that is anxiety or depression or another serious illness.  When was the last time you heard a sermon or a presentation in church on these issues?

We can help by taking seriously our responsibility to care for the young and invest in children and young people.  It is encouraging to see the number of workers employed in our Centenary Project increasing month by month.  If you are part of a church in this Diocese, has your church explored this project yet?

We can help by working to relieve poverty and suffering, both in acts of kindness and charity and in our campaigning for justice.  Part of that campaigning will be working to ensure that mental health support increases rather than decreases year by year in line with other spending on health.

We can help by offering our time and gifts through the Samaritans, to Mind, in local visiting and support for those in need.

The Civic Breakfast helped open my eyes and ears again to the fragility of many young people and the need for care and support.  As followers of Jesus Christ, let’s take care to be informed and compassionate and involved.

+Steven

Further help/supportmental-health

I hope you have appointments in your diary on Thursday 5th May and Thursday 23rd June.  There are opportunities to vote on both days and it’s vital to use them.

On 5th May, people across South Yorkshire will vote in local elections and to elect the Police and Crime Commissioner.  These elections really matter.  Last time we voted in local elections less than 6 in 10 people turned out.  Last time South Yorkshire elected Police and Crime Commissioners, only 15% of people bothered to vote.

On 23rd June the whole of Britain will vote in a European Referendum.  Whatever your views, this is a hugely significant question.  It will affect the future direction of our country, our unity, our place in the world and our economy.  We all know that opinion polls sometimes get things wrong. The polls are predicting a low turnout on 23rd June on perhaps the most important national question we are facing in many years.   The polls are also predicting that the outcome will be close.  Your vote and mine will make a difference but only if we use it.

faithleaders2016On Wednesday morning I did what I do every year at this time.  I gathered on the steps of the Town Hall in Sheffield with faith leaders from across the city for a photocall and so that we can make a statement together to encourage everyone we can simply to use their vote: young and old, rich and poor.  No-one has to travel far.  It doesn’t take long.  You can take your family and friends with you and encourage them to vote as well.  Democracy gives to all of us the power to shape our society in the people we elect and in helping us to decide the great questions of our age.

It seems a small thing to go to a polling station, take a ballot paper, place a cross in one box or another and put the voting slip into the box.  Yet for many generations before us very few people were able to vote at all.  To vote you had to be male and wealthy: one of a fortunate minority.  Many people the world over do not live in a democracy and have no say or influence over their own government. We do – yet many of us will not use those votes in the next few weeks.

Having a vote means discovering the arguments: digging below the rhetoric, coming to your own point of view.  The Church of England has set up a web page to help you explore the issue.

Christians should set the pace and take the lead in all of our engagement with politics and many do.  Long ago the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  You can read the whole letter in Jeremiah 29 but here is the key verse:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.  (Jeremiah 29.7).

In a democracy to seek the welfare of the city means to be involved, to be informed, to discuss and ask questions and above all to use the votes we have been given.  Reserve the dates now.

+Steven

Dear Friends,

I write with some significant news and with a mix of emotions to the clergy and lay people of the Diocese of Sheffield.

Downing Street has announced this morning that I have been nominated as the next Bishop of Oxford.  I am looking forward to the new challenge and responsibility this move will bring.  At the same time I am very sorry to be leaving a Diocese and friends and a place I love dearly and where Ann and I feel very much at home.

For both Ann and myself, our seven years in the city and Diocese of Sheffield have been among the happiest and most fulfilling of our lives.  I have enjoyed and appreciated almost every part of being Bishop here: the warm welcome across South Yorkshire (and the parts of East Yorkshire around Goole), the joy of working with an outstanding senior team, with dedicated and creative clergy and lay leaders and the privilege of joining in what God is doing in so many different ways and places.  I have appreciated all kinds of engagement with the city and wider region served by the Diocese: with local politicians, with its economic life, with the universities, the third sector and many different local communities.

Ann has greatly enjoyed fellowship and friendship through Partners Together and the Mothers’ Union and, most of all, seeing the Parent and Toddler group grow at the Cathedral over the past five years.  We have both made many friends here.

You may know that the Diocese of Oxford has been vacant since October 2014. At that time, it felt too early to consider leave Sheffield after six years. However, for various reasons the vacancy was not filled and I was invited in January this year to allow my name to be considered.

My call to this new ministry began with a sense of obedience to the wider needs of the Church and has grown from there, through the process, into a strong sense that God is indeed calling Ann and I to Oxford and calling me to a different kind of episcopal ministry.

For the first time in January, I began to realise it was no longer too early to leave Sheffield.  The Diocese has grown in confidence, in unity, and in capacity for mission, particularly over the last year.  We have a common vision, a strategy to carry that vision forward and a strong and united senior team.  The more I pondered the question, the more this seemed a potentially good moment to hand on the ministry God has entrusted to me here to others and in time to a new Bishop.

The Diocese of Oxford is one of the largest and most complex in the Church of England.  It covers the three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and stretches from Milton Keynes in the north to Newbury in the south; from the Cotswolds in the west to Slough in the east. The Diocese has a population of 2.3 million people.  There are over 800 churches, almost 400 stipendiary clergy and over 200 self-supporting clergy grouped into four archdeaconries and 29 deaneries. The Diocese has an Area system with three Area bishops supporting and working with the Bishop of Oxford.  There are 12 secondary and 270 primary Church schools.  There are six universities. A large number of charities, industries and other agencies have their national or international headquarters in the Diocese.

The invitation to move came at a time when I was beginning to reflect on what shape my own ministry might take over the coming years.  As you know, I had been planning a sabbatical later in 2016 to do some of this thinking.  I have a growing sense of call to a more outward facing ministry over the next ten years or so and a desire to engage more directly in mission and evangelism and with the wider life of the nation.  I could certainly have changed gear in that way and remained in Sheffield, but Oxford, with all its resources also provides an excellent place for such a ministry.

Finally, although the move will take us further from some of our family in Halifax, it will bring us much nearer to our four children and to our grandson.  Paul, Andy and Beth and Sarah are all settled in Greater London.  Amy and Simon are in Bristol and Ann’s mother is also there.  Ann and I first met and married in Oxford and we lived there for five years immediately before we came to Sheffield.  From the perspective of our past and our future, the move makes sense.

For the next few months at least it will be business as usual.  I am not quite sure of the timings yet but it looks as though we will move to Oxford over the summer.  A farewell service has been provisionally booked in Sheffield Cathedral for Sunday 17 July at 4.00 pm.  In the meantime I am looking forward to the regular programme of parish visits, the Deanery confirmations and continuing to plan for the launch of St Peter’s College.

After I leave, Bishop Peter will lead the senior team and the diocese during the vacancy as we continue to grow a sustainable network of Christ like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place.  I will leave the Diocese in excellent hands.  The process of discovering who God may be calling to the immense privilege of being the next Bishop of Sheffield is likely to begin in the autumn.

In the meantime, we continue to value your prayers.  You know me well enough to know that I enjoy change but also find it very daunting.  We will continue to pray for you now and for many years into the future.  I have every confidence that the whole Diocese will continue to grow in faith and hope and love in the years to come.

With thanks for all that we have received through you and in you and for the grace of God in this Diocese.

With kind regards

+ Steven

I spent an hour or so yesterday signing around 200 certificates to be sent to churches across the Diocese of Sheffield to say thank you for the contributions to Common Fund, our shared Diocesan budget.  This is something I do every year.  I find it a very moving exercise. common-fund

The certificates are normally displayed in the Church porch or elsewhere on a noticeboard.  I also write a letter to the Vicar and the PCC.  Each one says thank you on behalf of the Diocese, but also on behalf of other churches across the Diocese for generous sacrificial giving.

The Diocese of Sheffield serves an area which is one of the poorest in the country in economic terms.  However, for many years, the Diocese of Sheffield has been one of the most generous in the country in terms of the proportion of people’s income which is given away to and through the local church.

Last year the churches of the Diocese gave £4.5 million to the Common Fund, our Diocesan budget.  Each certificate I signed yesterday represents a double act of generosity and adventurous giving.

First it represents thousands and thousands of individual decisions by individuals and families to give generously and sacrificially to the life of the local church to sustain ministry in that place.

Second it represents hundreds of decisions by Church Councils to prioritise generous, adventurous giving to the Diocese in their own budgets.  For that reason, I try and sign the certificates slowly, giving thanks for all that they represent.

If you are part of this adventurous, generous giving in any way then thank you.  Common Fund is the cornerstone of our Diocesan budget.  It enables us to support Christian ministry and mission in every part of this Diocese, especially in communities which would find it difficult, if not impossible, to support a priest.  Generous giving to the Common Fund enables us to grow ministry in all kinds of ways and that enables us, by the grace of God, to grow the life of the Church and to make a bigger difference in the communities we serve.

Long ago, St. Paul reflected on the generosity of the churches of Macedonia.  You can read his words in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.  Paul is moved by their gracious giving:

“For I can testify that they voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints – and this not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (8.3-5).

According to Paul, this generous act of giving flows directly from our faith and from the example of Jesus Christ:

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8.9).

Paul urges many others, including the Church in Corinth, to follow the example of the Macedonian Christians and of Christ himself and give themselves to the Lord:

“One who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (9.6-8)

It is an extraordinary miracle of faith and generosity that God’s people in this place give in this adventurous way.  Together through our giving we have a share in all of the ministry and mission which is taking place across this Diocese.  Together we make that ministry and mission possible.

Thank you for your part in that and please persevere.  The challenge continues from year to year and there is always more that we can do.  If you are not yourself involved in this adventure of grace then there is plenty of room for more people to join in.

Together God has called us to grow a sustainable network of Christ like, lively and diverse Christian communities across this Diocese, effective in making disciples and in transforming our society and God’s world.

Week by week, month by month, year by year, we see that vision becoming more of a reality.  Thanks be to God and to all God’s generous people.

+Steven

Over three hundred young people aged 11-18 gathered together on a cold Saturday in January for our third annual Breathe Deep day. They came to St Thomas Philadelphia, with their leaders, from all across the Diocese.  Together we were exploring faith and the rhythm of life with God.  The number of young people involved has more than doubled since our first day in 2014.  People love the day together and are keen to bring their friends.

spinWe worshipped together.  We explored Scripture.  This year I spoke about living our whole lives in the rhythm of the two great commandments Jesus gives: loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.  There were workshops on prayer, on going deeper with God, on service, on transforming God’s world.  All through the morning the young people text in questions on anything to do with life and faith and, just before lunch, I try and answer them.  We eat together (Subway – a big highlight).  Each year this part looks a little more like the feeding of the 5,000 as small groups of teenagers gather across the conference room (there are no chairs so everyone sits on the floor).

Over lunch the huge inflatables arrive and the first part of the afternoon is given over to some serious fun and games.  Then it’s worship again, the results of various competitions, some filming for the music video of the day and the chance to be still, to reflect and to collect a holding cross to take away to remind us of the theme of the day.

You can catch a flavour of what happened here in the various videos made on the day and the photographs we took.

When people ask me what’s happening in the parishes of the diocese at the moment, I’m never short of things to say.  There are so many stories of life and growth.  But one of my favourite things, if I’m honest, has to be the new work we are beginning to do with children and young people and families.  Together we are helping the next generation discover faith in Jesus Christ.

When I was 12 years old, I was on the very edge of the life of my small, local parish church and set to drift away from faith.  If I had, my life would have been very different.  One person in that parish was determined to do something.  She had no qualifications but she started a small youth group for me and just two other teenagers.  Over time she went on training courses and involved others.  Through that group (and at a Diocesan event), I found faith and God found me.  Jean still prays for me and for the others involved in that youth group more than forty years later.

There is no greater gift that we can pass on to children and young people in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our wider society than the gift of faith.  The whole course of a young person’s life will be affected by developing faith in childhood.  It is an immense gift to know that you are loved by God, the maker of the universe; to know that you are called to a lifelong friendship with your creator; to know you can begin again through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross; to know that you are part of a worldwide family; to understand the great gift of prayer; to receive God’s guidance at life’s great crossroads; to develop Christian character; to become all that you are meant to be.  All of these gifts and more are given through the development of faith in children and young people.  Lives are saved, deepened and enriched, families are transformed and the world is changed.

The bible tells us many stories of those who learnt their faith as children and young people.  The prophet Samuel is nurtured in faith as a child through his mother, Hannah, who prays for him and prays with him.  He is nurtured in faith as a child through Eli who instructs him in prayer and in listening to God’s voice.  Samuel will go on to lead Israel and change his nation.  But the foundations of his life and his friendship with God are laid in childhood.

Encouraging faith within and through the family is vital.  Last Saturday I commissioned Pauline Reynolds as President of the Mothers’ Union in this Diocese.  The second of the Mothers’ Union’s five objectives is to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.  As children grow into young people, the role of the local church is vital in nurturing and encouraging faith into adult life.  You can read the sermon here

Last week the Church of England General Synod strongly encouraged parishes and dioceses to prioritise evangelism and witness with younger people.  What are we doing here?

  • We now have funding and support available for churches to grow families and children’s and youth work again.  You can read about the Centenary Project here.  Our first four workers are now in post and their work is bearing fruit.
  • We have excellent training courses to help people who want to take the first steps.  If you want to do something for the young people in your Church take a look at Aurora.
  • We’ve already booked the date for our fourth Breathe Deep day on 28th January next year.
  • If there is nothing happening in your parish for young people, the place to begin is prayer.  If you can’t help yourself then email a link to this post to someone who might be able to make a new beginning.  Let’s do what we can to help young people in every community to rediscover faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the most interesting conversations I had at Breathe Deep was with an adult who had come on her own to the day precisely because there were no young people in her church.  It was a small beginning.  I’m hoping for great things.

+Steven

 

Lent begins tomorrow.  It’s the time of year when Christians give something up – usually food – or else take something on for the sake of others. 

Let me tell you a true story for the beginning of Lent about kindness and practical help.

Sohail Mumtaz is a leader of the Muslim Community Association in Sheffield.  Last year, during Ramadan, he challenged one of his friends, Lee Ward, to have a one day fast. 

Lee fasted and the experience of going hungry for a day made him think of the children in his community who are hungry.  These are the people who are regularly helped by the S2 Foodbank.  The Muslim Community Association and the churches both provide food and funding for distribution.

Lee and Sohail are taxi drivers.  They wanted to do something more to help the children of their community.  They approached other taxi drivers across the city.  Together they raised the money and gave the time to take 96 parents and children to Cleethorpes for a day at the seaside in September.  Many had never been to the coast, and most had never had a holiday 

Deni Ennals, the Foodbank co-ordinator, organized the trip.  Friends and neighbours donated car seats for children, buckets and spades, sun hats, lotion, items for the picnic and cash for fish and chips.  Every family was given some spending money for donkey rides and the fairgrounds.  Everything went without a hitch.  The day was a huge success. 

Deni wrote afterwards to say thank you to the foodbank supporters: “This one day away from the drudge and poverty of their normal lives did more for many of our clients than any antidepressant many have been prescribed.  It’s a shame we could not bottle the fun and laughter and bring it home to help them through the winter months, when many will not only experience food poverty but also fuel poverty, where homes will have no heating and cooking facilities will become a luxury”.

As far as we know, there are 50-60 Food Banks across South Yorkshire and the Diocese of Sheffield.  It would be excellent if none of them were needed but all of them are.  Most of them are connected to churches and to other faith communities who supply volunteers and donations of food.  A wide range of community groups support them. 

Most clients don’t use the food banks regularly but a very wide range of people have to use them from time to time.  Recent research on provision in the Diocese can be accessed in the Feeding Britain Sheffield Diocese Report.  The findings link to the All Parliamentary Group on Hunger’s Feeding Britain Report which can be found here

foodbank2Why do people need food banks in modern Britain?  We have food in abundance – enough to waste in most of our homes.  There are many different reasons but top of the list in every survey are delays or errors in paying benefits, problems with disability benefits, or the application of benefit sanctions (where payment of a benefit is delayed or stopped because a claimant has not met certain conditions).  People may be out of work, or they may be in very low paid jobs.  Most commonly, people use food banks when there is some unforeseen crisis in their lives. 

It is important to understand that something can be done about most of these reasons.  Next week the General Synod will debate the impact of benefit sanctions.  The Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales have brought a motion to debate.  Malcolm Chamberlain, Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, will put a “friendly” amendment to the motion on behalf of this Diocese to strengthen its impact, calling on the government “to initiate a full independent review of the impact and efficacy of the sanctions and conditionality regime”.   The background papers for the Synod debate are GS 2019A Impact of Sanctions on Benefits Claimants and GS 2019B .

But back to Lent and giving something up.  How can we help, today?  All Christians at this time of year are encouraged to fast in some way and offer practical support and help to those around us. 

  • Foodbanks across the Diocese are looking for support and help: volunteers, supplies, practical aid of all kinds.  It may be that your own local church is already supporting a foodbank.  If it’s not, can you connect with one?
  • Foodbanks are even more effective when they build community, treat people with respect and help and support them in other ways.  The Sheffield taxi drivers are an example to us all.  What can you and I do to help?
  • Recent research suggests that foodbanks help more people when they make advice available within the foodbank on benefits, on money management, on debt.  This already happens in some foodbanks in Sheffield (including S2) but needs to spread to more.
  • Food waste is a massive scandal in modern Britain.  What can we do to reduce the amount of edible food we throw away?  If you’ve not seen it yet, I can recommend the excellent documentary by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, “Hugh’s War on Waste”
  • Foodbanks are needed because there are holes in the net of welfare provision.  It’s important for churches and others to lobby government to mend the nets so that no-one, and especially no child, goes hungry.  There is more on that in this report from the Church Action on Poverty http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/safetynet

Lent is a time to pause, to slow down, to reflect on our lives, to connect more deeply with God and with our neighbours.  As you give something up this year, take time to help others who do not have enough. 

+Steven

“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside their head?”

Last summer Ann, my wife, took me to the cinema to see Inside Out, the new animated film from Pixar. You might have seen it.  If not it’s just out on DVD.

Inside Out is a brilliant, positive compassionate exploration of what it means to be human. The film takes us on a journey inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl who moves with her family to a new city.  Inside Riley’s  mind are five different emotions each played by a different character: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust (essential for responding to broccoli).

inside-outThese five emotions are in constant dialogue.  Inside Out describes the wonderful complexity of what it means to be human: the vast caverns of memory and the “islands” which shape our personalities and make each of us unique: our family, our hobbies, our friendships, our sense of humour.  The film’s story takes us on a journey (on the “train of thought”) to explore the memory banks, the deep subconscious, the dream factory which puts on nightly productions and the dark pit of oblivion.

We share Riley’s outer journey as she moves to a new city and a new school, copes with the stress on her parents and copes with the first real challenges of her life.  As these things happen we see the interplay between Joy and Sadness, Anger and Fear and, of course, Disgust (broccoli pizza this time).  The same five emotions are at the control panel inside Riley’s mum and dad and inside everyone else in the film.  All of us have a rich, deep, inner world.  Inside Out imagines that world in colour, brings it to life and makes us wonder.

So far so good. Inside Out will help a generation of children (and adults) think about what’s happening inside them, about what forms our character and about the role sadness and joy (and broccoli) play in a normal, healthy life.  But for all of the film’s brilliance, there is something missing.

rilesWell, two things actually.  The first is a sense of who really is there at Riley’s core. A human person is even more than a pile of different emotions taking the helm by turn.  Each of us is a unique individual, made up of body, mind, emotions, will.  The Bible talks about each of us having a soul, that precious inner part of each person, which brings life to every other part and animates them.  When we encounter someone else we are meeting their whole self – all that makes them special.  According to Genesis, when God made man and woman, they were incomplete until God breathed into them and made them live.  This soul or spirit or breath of life is at the heart of all we are.

The second missing piece is this.  God’s breath in us, this soul and spark of life at the centre of who we are, longs again to be connected to the God who created us and all the world.  Our lives have a spiritual dimension.  Something within us yearns to connect with the love and beauty and purpose which is the heartbeat of the universe, something bigger and greater than ourselves.  Until we do, we are incomplete. There is a wonderful Christian prayer which starts like this:

“O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

In the words of Psalm 42:

“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,

My soul thirsts for the living God. When shall I behold the face of God?”

It’s hard to see where God fits into Riley’s world.  Where is the wonder of learning to pray and to worship, to give thanks for the beauty in the world, an awareness of truth, the sense of forgiving others and being forgiven?  All these things are missing.

I enjoyed and appreciated Inside Out.  It’s funny and hopeful and helps us see some of the wonder of what it means to be human.  But the picture isn’t finished.  There is more yet to be discovered than five emotions squabbling for control.  Within each of us is a soul, the breath of God’s life, a unique human person.  That soul is made to know God and to enjoy God for ever.  We need to listen to that yearning deep within and reach out to our creator.