I hope this finds you well and this letter comes with thanksgiving and appreciation for your ministry especially during this season of Lent and Passiontide.

Our Diocesan Synod last Saturday spent time addressing our mission and ministry with children and young people. Can I encourage you to take time to listen to or read the transcript of my Presidential Address which details why this is so important at this time.

Following widespread consultation, I have taken the unusual step of asking every parish and deanery to give greater priority to this ministry, to pray and plan next steps between now and September. At the conclusion of the afternoon’s debate, the need for urgency was recognised by our Synod and I am hugely encouraged by their unanimous support and endorsement of the following motion:

“That this Synod endorses the need to significantly increase our engagement with children, young people, families and schools, building on Disciples Together and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and calls on every deanery and benefice in 2024 to develop plans and partnerships for growth.”

I’ve been a bishop long enough now to know that bishops need to be sparing in directives and appeals of this kind. All too easily they can produce guilt and weariness rather than fresh energy and initiative. However, it does seem to me that this is a moment to make an exception. Over the last year, the Discipleship Enablers have spent a lot of time listening to children and young people and those who work with them; to parishes and to deaneries. We know there is energy around this agenda. We know there is consensus to make this a priority. We know that churches are already committing resources. We are confident that people understand that this will mean many different things in many different places.

Over half a million children and young people live in the Diocese of Oxford – between a fifth and a quarter of our population of 2.4 million people are under 20. We are all aware that the post-lockdown regathering and restoring of our work with children and young people has been much slower than for adults. We need to face the reality that although we are engaging with tens of thousands of children and families through our schools, our engagement with children and young people through our parish churches is no longer as confident and strong.

This reality should not lead us to despair, but it should be a spur to reset our youth and children’s work with urgency as a vital part of our service to our communities and of sharing in God’s mission to God’s world.

The process for developing deanery plans will be led by your Area Teams working through their Area Deans, Lay Chairs and relevant local deanery structures. The process of developing parish plans is the responsibility of every PCC. I would be grateful if you could pass this letter and the appropriate links onto the PCC and create space on an agenda in the near future for a full discussion to follow.

Parishes and deaneries will be supported by the team of Discipleship Enablers who are producing resources, parish mapping templates and supportive statistical data available through your deanery. Listening to the voice of children and young people themselves will be vital to our planning. Can I commend to you our exciting new resource ‘Amplify: from a whisper to a waves‘ which will provide the ideas and approaches you need. The focus is not on grand plans but on discerning the ‘one next step’ which can make a difference in your context.

These plans are not for the sake of the church but for the sake of God’s Kingdom and for the sake of the tens of thousands of children and young people and families we will serve through this vision: children who need a foundation; who need purpose; who need love and support; families who need community and practical help and guidance; young people who need investment and friendship and confidence; young adults who need models for living.

We want children and young people to come to know Jesus and love Jesus and follow Jesus. We want to make disciples. We want to bless families and young adults and see them access the immense treasure of the gospel.

With thanks in anticipation for all you are able to do to raise the profile of this ministry.

Watch Bishop Steven’s presidential address or download the transcript.

Welcome to another new year. I hope it’s a good one for you and for your family and for our all our communities across Oxfordshire and beyond.

This is the time of year when we package our hopes into new year resolutions. If I may, I want to suggest a couple to you to think about in the next few days and to build into your own life.

Lots of people will be wondering about taking more exercise or joining a gym. Personal trainers talk about doing exercise to strengthen your core: the centre of the body which can help and support everything we do. That’s great but we are not just physical bodies: we have a different inner core – a spiritual heart – which needs to be mended and strengthened.

So here are two resolutions to strengthen your inner core.

The first is a resolution to go deeper in prayer and worship. The last few years for many people have been challenging and difficult. We need to draw more deeply on God’s strength. The best way to do that is to take time at the beginning of each week, Sunday by Sunday to worship God and draw on God’s strength and grace. Reconnect with your local church. Get back into the habit of worship. You’ll find a warm welcome, friendship and a time for rest and renewal.  Try to take some time each day to pray. Pray the Lord’s Prayer. Pray for your loved ones. Pray for the world. Build up that inner core. It may feel a bit daunting to cross the threshold – but for many people it’s more than worth it for the strength and hope and joy you’ll find in Jesus and in Christian faith.

The second is to reset your priorities once again at the beginning of the year. Remember what’s important. One of the stories I will be reflecting on this year is when someone came to Jesus and asked him which is the most important commandment. Jesus replied like this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Remember in this year that you are deeply loved by God and God calls you to this way of love.

Lent begins this year on Valentine’s Day, 14 January. All across the Diocese of Oxford we will be reflecting on this way of love, the two greatest commandments. I’m praying that many people from the wider community will join us this year as we explore this way of love. You can find details on our website, Come and See.

My God bless you and our city and our county in this brand new year and take us deeper in that way of love.


Almighty God

We thank you that you have made the world in love

And that you call us into love for you and for our neighbour

We dedicate this new year to you whatever it may bring

Strengthen us in our inner being to know your love more fully

To know you better and to live this way of love

Through Jesus Christ our Lord


A very happy Christmas to you and to your families and to all who will listen to this sermon.
The joy of this day is vital medicine for the ills of the world.

I wonder if you can source these words:

The juice of a carrot the smile of parrot
A little drop of claret anything that rocks

They come from a song with the title Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 by Ian Drury and the Blockheads, released in 1979. Ian Drury was one of the best poets of punk. The song basically is a long list of reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Not all the lines can be repeated in church but here’s another that can:

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it,
You’re welcome we can spare it, yellow socks.

If you don’t know Reasons to be Cheerful you may want to think instead of My Favourite Things from the Sound of Music: Rainbows on roses and whiskers on kittens; bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens. More schmaltzy but the same message.

Christmas offers all of us after a hard and difficult year a long list of reasons not to be cheerful but even better to be joyful. Most of us will not need reminding this morning of the darkness in the world. We witness the indescribable suffering in Yemen and Ukraine, in Gaza and Israel and other forgotten conflicts. We see the growing inequalities in our own country and across the world. We hear the groaning of creation, as the earth continues year by year to grow warmer with disastrous consequences for nature, for our present and our future. The lives of colleagues and family, friends and neighbours are blighted by illness to a much greater degree than a few years ago.

But amid all of this, this Christmas story we are telling is an invitation to joy. These are the angels words spoken into the darkness:

Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.

The multitude of the heavenly host sing the words which were sung to us a few moments ago and which we will sing again again in Hark the Herald:

Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours

According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is born, everyone bursts into song: first Zecheriah, then Mary then the angels, then Simeon. There is a note of irrepressible joy which runs through the nativity story. The light and joy break in in spite of the pain and the darkness. There is a harsh Roman occupation. Faith burns low in Israel. Joseph and Mary face a long hard journey. The child is born in a stable and laid in a manger. There is poverty and distress in Bethlehem as in our world today. But the message of joy cuts deeper even than the pain and distress of occupation and conflict and poverty.

Ian Drury sings of reasons to be cheerful. But joy is very different from cheerfulness. To be cheerful is to grin and bear it, to smile though your heart is aching, to whistle into the wind. That sometimes helps on difficult days if we can do it. But cheerfulness lives on the surface of our lives not in the realities of our grieving. Cheerfulness and pain find it hard to live together in the same heart for very long. One drives out or suppresses the other.

But joy is different. Joy has a way of acknowledging all of the pain and sorrow we carry and yet going deeper, connecting us to the source of our life. Joy can take up residence alongside all manner of loss and difficulty and suffering because joy represents a deeper truth and a deeper reality and a deeper story at work.

Joy flows from the wonder of God’s gift in Jesus Christ, from the truth that God comes to be with us; from the reality that God is present in our world in every place of darkness and suffering; from the understanding that Jesus Christ has come to save the world from every fear and darkness and sorrow, to win our salvation and to build Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace for ever.

Our joy today is like coals on a fire which has burned very low. As we listen again to the story of Jesus birth and as we ponder and reflect in these 12 days of Christmas, it is these flames of joy which need to burst into life again within us and set us alight for God once more.

So ponder the story and find the joy in your faith once again. Joy in the good news that sins are forgiven. Joy in the presence of the Saviour. Joy in the humility of God. Joy in the faithfulness and obedience and vision of Mary. Joy in the shepherds racing to the stable. Joy in the slow journey of the magi. Joy in music of this season and in the worship of the church. Joy in the invitation to gather around his table. Joy in being called back into life and service. Joy in offering our very selves.

In this joy find the renewal for which your heart is so very thirsty. Drink and be refreshed and be strengthened then for service. We have a king to serve. We have a faith to share. We have a church which needs to be renewed. We have a world to change. We have a kingdom to build in the power and strength and joy which Jesus gives.

Let me finish with some lines in the style of Ian Drury. Reasons to be Joyful Parts 1, 2 and 3:

Angels in glory, a wonderful story
Choirs adulatory, life changing news

From darkness comes light, a gift in the night
The Saviour is born, the King of the Jews

A journey in danger, a child in a manger
The infant world changer God’s gift to the earth

Shepherds run to his stable as swift as they’re able
Come now to his table and feast at his birth

Mary ponders the myst’ry, this pivot of history
Through pain will come victory the Saviour of all

Sing joy at this birth, bring gifts for his worth
Rejoice in his coming and wait for his call.

Christmas can be a busy and demanding time. Find a moment each day to be quiet and still. Sit comfortably and still your mind and heart. If you can, have a picture of the nativity or a crib scene in your hand. Pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly and carefully reflecting on each line:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name

Jesus, the Son of God, invites us to call God our Father. Jesus is our brother. Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth has become a child to live among us.

Draw near to me Lord in your love this day.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven

The child in the manger is God’s chosen and anointed king, the Christ.
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom of justice and peace. His reign has begun but is not yet fulfilled. Christ will return to make all things new.

Bring peace and justice to this world, Lord we pray

Give us this day our daily bread

Jesus is the bread of life. In him all of our hungers are satisfied.
In this season we take time to thank God for the good gifts we have been given each day. We set our hearts against greed.

We pray Lord for all those who lack food, shelter and warmth this Christmas and those who help them, here and across the world.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us

Mary’s son will grow to live a life without sin. Jesus will offer his life on the cross so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God and to others. God will raise him from death.

Help us, Lord, to seek and to offer forgiveness in every part of our lives

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

From his birth to his passion and death, Jesus knew sorrow, hardship and trials of every kind and is able to strengthen us in whatever we are facing.

Lord send your grace and help this day to all those passing through testing, temptation or hardship.

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever. Amen.

Here in the Christ child is a glory and a power greater than any ever seen on earth: the power of love and humility and holiness combine.

May we live this day, Lord, to your glory. Amen.

This is the text of the Presidential Address given by Bishop Steven to Oxford Diocesan Synod on Saturday 18 November 2023.

I am going to begin with a familiar verse from Matthew’s gospel.

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2.14)

I’ve selected the image above for my official Christmas card this year. It’s a photograph of a mosaic at the entrance to what is called the Hanging Church in the heart of old Cairo, the most famous and one of the oldest Coptic Christian churches in Egypt. It’s called the Hanging Church because it’s built on top of two much older pillars which were part of a Roman fortress. Parts of the Church date from the third or fourth century, which makes it one of the oldest purpose-built church buildings in the world and the majority of the Church from the 7th century. There is a cave underneath the Church reputed to be where the Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus sheltered from those who were searching for them. This modern mosaic, made from pieces of coloured stone, shows the holy family on their journey from Bethlehem through southern Israel/Palestine. They would no doubt have taken the coast road through Gaza and across Sinai to what is now Cairo, fleeing for their lives before Herod’s massacre of the innocent. There is a rich Coptic tradition which charts their journey within Egypt to many different places and of course, in due time, back to Nazareth.

My wife and I visited the Hanging Church a few weeks ago on 25 October on our first visit to Egypt to visit our son and daughter in law and our granddaughter, who are living in Cairo this year and will have a permanent home there. Our visit came just a few weeks after the devastating Hamas attacks on Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Israeli’s, including children and the elderly, and the taking of over 200 hostages. And in the weeks that have followed we have also seen the deaths of more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere including again many children in the most dreadful conflict the Middle East has seen for a generation and which continues today.

Our hearts break, I wept again last night as we saw on BBC News a little girl, the same age as our granddaughter, who had lost both her legs in the bombing in Gaza. Those conflicts have affected communities in our own country – including across the Thames Valley. We have seen a rise in antisemitism, in Islamophobia and a raising of the potential for serious conflict and division.

It was very striking on 25 October to see the conflict from Egypt, rather than from Oxford. We were taken to visit many different sites: the pyramids; the mummies; the ancient mosques, churches and synagogues but this one image of Jesus and Joseph and Mary has stayed with me as I’ve reflected on this deepening tragedy.

The story of salvation is here, worked out in a particular time and place. The journey of this Joseph echoes the journey of another Joseph, thousands of years earlier, who was taken as a slave to Egypt, betrayed by his own brothers. The journey of this family down to Egypt and then back again echoes the formational journey of the people of Israel, their deliverance from their own slavery as the quotation from Hosea 11.1 makes clear: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son. Matthew, this most Jewish of the gospel writers, shows us clearly that the mission of God in Christ is to all the nations and not simply to God’s chosen people’.

There is a profound vulnerability in this picture of the Holy Family which Matthew offers us. They have no security, no family support and few resources. Mary most probably is in her teens. She has recently given birth. They are travelling by dangerous roads to a foreign land to seek safety, to places where they have never been and where perhaps the language and customs are unfamiliar. Behind them is cruelty and slaughter. Ahead is uncertainty. They are confident in God’s provision. And they bring with them the hope of the entire world, Jesus.

So we wonder at this Holy Family but wonder more at the grace of God in the incarnation pictured here in this mosaic. Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, Lord of the universe, takes flesh and dwells among us not in safety and security but on the road, in dirt and danger, unguarded and alone except for Mary and Joseph. And this is the way God’s salvation is offered to the whole world. This is the nature of God’s grace: free, undefended, weaving a silent path through the suffering of the earth, finding the paths of hope and peace in the midst of deep conflict, making present the rich patterns of love written into the fabric of the universe. Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down and treading the road through Gaza to Egypt.

The picture helps us to find a perspective on the present conflict: to weep and lament but not to be paralysed into inaction or inured to suffering. It is our call first and foremost to prayer. It is our call to give generously for the relief of distress. It is the call for the flow of aid to begin in Gaza and to expand and continue; for the protection of non combatants; for the release of the hostages; for the revitalisation of the peace process; for the rekindling of hope of a just and lasting two state settlement.

And the picture is a call also to reach out within our own communities to both friends and strangers. And I know that this is happening in different places across the diocese. I was in Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes on 15 October, to pray a blessing on the new city. It was moving to share in the lighting of candles of peace at the end of the service by Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives. The faith leaders across Oxfordshire have now met together with civic leaders on three occasions since the 7 October. On 5 November we held an Oxfordshire vigil for peace in Broad Street attended by 500 people, who stood in silence as we remembered and as we prayed and held hands across our communities lest conflict in distant places cause divisions here. This building of community needs to continue in all of our villages and towns and cities. This is a season to reach out and love the stranger, to build bonds of friendship, to welcome the refugees because our Lord from the beginning of his life knew suffering and distress and identified with those who had no home.

The picture and these verses from Scripture also give a framing context for our ongoing reflections in the life of our own diocese on every subject on our agenda but particularly our debates on human sexuality. There will be many who feel a range of difficult emotions following the General Synod debates this week. We will need to continue to be sensitive to one another and gentle with each other during the coming months; to listen well; to be with each other. We have allowed additional time for reflection on General Synod this morning and I will offer my own perspective and of course, be willing to answer questions. I’m very sorry we are not together in person for that conversation on this occasion. But we remember the Christ child is in the midst even in our most difficult and sensitive conversations.

God inspired Joseph the son of Jacob in dreams with wisdom to solve impossible problems and to save and lead his people: a new wisdom greater even than all the scribes of Egypt. And God inspired Joseph, husband of Mary, in dreams when he did not know where to turn in his responsibilities as a husband and a father to play his part in the story of salvation as we must play ours. God will continue to give wisdom to his whole church as we listen together to the Spirit. I used the image of a mosaic in my own speech to General Synod this week, with this picture in my mind. We are seeking to build a greater and deeper Christian inclusion one step at a time, laying as it were new mosaic, respectful of each other’s deeply held views and consciences. None of us yet see the whole picture. We are building of course with cracked pieces of pottery, our own imperfect selves and our incomplete visions of the whole to make something yet more beautiful, like the practitioners of the Japanese art form kintsugi: the mending of cracked pots with seams of lacquer and gold. My prayer is that in due course, as painful though the process can be, we will yet see the face of Christ in this mosaic we are building: a face of gentle contemplation, of deep compassion, of world changing courage.

Which brings me to the final part of this address. The world needs to know and hear about this Christ child, who lives among us and travels into danger and exile for the sake of the whole world. This is the child who grows to show to all of us the way of love; who summarises the whole law of God into two commandments: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Events in the world and events in the church reveal to us all that the world urgently needs to understand this way of love. I want therefore to invite all members of this Synod and all churches across the diocese to prepare well for Come and See in Lent next year. We will be focussing on this way of love in Jesus summary of the law and in the commandments. The diocese will be sending out invitations to sign up for Come and See and to access materials in the next few days. We want to offer a big warm open invitation to the communities of our diocese to come and meet this Jesus, to Come and See, to walk with us through Lent and to explore baptism and confirmation and to get to know this Jesus for themselves.

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2.14)

May we all do our best to follow in the way of Christ, in gentleness and love, to be a more Christ-like Church in this time of great peril for our world, and to make Christ known in our lives and through our words.


A Let it Grow sign in a patch of tall grass

The Book of Revelation tells of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first rider clothed in white comes out to conquer. The second in red represents civil war and slaughter. The third in black is famine. The fourth rider is on a pale green horse:

“Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine and pestilence and by the wild animals of the earth.”

As Christians in the 21st century, we know and understand these four terrible riders and all they symbolise. We see the war of intended conquest in Ukraine and witness the suffering which flows from that. We see civil war in South Sudan and Yemen and the terrible toll on entire populations. We understand famine and want and the rising numbers of the world’s population who live below subsistence level. And we know that Death and Hades have come closer to home through a global pandemic which has claimed so many lives.

But in the 21st century there are two new riders, and they are the subject of much of our Synod meeting this March.

The fifth horseman is invisible. This rider represents the unseen blanket of greenhouse gas which silently envelopes the earth, year by year trapping more of the sun’s energy inside the atmosphere and raising global temperatures to critical levels. This horseman has the power to disrupt weather, to extend deserts, to set fire to the forests, to cause floods and storms, to melt the ice caps and raise sea levels to disastrous levels.

This rider can be stopped. The world has a small window in which to act. But only if every nation, every institution, every faith, every family act together to reach net zero and do so without delay.

The sixth rider is astride a grey horse, made of gunmetal; a machine, not a living creature, spewing an invisible poison from its mouth. This rider is hard to see against the landscape. Its work is gradual, not sudden, a silent undermining of the vital web of life.

Earth is the only planet, the only corner of this vast universe, where we are certain there is abundant life. Yet the once rich tapestry of life on earth is now being degraded year by year because of the expansion and greed of a single species, ourselves.

The sixth rider represents the systemic destruction of nature, the second great environmental challenge of our time. This rider works destruction by stealth and in secret. The birds fall silent. The insects disappear. The soil is less rich in micro-organisms. The fish die in the rivers. Humanity is putting at risk the very eco system on which our life depends.

There are signs that the world is waking up to the environmental disaster we face. Wildlife populations worldwide declined by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018. Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a 94% drop in the wildlife population. Wild animals now account for just 4% of mammal biomass globally: humans and our livestock account for the other 96%. 60% of the UK’s flying insects have vanished in the last 20 years. They are vital for pollination and for the food chain. Britain is currently one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Over 1 million species are currently threatened with extinction.

These two new horsemen of the apocalypse work closely together in a spiral of destruction. Biodiversity loss is one of the accelerators of climate change. Global heating leads to more diversity loss. Both need to be addressed together. Both need to be addressed locally as well as globally.

Why should Christians care?

This is a critical moment. In December the world agreed a new set of global targets for restoring nature at the COP15 conference in Montreal. The principal goal of the Kinming-Montreal agreement is to protect 30% of the earth’s land, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters by 2030.

Just six days ago, the news led with agreement of the UN High Seas Treaty setting 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. 30% is not a random number. It represents the scientific consensus on the minimum protected area which will allow the regeneration of the whole. Tomorrow, David Attenborough begins a major new television series, Wild Isles, focussing on the decline in biodiversity in Britain and Ireland and how that can be addressed.

But why should Christians care? Why should the diocese or the local church invest resources in restoring nature alongside working towards net zero? Why do we need to work at the ecological conversion of every disciple, in the words of Pope Francis? Why should we be giving our time today to this aspect of God’s mission?

There are a million reasons why. The most immediate is, of course, the whole future of life on earth; the love we bear our neighbours, our children and grandchildren and those who will come after us. Our life is inextricably linked to and dependent on the biodiversity of the earth. Yet scientists have named these decades as the Age of Extinction.

If we sleepwalk through the next ten years, the tragedy will be indescribable and irreversible for the whole future of life on earth.

From Genesis to Revelation

The Bible teaches us from Genesis to Revelation that humanity is part of God’s creation with a particular relationship with the natural world. If you doubt that you might want to explore Psalm 104 or the final chapters of Job or Proverbs 8 or the Sermon on the Mount or Colossians 1. Read each text through the lens of these two terrible Riders.

But for today let me take you to just a handful of verses in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1, as you will know, describes the creation of the heavens and the earth with humankind created on the sixth day. There God gives to humanity responsibility for the earth:

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”.

Those words fill and subdue and ‘have dominion’ are sometimes misunderstood as giving authority to exploit creation and misuse nature. But properly interpreted they give dignity and agency and responsibility – a sacred trust – to every human person, male and female. This is the stewardship of a good shepherd with responsibility to care for the flock, not the authority to plunder or destroy.

That responsibility is made very clear in the second creation story in Genesis 2. Here we read:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

The word translated ’till’ here is found again in Genesis 3.23:

“… the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken”. We have the command to till before and after the fall.

To serve and steward

So what is the core meaning of that word ’till’? The Hebrew word is not the normal word for ploughing or gardening. The Hebrew word is ‘ebed. The root meaning of the word is ‘to serve’. ‘Ebed can also mean to worship and to work. It is the word used of the service of God and of the servant of the Lord in other Old Testament texts. It is a key word for Jesus understanding of his ministry and our understanding of who Jesus is. The word keep means to watch over, to guard.

Humanity is here given a sacred responsibility to serve and steward and watch over the earth: the land and the water and all that lives in them. Hebrew scholars note that ‘ebed can also be translated as observe, preserve and conserve, all variations of the English verb to serve. Tilling and keeping the earth are foundational to the exploration of human identity and vocation.

Pope Francis’ great encyclical, Laudato’ Si explores these texts in Genesis. They “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin.”

Restoring our relationship with the earth is therefore core to our own salvation, won by Christ on the cross. In Romans 8, Paul explores the relationship between our own salvation as women and men and the salvation and healing of the earth:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope, that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now;” (Romans 8.19-22).

Conservation is not enough

So what are the ways in which we can, with others, repair and restore creation in the places where we live? Conservation is not enough. We have a tremendous opportunity as a diocese to shape and influence the ecology of the Thames Valley in the coming years.

We are able as we know to help and support the pathway to net zero through the actions we take in schools and churches and vicarages across the three counties. Every single place has a church and congregation who are able to work together with their community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work to restore and rebuild the natural world. We have green spaces and churchyards. Individually we own farms and gardens.

Churches across the diocese are rewilding their churchyards to encourage biodiversity and provide a rich habitat for flora and fauna to flourish within the framework of EcoChurch. St Mary’s Church in Wargrave introduced a Let it Grow zone in part of their churchyard by halting regular mowing and strimming of the grass. This has promoted wildflower growth and provides habitat for animals and invertebrate species helping to increase the biodiversity of the churchyard. The church has also installed bat boxes and bird boxes and created a large compost area that provides shelter for hedgehogs. Imagine if Wargrave’s story was repeated over 800 times in every churchyard in the diocese?

As Christians we can work in partnership with others. I’m delighted that the diocese has an active partnership with the Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. The trust will be running two training courses in our churchyards in April and May – one about managing green spaces and the other on doing a basic site survey (species identification, vegetation types etc). There is an inspiring webpage called Wilder Churches, which features examples of churches in the Diocese of Oxford taking action and steps others can take.

Engaging with green issues

Local Christians and churches can stimulate wider initiatives for nature. Hungerford has a great story about tree planting – 6,440 trees supplied by ⁦the Woodland Trust to date! Churches in Greenham and Wendover and elsewhere are also planting trees, though not at such scale. Engaging with gardening and green issues and biodiversity is becoming a normal part of church life across the diocese.

There will be a particular opportunity in the next few years for local government to play a key role – and therefore for Christians to be involved in shaping nature recovery. Last year the UK government launched the Nature Recovery Network through Natural England, which draws together partners across the community. A key part of the Nature Recovery Network will be for every county and local authority to draw up its own Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LRNS). These will be a key building block for the recovery of nature nationally. They are a key outcome of the Environment Act 2021.

The government is taking further initiatives on local planning, on land use, sustainable farming, care of the soil and rivers which all offer opportunities for partnership and for the voices of local people to be heard. We must not be silent for the sake of the earth. As many will know, I’m part of the House of Lords Environment and Climate Select Committee. We have just begun our third major enquiry on protected areas to scrutinise the government’s plans to protect 30% of our land and coastal areas by 2030.

The earth needs humankind to till it and keep it. Humanity needs the earth for our survival, for our health, for human flourishing. We need clean air, clean water, abundant biodiversity. We need not just to conserve but to restore the natural world carefully and intentionally in the coming decade.

The Church of England is not able to do this by ourselves but we can and we should offer leadership wherever we can for the sake of the Earth.

The two new Horsemen of the Apocalypse are truly terrifying. We have time, just, to respond to the challenges they bring. May God give us grace and strength to work together in this generation for the renewal of the earth.

Watch Bishop Steven’s address to Diocesan Synod

The once rich tapestry of life on earth is now being degraded year by year because of the expansion and greed of a single species: our selves. Our life is inextricably linked to and dependent on the biodiversity of the Earth. While there are signs that the world is waking up to the environmental disaster we face, Britain is currently one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Watch a recording of the Presidential Address to Oxford Diocesan Synod, given by the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, on 11 March 2023.

Bishop Steven addressing Area Deans and Lay Chairs. January 2023

This article offers some biblical and theological reflection on where we are and where we are going, based around the Beatitudes. But my way into that reflection are two sets of statistics.

The first are the Census results published 30 November. The banner headline in the i newspaper: ‘UK Christians in minority for first time since the Dark Ages’. According to the Census, less that half the UK population identify as Christian for the first time in 1,500 years. The Express led with the same story: less than half of population is Christian. We were expecting the outcome of the Census. We know that we are becoming more diverse as a society. We know that those of no religion are the fastest growing group. But the figure is significant, a timely reminder of the challenges we face and something of a call to action.

The second statistics are the first analysis of church attendance across the diocese from October 2022. These are not yet complete. The full report will be published in the next few weeks and the full statistics for mission later in the year. But thanks to Dr Bev Botting’s analysis we have a first take on what is happening as a whole across the diocese in terms of church attendance at this point in the journey through and beyond COVID.

The statistics confirm what you will know from your own deanery. Thanks to the prayers and love and sheer hard work of clergy and lay ministers and volunteers we are 80% there in terms of this long regathering. That’s an amazing achievement after the disruption of COVID and all of the ongoing demands.

We know the overall picture is still quite fragile. Recovery is taking longer than anticipated. I was in Slough in mid-December listening to the clergy chapter. Once again I found their commitment and dedication hugely impressive. They were experiencing increased pastoral demands higher needs and lower resources. Energy is slow to return to the body of Christ. But there were also here, as elsewhere, many signs of life and hope.

The trend is still upward in terms of attendance: if we take October 19 as our baseline then we were back to 73% of attendance in October 21; a dip again to 67% at Easter 22 (during another COVID wave); and then up to 81% by October.

Those figures increase where churches are still streaming to more than 100% of the October 2019 figure. Fewer churches were streaming in October than at Easter for understandable reasons, but streaming is still worthwhile for those who cannot come to church.

The biggest learning from the October count seems to be that many individual congregations generally are back to their pre-COVID size, but benefices for various reasons have reduced the number of services in the week either on Sundays or midweek – often for understandable reasons of low resources and low energy. Where this happens, by and large, people have not transferred to other worship services.

As God’s life flows back into the vine from this long winter, we need to be putting creativity and resources into re-opening when we can those midweek and Sunday services and beginning new congregations – especially those focussed on children, young people and families. Where that happens – and we see it happening – there are signs of hope and life.

The two sets of statistics give us an indication of what is happening in our wider society and also what is happening in the life of the Church in this season. Both of these snapshots lead us back to our central calling to witness to the love of God in word and in action: to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.

They lead us, I hope into a deeper encounter with God in Christ and they encourage us to place a greater emphasis on sharing our faith in different ways in the coming years with love and with confidence. All too often in my experience, a focus on statistics tips the Church into endless conversations about scarcity and spirals of decline instead of leading to a focus on Christ and on the good news.

Seven disciplines of evangelism

In every generation the Church has developed ways of communicating the gospel. [Papers shared with my senior staff, area deans and lay chairs] unfold what I’ve called the seven disciplines of evangelism: seven colours of a rainbow which make up our common witness.

Our evangelism is rooted in prayer and encounter with God, in contemplation. Our evangelism flows from being a more Christ-like Church: living like Jesus and serving our communities. Our evangelism locally and as a diocese embraces apologetics – presenting a rationale for the faith we hold and seeking to remove obstacles to belief. Our evangelism is concerned with witness to our friends and neighbours and every congregation offering ways for beginners to explore faith and come to baptism as we will do this Lent through Come and See.

Our understanding of evangelism will embrace forming disciples who are mature in faith and learning to grow and regrow the Church in the image of Christ. Our evangelism will include forming and growing new congregations to meet the needs of those outside the churches.

New resources to support lay formation and discipleship

We will be launching later this year a whole suite of resources to support lay formation and discipleship in every day faith – including these disciplines. These will include a new one year foundation course for lay ministry to begin in September as a way of exploring and discovering vocation. It will be delivered partly online and partly in person. I hope to be teaching the first term’s programme each year on these seven disciplines of evangelism, so that all of our ministers are equipped and formed in these habits and disciplines.

But as we know, techniques and methods and training courses are not the whole answer. We need as a Church deep spiritual and theological renewal: to come deeper into Christ. We need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our work. We need continually a fresh vision of what it means to be human and in Christ.

As we look back in Church history we see clearly that the Church has emphasised different facets of the jewel of the gospel in different times and seasons. In one period of the Church there has been an emphasis on freedom in Christ; in another on assurance of salvation; in another on the experience of God’s Spirit. Each period, each season will take us back to Scripture and the tradition to draw out good news for our own generation. What is that message for this moment, for now, for those who are longing for new life in our own communities?

My own reflection is that this generation, this moment, now, is that this generation is hungry and thirst for significance: to know that they matter and that individual lives matter. That each is deeply precious and loved. I find myself preaching more and more at confirmation services on the words prior to the laying on of hands: Steven, God has called you by name and made you his own. We need to know that we are significant.

Why is this important?

Why is this important now? In part because of what science tells us about the size of the universe. We see more and more clearly if we dare to think about it how vast and ancient the universe is, how marginal the earth is, how tiny and insignificant we are in the physical world. In part because of what technology has done to bring the world together. The global population reached 8 billion on 15th November. Technology connects us together. We are aware of one another. We feel compassion for floods in Pakistan; drone attacks in Kiev and wildfires in California 24 hours a day. Yet many people testify to never feeling more alone. We have knowledge at our fingertips but have never been more in need of wisdom: the ability to live well. That living well begins with a sense of significance: of being someone in the vastness of creation.

This generation in particular lives with a vast and existential fear of the danger to the planet from environmental disaster and climate change which will shape our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. In order to combat this disaster we need confidence in our own significance: to know that we can make a difference.

That longing for significance underlies much of what is happening in Church and society. For example, we are working hard on racial justice. The movement which began after the death of George Floyd was called Black Lives Matter. We see this theme of significance in many of the current debates within the Church – including around human sexuality and gender.

We need to know that we are loved, that we matter. The primary place that sense of significance can come from is our maker. The second place that significance comes from is our closest relationships. The way we know that we are loved is to listen to Jesus, to place our trust in Jesus and in the great and transformative truths of the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection.

The Sermon on the Mount is the place that Jesus addresses the question of human significance. Consider the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. Are you not worth more than these? You are so significant that the very words that come from your mouth will be accounted for. Your Father in heaven knows you and loves you. Your Father in heaven sees even and especially what you do in secret, behind closed doors. Your Father in heaven knows and understands even your secret jealousies and hatreds and desires.

Every human life is significant but the Church, the people of God, even more significant. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. There is a responsibility placed on you because of the grace you have received. In this generation above all we are bearers of meaning for the world.

Eight qualities: the Beatitudes

And this significance is not measured as the world measures it – and here we come at last to the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon on the Mount. In the upside down kingdom of God, this significance and meaning does not belong to the wealthy or powerful, the proud or the educated, the technocrats or the pleasure seekers.

Jesus says blessed – significant – are the poor in spirit – those who know their need of God. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The significant ones are those who mourn in compassion for the needs of the world and share its griefs. They shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek – the really significant ones are the ones who are overlooked. They will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who long to change the world. They will be satisfied.

The ones to notice are the merciful, the gentle, the kind. They will receive mercy. Integrity is significant and, as we know, the rarest of qualities in public life.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Significant are the peacemakers. In fact they are so significant for they will be called children of God. Take notice of those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Our calling is to be more and more the Church of the Beatitudes: our significance does not rest in the number of people in our congregations or the cleverness of our ministers or the size of our PCC reserves or the beauty of our buildings. Our significance will rest in the way we reflect the character of Christ and witness to God’s love in all we seek to do.

As energy returns to our churches and as the process of spiritual renewal continues, it is vital that we rebalance our common life towards these seven disciplines of evangelism. We have a responsibility to our society and culture to pass on this good news.

But it is even more vital that we remain centred ourselves on these eight beautiful qualities, the best description there has ever been of what it means to be human and the most profound portrait of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Come and see.

The above text is an edited version of Bishop Steven’s address to the Area Deans and Lay Chairs of the diocese, given at St Paul’s, Slough, on Saturday 28 January 2023

Come and See takes place each Lent in the Diocese of Oxford. It’s our big, warm open invitation to everyone, for everyone for an adventure in faith and trust. It’s something for the local church and the whole community… including children and young people, families and schools. It’s completely free and all are welcome. Find out more at oxford.anglican.org/come-and-see




Still of Bishop Steven's film

Following the publication of Together in Love and Faith, Bishop Steven offers a commentary and reflections on the next stage of the Living in Love and Faith process. This includes the way in which we might approach that process together, both as a diocese, and more widely as the Church of England. This is a recorded version of the presidential address given to Diocesan Synod on 12 November 2022.



“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”
– James 3.17-18

I want to offer some commentary and reflections on the next stage of the Living in Love and Faith process and in particular of the way in which we might approach that process together as a diocese and more widely as the Church of England.

Living in Love and Faith is the third of three processes stretching over the last decade to help the Church of England engage with questions around human sexuality. The first was the process led by Sir Jo Pilling, a member of our own diocese at the time, which produced a report in 2012. The second was the Shared Conversations which ran from 2013 to 2016. The third and most extensive has been LLF from 2017 to the present.

Extensive study resources were published in November 2020. There has been a very significant process of church wide engagement over the last two years. Many across our own diocese have taken part in small group conversations enabled by our excellent team of LLF advocates. All the feedback nationally has been collated and was published in September as Listening in Love and Faith.

LLF covers a wide range of questions from a number of perspectives but it was clear from the feedback that the most pressing and urgent is the question of how we respond as a church to same sex partnerships and same sex marriage. This autumn, LLF entered a new phase of discernment. The bishops together have been asked to discern carefully what proposals to bring to the General Synod in February, 2023. We are meeting together for two three day residentials in November and December and a one day meeting in January. One of the strong themes in the feedback was a request to the bishops to make their own views known.

As many will know, I recently published my own contribution to that debate, Together in Love and Faith. It’s not my purpose this morning to rehearse the arguments in the booklet. Together in Love and Faith is a personal reflection not a diocesan position. But I do want to offer some guidance to all of us on the way in which this next part of the debate is conducted as we seek to discern the right way forward and witness to God’s love in the world. As the four bishops we are offering three seminars over the next few days to talk together about the substance of the debate and to listen to different views across the diocese.

Holding a discussion on this most personal of issues in the public gaze is a challenge for the Church. As I’ve pondered that challenge, I’ve found myself drawn back again and again to the wisdom tradition within the scriptures: that strand of biblical teaching which is focussed on how to live well in community, how to make good decisions, how to balance different points of view and to live with paradox and tension.

King Solomon is the fountain head of that tradition in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 3 we read of Solomon’s prayer which has been my own prayer especially in the past few weeks:

give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil, for who can govern this your great people.

Solomon’s new wisdom is tested by his being asked to judge between two women claiming to be the mother of the same child. The wisdom tradition is concerned with good governance and the provision of a civil service for Solomon’s kingdom. It is concerned with marshalling knowledge of the natural world and the accumulation of proverbs which support how to live. In time the wisdom tradition will wrestle above all with the challenges of suffering in the Book of Job and also of cynicism in Ecclesiastes. The wisdom tradition continues through the intertestamental period the apocryphal writings and informs and shapes rabbinic discussion.

Wisdom informs the teaching of Jesus in many different ways. Jesus stands in the wisdom tradition as he draws attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; as he crafts riddles and parables and pithy sayings which stay in the mind and help us explore paradox and which surprise us continually. Jesus, like Solomon, is asked to give wise judgements on practical dilemmas where there are traps and pitfalls on every side: is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? How often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? What good deeds must I do to inherit eternal life? Which man sinned: this man or his parents? This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?

To answer to each of these questions, Jesus draws on the wisdom tradition and the gift of wisdom. It is this wisdom which the whole Church needs in the present moment. It will be given to the whole Church as we study and pray and talk together and discern. As the New Testament unfolds, the early Church is continually discovering dilemmas. The large central portion of the Book of Acts is given over to the debate about how Gentiles are to be included within the kingdom of God and God’s grace. Romans and Galatians grapple with the same question only with rhetoric which is sharp and raw. Again Paul reaches for the language of wisdom.

As the Church finds its way, discernment is key and part of the way of navigating that complex discernment is love. The way we talk together and treat each another is as important as the arguments we use and the conclusions we reach. It is indeed possible to hold different convictions deeply within the Body of Christ, to disagree well. I’ve been reflecting afresh in recent weeks on a particular verse in Philippians 1, a letter written to a church where there is deep division, though we never quite discover why.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless”
– Philippians 1.9-10

Paul is saying here that love, agape, is our primary tool of discernment. To be sure it needs to be linked with knowledge and insight but love remains primary. To cross reference 1 Corinthians 13, now we see in a mirror dimly; now I know only in part (13.12, 13). This is what it means to exercise wisdom as a Christian, in a way which is summed up in the profound words of James, the New Testament epistle which stands most clearly in the wisdom traditions:

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”
– James 3.17-18

This deep wisdom needs to inform and guide us in our process of discernment through the Spirit’s grace. There is I think consensus among those who hold very different views on same sex relationships that it is now time for this debate to reach conclusions. There is a recognition of a risk that we may end up again in some kind of deadlock. There is an awareness that our wider society is watching our debate carefully and also cares deeply about the conclusions we reach. All parties in the debate acknowledge how difficult it is for LGBTQ+ people to be spoken about not as people but as an issue. There is also I think a sense that we will only reach good conclusions as we are each able to speak honestly and openly about our own individual discernment.

For all those reasons it seemed right to me at this point to be transparent about my views and the ways they have changed over time and the reasons for that. I am glad that others have felt able to do the same, including other bishops who take a similar view. That includes, of course, Bishops Alan, Olivia and Gavin. I need to say that there is no single diocesan view and no single view across the whole of the senior team within the diocese.

In particular I want to express my appreciation to Canon Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes for his careful response to my own essay and in particular for the tone and spirit in which Vaughan writes. At the beginning of his essay Vaughan quotes Bishop Richard Harries’ encouragement in all debates on these and other matters to engage with those with whom we disagree at their best. It seems to me that Vaughan has done that and I have no hesitation in commending his response and also thanking Vaughan for his willingness to enter into this conversation over several years.

How are we to find a way forward? It seems to me, and again I think there is consensus here, that there are now two deeply held convictions around same sex relationships in the Church of England (and more widely). Many hold still to the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Others allow that in addition, it is appropriate to bless or solemnise the marriage of two men or two women. The last ten years teach me that the whole church is unlikely to change its mind all at once whatever the bishops say or one bishop says.

In such a circumstance, it seems to me, a wise outcome to this process of discernment will be one which allows for diversity of practice within a single church; in which some are able to opt in to new arrangements permitting marriage and blessings; and in which clergy as well as lay people are free to order their closest relationships according to their consciences. Other clergy and local churches will need to be free not to opt in. Some for whom this seems to them to be a first order issue may need, in my view, some clear differentiation of oversight within one Church of England. As far as possible, both positions will need to be held in mutual respect across the church.

I don’t know whether we will together be able to see this outcome in the near future but I remain hopeful. The response to Together in Love and Faith has been very moving. I’ve received a very large number of personal testimonies in appreciation of what I’ve written. I’ve been unusually conscious of the interest of our wider society in the debate. I’ve received also courteous responses expressing disagreement, which I know are always harder to write as well as to receive.

At this point I don’t know the outcome of the bishops conversations or what will be brought to Synod or what the process will be from here. But I commend this debate to the prayers of the diocese. I hope we can model engaging with one another at our best, with honesty and love. I pray that we will find ways to discover and rediscover that wisdom from above which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.

Thanks be to God.

+Steven Oxford
12th November, 2022


Three volumes of Psalms Through the Centuries hard back books displayed on a table tablecloth.

Bishop Steven’s speech at the launch event of the Psalms history commentary by the Revd Canon Professor Sue Gillingham.

14.09.2022 – the four bishops have written to to all licensed clergy, LLMs and church officers in the diocese to thank them for responding so well in the days following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Dear friends,

Thanks to all who have responded so well to the remarkable and moving events of the last seven days. Parish churches, chaplaincies and schools have offered comfort and consolation, practical support, spaces to grieve in, and opportunities to come together and reflect.

This has meant a great deal of additional work for headteachers, clergy, wardens, lay ministers and many volunteers. We know that this is service gladly offered to God and to communities at this key moment in the life of the nation, but we also want to express thanks and appreciation for your faithfulness in this demanding ministry.

The period of mourning will of course continue with our late Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall and the state funeral on Monday. So far there has been an extraordinary outpouring of public affection and grief. There will be major civic services in each of our three counties over the coming weekend and, of course, in many other places. Seven days are not enough to begin to take in the significances of the Queen’s death and the accession of King Charles in the life of our nation.

One thread which is emerging is the profound importance of Christian faith, both to the late Queen and also to our new King. There is a sense of the nation leaning into the resources of the Christian faith as we grieve together and learn to look forward in hope

This will awaken for some people in every community a new search for faith and meaning or a desire to return as adults to a church they may have known as children. The coming weeks and months will be a time to offer both a warm welcome to seekers and strangers in our worship and opportunities to learn and re-learn what it means to be a Christian.

There will also be many people in our communities for whom the national mourning stirs afresh their own grief for loved ones who have died and who will therefore need pastoral care and draw strength from the Church.

Please pray for us in the opportunities we have to bear witness to the love of God in Christ, and we will pray for you. In the words of 1 Peter:

“Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 4.11

May God bless you in your service in these times,