Bishop Steven’s address to Diocesan Synod in June 2022, calling on every household to respond to the climate crisis.

Bishop Steven’s address to Diocesan Synod in March 2022, focusing on the atrocities in Ukraine and our call to be a more Christ-like Church.

Questions of poverty and inequality are at the heart of our discipleship. Each of us will need to navigate the spiritual challenges, dangers and temptations of relative and sometimes actual wealth. As a church we have a calling to serve the poorest in our communities. As a whole church we have a responsibility to maintain and if we can to deepen the way in which our society lives out the call in the prophets and in the gospels to justice and a fairer society.

The entire future of life on the earth may be determined by what is agreed, or not agreed, in the autumn of 2021.

Bishop Steven Croft looks forward to the signs of hope in the next few months and shares a fresh invitation to come and eat.

This is a message for all the children in the Diocese of Oxford – Bishop Steven needs your help to make people smile this Christmas.

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod, September 2020

It’s very good to regather virtually after the summer and to begin what I guess will be a season of regathering in a thousand different places as we begin to rebuild together after the lockdown. There will be great joy in this but also great challenge.

We will be rebuilding and regathering as local church communities and schools and chaplaincies and all their associated ministries and this will take time. We will be playing our part in sustaining villages and towns and cities across our Diocese as disciples as well as hospitals and universities and businesses and civic life. Thank you for all you continue to give in so many ways to this process. I’m deeply appreciative of the many signs of grace I have seen in so many different ways over the last six months. I thank God for you.

We are all aware that we begin this work of rebuilding in a season when we are still learning to live with COVID 19. In the coming months we will be dealing with the aftermath of the first wave of the pandemic: bereavement and ongoing sickness for many; emotional and mental illness for others; the economic effects of lockdown; difficulties in families; the effects on the education and well being of children and young people; and the disproportionate effects on some parts of our communities.

But we begin to regather also knowing that the storm is not yet over. There could well be still further serious disruption to the pattern of our lives, the risks of infection continue, especially for those who have been shielding, normal life cannot be restored in so many ways – and we do not yet know or see clearly whether this phase of living with the virus will last for six months or a year or even longer.

How then should we minister and serve our communities and God’s world in this next season, in a world in continuing crisis? How can we play our part as disciples and as citizens and play that part together as part of the Church of Jesus Christ?

We all have wisdom to bring to this process and we will need insight from one other. But my starting point for responding to that question is to draw inspiration and our pattern from the humility and gentleness of Christ. I think these are the qualities we will need as disciples and as the Church in this season.

I am drawn especially to two biblical passages on these themes. The first is the tender description of the servant of God in Isaiah 42. The servant is called to minister to God’s people in a time of great crisis yet also great hope for the future. Isaiah 42 describes the kind of leadership which is needed in such a time of jeopardy and danger.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”. (42.1-2)

But how will the servant do this?

“He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42.3)

This is the kind of leadership which draws alongside people, which gathers the fragments, which liberates the gifts of others, which does not overwhelm, which listens and waits patiently to see what is emerging. This is the leadership we will need to exercise in the coming months as Christian disciples and as the church: the leadership of gentleness and tenderness and patience.

The second passage is the one I hope we will read together as we dwell in the Word in this coming year from Philippians 1 and 2. Paul describes the heart of the way in which Almighty God ministers in coming to a world in chaos and crisis and hurt.

“…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.6-8)

The humility of Christ will be needed as we seek to rebuild together: the humility which is not only at the heart of the character of Christ but the humility which is at the heart of the pattern of the incarnation, of the substance of Almighty God taking flesh in Christ, of Christ by his Spirit creating the Church as his own Body, to continue his life-giving work in the world, a gentle, tender community of grace.

Humility will be key as we offer to support local communities and build up our neighbourhoods; as we draw alongside those in debt or financial difficulty; as we seek to support families in stress; as we reach out to the isolated and bereaved; as we share the purpose and the hope that we have found in Jesus Christ.

We do not offer what we offer of ourselves: we offer what is ours because of God’s grace to us. We do not offer what we offer from a sense of superiority or to create dependence. We are aware and conscious of our individual and corporate failings, how often we ourselves fall short. We know that as a church we stand in need of deep spiritual renewal. We will begin to find that renewal, I hope and pray, as we continue to centre ourselves on Jesus Christ, on his character, on the pattern of the incarnation and on serving the needs of the communities around us with the gentleness and tenderness of the servant.

The humility of Christ is not self-negation and the erosion of individual gifts, character or personality. Christian humility is the path to becoming our authentic selves, offering our whole lives to the purposes of God and the path of deep joy.

The humility of Christ is not surrender, withdrawal or submission as the world around us sees these qualities. Philippians 2 has sometimes been wrongly used to support a message from those who have power to those who have none, to suppress dissent and to resist change. This message in turn has supported the continued oppression of women or black people or the LGBTQI+ community. We can have no part in this either within the Church or in the engagement of the Church with the culture around us. Embracing the humility of Christ does not mean muzzling our prophetic voice or edge.

The humility of Christ is not weakness, finally, but strength, tenacity and determination to effect change for the sake of the kingdom of God, stepping into difficulties to seek to resolve them, not stepping away. But that strength, determination and power will need to be mediated through humility as we face the challenges ahead.

There will need to be a great deal of listening as we explore how best to re-open our churches for services of worship safely again and as we also continue with the online services which have sustained us during the lockdown. In many places this will take time. But I do want to offer encouragement to every benefice now to find ways to re-open for physical services of worship in the coming weeks and as we rebuild our sacramental life. I want to offer encouragement to every Christian disciple to reset their rule of life, giving priority to Sunday worship and to make their way back to Church physically as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.

We are flesh and blood and physical beings, not disembodied minds or spirits. God made us that way and God became a human person. That physical encounter is an essential part of our humanity. We may not yet be able to do everything we want to do when we gather as the Church on Sundays and on other occasions. We may need to regather in smaller numbers and in more restricted ways. But in those circumstances we should do what we can do safely to restore public and physical prayer and worship at the heart of every parish and community.

There will need to be a great deal of listening, especially, as we seek to rebuild our ministries with children and young people and families and offer support to our schools. As I have listened across the Diocese, this is probably the area among very many that has been hardest during lockdown. My own perspective will be that wherever possible it will be important to connect physically, to meet face to face, to begin community and young people’s groups and Sunday Clubs again, and to regather and reconnect families wherever it is safe to do so. Every school in every parish will need support and chaplaincy and care, not only our Church schools.

And there will need to be a great deal of listening to ourselves and to our own communities in a time when so many have been placed under stress and pressure. This is a season when all of us will need support and care. We will each need to watch over ourselves and one another and over the whole Church of God, with the same patience and tenderness and love which the servant of the Lord demonstrates in Isaiah.

Those who have sustained the church over this period, lay and ordained, will still be very tired. Those who have traditionally been load-bearing walls in the Church may find that they begin to give way under accumulated pressures.

So this is a season to be alert as shepherds and pastors to those who are struggling, to the sheep who have wandered away or become distracted or tired, to the injured, to those who need particular care. That will include ourselves. We will need to be patient and gentle, to not break the bruised reed nor quench the dimly burning wick. We must not be in too much of a hurry.

Over the last few months as I have listened across the Diocese, I have found myself returning again and again, surprisingly actually, to the things I learned during the early years of Fresh Expressions. In forming new congregations for those who are outside the Church, the Church emerges and has to be thought through from first principles, in different contexts and places. The heart of pioneer ministry is tending this continuous reflection and development as the new community emerges by the grace of God in a different culture and context.

As the whole Church emerges into a new normal, in which so much is fluid and continuously changing, every ministry is now a pioneer ministry: leading, supporting and forming church in a new cultural context. This takes time and energy and hope. There are many setbacks along the way – but Christ is with us in the journey.

Thank you for your partnership and your prayers in this next part of our journey together. I look forward to learning much with you as together we discover what God is doing and join in as best as we are able.

 

 

 

 

Bishop of Oxford
Presidential address to Diocesan Synod
5 September 2020

Diocesan Synod took place as a Zoom meeting, this is the audio recording of +Steven’s address to Synod.

 

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod on Saturday 14 March by the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, Acting Bishop of Oxford.

One of the great things about being a bishop is that you can re-use material time and again.

I don’t tend to in sermons as I set myself the challenge to write something fresh for every Sunday, and for every licensing, but schools are a different matter. I only have one assembly and I repeat it time and again. What makes it different each time are the wonderful, and not-so-wonderful questions that children ask.

What are the names of your fish?

Which is your favourite football team?

What colours do you wear in church?

How old are you?

How much do you earn?

What’s the best thing about being a bishop? – Answer: People. Endlessly fascinating and glorious

What’s the worst thing? – Answer: People. People falling out with each other. People damaging themselves and, I might add, the Gospel.

But even if the latter threatens to overwhelm at times, it’s the former that pre-dominates.

For this Diocese is a great place to serve in. It’s lively, creative, argumentative, passionate – falling sometimes into the trap of thinking it is more important than it really is, but very rarely dull.

I still pinch myself at times that just over 20 years ago I was invited to come here. Up until that point my parochial experience had almost exclusively been in large evangelical suburban churches with congregations of 400-500 on a Sunday and here I was being invited to become the Area Bishop of the most rural county of the South-East of England. The selection process was equally quirky, consisting as it did of an invitation from Richard Harries to have a glass of wine with him sitting in a deck chair at Linton Road. And if you detect an element of a golden haze hanging over past days you would be right to do so, even if there is so much now in our changed procedures that I warmly applaud. I was one of the lucky ones and there were many that suffered under the former systems.

But I have come to love rural and market town ministry across Oxfordshire with the 326 churches of the Dorchester Area, and the people and priests who serve in and through them.

Over the past 20 years I have, I think, closed, or nearly closed, three church buildings – in Besselsleigh, Daylesford and Highmoor – but we have developed more congregations than that, particularly in our areas of new housing. The buildings themselves, thanks to the outstanding work of churchwardens, treasurers, and others, are in better condition than they have been for decades, if not centuries. What’s more, they are warmer, better used – and many of them have serveries, kitchens and loos.

It is still true that the voluntary sector in the County, and indeed in the Diocese as a whole, would be immensely impoverished if the churches – both our own and those of our ecumenical colleagues, together with the mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues were absent from the Thames Valley. Indeed it has, I believe, been rightly said that one of the most effective ways of increasing our levels of volunteering and partnership working would come through a religious revival.

Just thinking of our own contribution to this rich tapestry I have become more and more convinced down the years of the significance of our commitment to serve the whole community. Legally that is expressed in such things as baptisms, weddings and funerals, and it grieves me when they are dismissed by some as being of little importance. The fact remains that where parishes take those seriously – and by parishes I mean not just the clergy and licensed lay ministers but the whole people of God – then the church grows, sometimes numerically, but always relationally.

For we are a relational organisation and that is both a strength and a weakness. You may, in that context, be aware of what is known as Dunbar’s number – the numbers discerned by Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist working at Oxford University ‘as the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person’ (at any one time) ‘can maintain stable relationships’.

At the upper limit, you and I can probably put a name to a face of 1500 people and have, maybe 500 acquaintances. On the other hand, you may have a close support group of five (who may change even from week to week) or the fifteen you can turn to for sympathy and understanding, or the fifty you might call your close friends.

But in between are the 150 to 200 casual friends – the people you might invite to a large party.

And that number is immensely significant for a relationally-based church. If you have ever wondered why churches in the Church of England grow to that sort of size and then stop there, one answer lies in Dunbar’s number. It does not matter whether the parish is 4,000, or 14,000 or 40,000 it won’t grow to have a bigger congregation than about 150 if people want to relate to each other and to the vicar.

So what can shift that?

Well, we could become non-relational.

But that will not work for Generation Z or many others.

Looking ahead, the diminishing number of clergy means that a reliance on them to turn things around numerically is fool’s gold. If we are to reach out to the many hundreds and thousands moving into this Diocese then we need to pay heed to Dunbar’s number and to work with the grain of it.

And that will mean releasing the whole people of God to celebrate their relationships. It will mean creating structures that are much more fluid and flexible. Messy Churches did not exist when I became a bishop. Today there are just under 4,000 of them in 30 countries across the world. They are largely lay-led and very few of them meet on a Sunday morning.

A few weeks ago I was driving past the former Diocesan Church House on a typical Sunday morning. If you want to know where many of our children and young people are they are out playing rugger in their dozens and hundreds. Churches and congregations are going to have to get a lot more flexible on their timings if we are to reach that generation. We may not like it but Sundays have changed. Other patterns for congregations need developing whether like Trinity at Four in Henley meeting at 4 o’clock on a Sunday or the cross-generational school and church congregation on a Wednesday morning at St Edburg’s Bicester. And what about the fastest growing people group in this country – the over 80s – many of whom will be living in some form of residential or nursing home. How can they be living congregations – some of our 750 new ones – and not just be people having a weekly or monthly service provided for them.

All these are fascinating questions and the log-jam we still need to break as we seek to be more contemplative, more compassionate, and more courageous is to remember Dunbar’s number and numbers – to release the potential of the whole people of God through such things as Cursillo and Personal Discipleship Plans – and never to forget our great strength – and weakness – is in being a church founded on relationships.

There is, of course, nothing new in that, and I close with a quotation from Michael Ramsey’s ‘The Christian Priest Today’ remembering that all of us gathered here are Christ’s Royal Priesthood.

‘Amidst the vast scene of the world’s problems and tragedies you may feel that your own ministry seems so small, so insignificant, so concerned with the trivial. What a tiny difference it can make to the world that you should run a youth club, or preach to a few people in a church, or visit families with seemingly small result. But consider: the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider our Lord himself. In a country where there were movements and causes which excited the allegiance of many – the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.

It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well.’

 

+Colin
14 March 2020

Bishop Steven is currently on sabbatical. 

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod on Saturday 16 November. Read more