Tending Creation

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod

“The world has woken up to the dangers of single-use plastic” said Sir David Attenborough interviewed by the Daily Mirror a few weeks ago1. He was speaking of course about the public response to Blue Planet 2, the remarkable study of the oceans broadcast here in the autumn and then across the world. Viewers were shocked by footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and a sea turtle caught up in a plastic sack, among other gripping images.

The BBC itself has now banned single-use plastic across the corporation. Plastic-free aisles are appearing in supermarkets. Care for the environment and tending creation is back, it seems, on the national and popular agenda.

The first step in the responsible stewardship of creation in the 21st Century is to accept that the activity of humankind is shaping and changing the very ecosystem of the planet. The volume of discarded plastic in the oceans is choking marine life. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions is leading to a critical rise in global temperatures which leads in turn to dramatic shifts in climate and rising sea levels. Deforestation on a massive scale, caused by humankind, leads to soil erosion which leads to changed weather patterns, which leads to mass migration which is felt across Europe and shapes our political life. Christian Aid has reminded us this Lent that there are 40 million refugees in the world displaced within their own countries.

Humankind is no longer simply one of a number of species on the planet, our fragile and beautiful home. We are the dominant species. The global population stands at 7.6 billion and rising. Our collective need for water, energy, food and our waste are reshaping the planet we inhabit.

In the 21st Century, the Church of Jesus Christ should be at the forefront of tending creation and care for the beauty and life entrusted to us, ensuring that the world can sustain life for future generations. Such is the crisis facing our world, that in the 21st Century, the tending of creation should be at the forefront of the witness and mission of the Church.

In the story of Genesis, God places the man and the woman in the garden to till it and keep it, for the blessing of the earth, not its exploitation. Paul makes clear in Romans 8 that the mission of Christ is to the whole of creation, which groans in labour waiting for the freedom of the children of God. The best-known verse in Scripture, John 3.16 reminds us that God so loved the world, the cosmos, whole of creation that he sent his Son to save it.. The fifth mark of mission of the Anglican Communion goes beyond conservation to restoration and undoing the damage we have inflicted on God’s world. We are called “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

Rubbish accumulates, seas rise and people are displaced and global temperatures rise further year by year. Yet still, there is a lack of energy across the Church and society around this agenda. In 2016 Pope Francis published his great encyclical, Laudato Si’, a letter to every person on the earth pleading for a greater urgency in tending creation.

Pope Francis appeals to his namesake, Francis of Assisi. St. Francis reminds that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. He writes:

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth itself, burdened and laid waste is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor. She “groans in travail” (Romans 8.22).

Francis quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict: ““The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts are so vast”(LS217). Francis sets tending the earth at the front and centre of our discipleship and calls for an ecological conversion of individuals and of communities (LS216-221). It is this call to ecological conversion which I want to us to reflect on in this Synod and across our Diocese today. What would it mean?

We are exploring as a Church our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate, courageous. A sense of creation runs through the Sermon on the Mount. The meek will inherit the earth. We read of salt and light; of the earth as God’s very footstool; of sun rising and rain falling. We are asked to pray each day not for abundance but for just enough, for daily bread. Jesus calls us to open our eyes and look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He draws lessons from pigs and pearls and wolves, from grapes and thistles, from sand and storms and wind and rocks.

Tending the earth is rooted in contemplation of Scripture and of creation. In Psalm 8 we read: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them”. Creation stirs us to awe and wonder and mystery and wise stewardship of the earth.

How are we to care for the earth unless we have taken time to contemplate its beauty and reflect the beauty and order of creation in our worship?

As we look and listen and ponder, we are drawn then to compassion, to mourning and lament for the wounds of God’s creation. Our looking needs to go beyond gazing at the night sky to the science of our climate. Our gaze needs to pass beyond what can be filmed and shown on our screens to the invisible gases which are causing the rise in global temperature. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cannot be seen but we can measure and see their effect. Climate change caused by human intervention is a present reality. We feel it least in this temperate climate. For our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world, the effects of climate change are a daily reality. In South Africa, there is severe drought in the east of the country and extreme weather in the west. In Polynesia the oceans are rising. If the world does not take action the human suffering and environmental costs will be incalculable.

In 2015, the nations of the world made an historic agreement in Paris to work together to seek to limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. The Churches and other faith communities have been at the centre of raising awareness of these issues. Our influence across the world is hugely significant, much greater than we think it is. The Church is a global community of people facing common issue of climate change from the perspective of justice and compassion.

Ten years ago, long before the historic Paris agreement, the UK’s environment agency asked 25 leading environmentalists what most needed to happen to limit climate change.

There were 50 suggestions. Second on the list, behind improving energy efficiency was that religious leaders should make the environment a priority for their followers because of the enormous potential influence for change. Imagine the impact if we were truly to do that in this diocese.

Out of a global population of 7.6 billion just 1.1 billion people are secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The remainder belong in some way to one of the great world faiths. 31% of the global population is Christian. 22% belong to Islam. It is our responsibility to give a lead. Together we exert enormous influence as consumers, as shapers of opinion, in our lobbying and voting, in our investments. This is not an issue which will go away or which we can afford to leave to others.

For those reasons we need to move from the call to be contemplative and compassionate to be courageous. We need to deepen the action we are already taking to tend creation for the sake of the whole earth. The ecological conversion needs to be expressed as ecological discipleship.

What are we doing already and how might we deepen and our engagement with this dimension of God’s mission.

Roger Martin and Sally Osberg offer three ways churches, charities, businesses seek to change behaviour and culture: social service provision, social activism and social entrepreneurship. We need to be active in each of these three areas.

Social service provision is part of the life of every parish church. There are people who care passionately about the environment who are already part of our parishes and deaneries and who give freely of their expertise. Martin and Margot Hodson, who work in this area, argue that the parish church itself is an inherently green concept. The more people engage and do things in their own communities, the less energy they use, the more they encourage local skills and businesses. Our Department of Mission is working to connect those who are keen to be a resource in this area through the Earthing the Faith network and make them known to local churches.

As a Diocese together we consist of more than a thousand churches, schools and chaplaincies across our three counties. We are a major consumer of energy and a major source of influence in every community.

I am delighted that the Archdeacons are inviting every Church to switch or consider switching to green energy, to consider an energy audit and to register for the Eco-Church programme. We are putting in place a support programme to help parishes with all of this which will be made known in the next couple of months. This programme is being done in conjunction with the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment – though it will apply to the whole diocese – and through them we have already secured over £17,000, including funding from the Beatrice Laing Foundation, to subsidise these energy audits and to help churches implement their recommendations.

There are already several Eco-Church award winners in the diocese (including in Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, St John’s and St Stephen’s in Reading and St Andrew’s, Chinnor and some fantastic environmental projects in schools. St. George’s Washcommon is one of the first carbon neutral churches in the country.

Cafeplus in Haddenham is a fresh expression of Church with an environmental focus and holds clothing, book and plant swaps, bike services and MOT’s and apple pressing in the autumn. In Wargrave, the church has formed Friends of Mill Green to manage a community space in an environmentally sustainable and friendly way. In Owlswick close to Monks Risborough, the church gained grants to install a composting loo together with disabled access to the toilet and the chapel. St. James Finchampstead won a Church Times green award in 2017 for their biodiversity project. The churchyard project at St Mary and St John Cowley has had a positive impact on the local community. There are too many good stories to tell and to celebrate in one morning. Each is making a contribution. But we can do more.

Social advocacy is vital. I am the patron of a small charity, Hope for the Future, which trains and helps local people lobby their Member of Parliament and local councillors on climate change and environmental issues. We held a training day on advocacy with Hope in the diocese last year and more are planned for 2018. Christian Aid are asking people to ask their banks to disinvest in fossil fuels. We have a motion before us again this morning asking the Church Commissioners to set an example through their investment policy to phase out fossil fuels, to adopt renewable energy in line with the timetable set by the Paris climate change agreement. I’ve spoken to several people across the Diocese who have been inspired by Ruth Valerio’s campaign to give up single-use plastic for Lent. Already this is changing the way people shop and creating conversation both within and outside the church.

We are all aware of the number of new homes which will be built across the Diocese in the next decade. What are we doing to engage with the developers to ensure that they are built to the highest environmental standards for the sake of those who will live in them and for the sake of the earth?

Finally, we need in this area as in others to go beyond social service and social advocacy to social entrepreneurship: to encourage good sensible green businesses which keep jobs on the land locally and for the benefit of the local community. There are many green businesses in the Diocese also which develop green technology which is used very widely.

I shared in my first Plough Wednesday in January organised by our rural team. First stop was the Mapledurham Estate, just north of Reading: managed for a generation to create and keep jobs on the land and in the local economy.  Land which cannot be used for farming has been developed in other ways as a golf course, a centre for paintballing and other outdoor pursuits.  The impact has been significant.

We were introduced for the first time to an anaerobic digester.  Slurry from the cattle goes in, along with maize grown on the estate.  Electricity comes out along with dried residue which is ploughed back into the ground as fertiliser.  Back down the hill then to the working water mill using the energy of the Thames to generate clean electricity.  An essential part of the shift to renewable energy the world over is the move from a few large power plants to many different smaller sources.

As we will hear later in this Synod, there are many different ways in which we are called to work out what it means to be Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. One which has emerged consistently in our listening across the Diocese is the urgency of environmental care, the call to tend creation. An essential mark of God’s mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. May Almighty God give us grace and strength to give this mark of mission the priority it deserves and needs and a sense of urgency in our task as we live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this earth, our beautiful and fragile common home.

+Steven Oxford

17th March, 2018.

Is that hat comfy?

We held our first Diocesan Youth Forum on Saturday. Over 100 young people from across the Diocese of Oxford gathered in St. Andrew’s Church, North Oxford for a morning of listening and reflection as part of our common vision process.

Radio 4 Thought for the Day

Bishop Steven gave his Thought for the Day on Saturday 30th December 2017 during a programme edited by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“How are you feeling?”
“What’s your energy like today?”

Imagine being asked the same questions every day not by a person but by a machine.

My eye was drawn earlier this year to the launch of the Woebot—a charming robot friend, able to listen 24-7 through your phone or computer.

The Woebot (that’s WOE) is a Fully Automated Conversational Agent, a chatbot therapist powered by artificial intelligence and the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. It aims to help young adults cope better with life.

That has to be a good thing, although it says as much about our culture as it does about AI.
As Crocodile Dundee might have said, “Haven’t you got any mates?” The truth is, we don’t, or not enough.

AI is beginning to be everywhere. It helps us do things we couldn’t do before. As we’ve been hearing this morning, AI raises many deep questions about the future of work, proper boundaries, weaponisation, the right use of data, and teaching children and adults to look after themselves in a digital world. Most lead back to the same core issue. What does it mean to be human? This is a question that has never been more important.

For a Christian, the foundation of being human is that we are part of God’s creation but with this wonderful power to create.

Psalm 139 evokes wonder and mystery:

“For it was you, o God, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.

Every advance in AI shows me what a profound and wonderful thing it is to be alive—to be human.

AI can do really interesting things. But, as yet Artificial Intelligence isn’t a patch on the real thing: human intelligence and human learning and human identity. We have a mind and memories, conscience and consciousness, the capacity to reason, to love and to weep, to hold a child or the hand of an old person, to breathe deep in the early morning, or to talk with God in the cool of the evening.

In this Christmas season especially, I remember that being human is God’s special subject. Humanity is the pinnacle of creation, flawed and imperfect though we are. Christians believe that God’s reason and ingenuity and love took flesh and God was born a child and came to bring hope and purpose and healing to the earth.

Artificial Intelligence is amazing, though we need to use it well and be alert to its dangers. Human consciousness is even more remarkable, for me: a God-given mystery.

We are more than the sum of our parts. The moment we begin to lose sight of the fact that humankind is truly unique is the moment we fail to recognise the amazing gift life in all its glory.

With that in mind…

How are you feeling today?

Artificial Intelligence: the eight key issues

I’ve spent most Tuesday afternoons this term in the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.  We’ve been hearing evidence on every aspect of Artificial Intelligence as it affects business, consumers, warfare, health, education and research.

In the meantime, public interest and debate in Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to grow.  In the last week or so, there have been more news stories about self-driving cars; about Uber’s breach in data, dire warnings from Elon Musk and Hilary Clinton; announcements in the budget about investment in technology and much stealthy marketing of AI in the guise of digital assistants for the home.

The Committee is due to report in April.  We are just beginning the process of distilling down all we have heard into the key issues for public policy.

As we begin this process of reflection, these are my top eight issues in AI and the deep theological questions they raise.

  1. We need a better public debate and education

AI and machine learning technology is making a big difference to our lives and is set to make a bigger difference in the future.  There is consensus that major disruptive change is on its way.  People differ about how quickly it will arrive.  The rule of thumb, I’ve learned, is that we underestimate the impact of change through technology but overestimate the speed.

Public debate and scrutiny is vital.  It’s important to understand so that we can live well with new technology, protect our data and identity, and that of our children and grandchildren and ensure technology serves us well.  It is also vital to build public trust and confidence.  A few years ago, the development of GM foods was halted because public trust and confidence did not keep pace with the technology. Public debate is vital.

  1. AI and social media are shaping political debate

There is very good evidence that AI and social media used together are shaping the democratic process and changing the nature of public debate.  Technology is partly responsible for the unexpected outcomes of elections and referenda in recent years.

AI and social media make it possible for tailored messages to be delivered directly to voters in a personalised way.  The nature of public truth and political debate is therefore changing.  We are less likely to trust single authoritative sources of news.  We listen and debate in silos.  There is a wider spectrum of ideas.  Those who offer social media platforms are not responsible for the content published there (for the first time in history).  There is good evidence that this is leading to sharper, more antagonistic and polarised debate.

  1. AI will massively transform the world of work

There have been a range of serious studies.  Between 20% and 40% of jobs in the economy are at high risk of automation by the early 2030’s.  The economic effects will fall unevenly across the United Kingdom.  The greatest impact will be felt in the poorest communities still adjusting to the loss of jobs in mining and manufacturing.  There is a risk of growing inequality.  Traditional white collar jobs in accounting and law will be similarly affected.

The disruption will probably be enough to break the traditional life script of 20 years of education followed by 40 years of work and retirement.  We need to prepare for a world in which this is no longer normal.  We will need radical new ways of structuring support across the whole of society.  Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Services need to be actively explored.  This will be the major economic challenge for government over the next decade.

New jobs and roles will be created in this fourth industrial revolution.  The economic prosperity of the country will depend on how seriously we take investment in this area over the next five years.  Other economies are making massive investment.  The United Kingdom has some of the best research in the world but without continued investment and better education at all levels we will fall further behind the global leaders.

  1. Education is key to the future

STEM subjects and computer sciences are vital for everyone.  But not to the exclusion of the humanities.  We need to educate for the whole of life not simply train economic units of productivity.  In a world which is uncertain what it means to be human, we need a fresh emphasis on ethics and values.

  1. Better data is key

There are two ingredients in the development of machine learning: computing power and good data.  Government needs to support small and medium enterprises and start up businesses by making both more available: otherwise the major companies who are already ahead are likely to grow their advantage.

There are significant issues surrounding the security and quality of data, particularly in health care, but also huge advantages in making that data available.  Some of the major benefits of AI to humanity are likely to come in better diagnosis of disease and in enhancement (not replacement) of treatments offered by practitioners.  But the date needs to be of the highest quality to prevent bias creeping into the outcomes.

  1. Ethics needs to run through everything

AI brings immense potential for good but also significant potential for harm if used solely for profit and without though for the consequences.  There are very obvious areas where AI can do immense damage: weaponisation; the sexualisation of machines and the acceleration of inequality.

The very best companies are highly ethical, publish codes of practice and are making a major contribution in this area.  But statements of ethical intent, education for ethics and codes of good practice need to be universal.

  1. We need to grow the AI economy

New jobs and roles will be created in this fourth industrial revolution.  The economic prosperity of the country will depend on how seriously we take investment in this area over the next five years.  Other economies are making massive investment.  The United Kingdom has some of the best research in the world but without continued investment and better education at all levels we will fall further behind the global leaders.

We have some of the best Universities and researchers in the world.  But many businesses, branches of local and national government, services and charities have yet to make the transition to a digital economy which is a necessary first step to being AI ready.

  1. We need great leadership to shape the future

Leadership of developments in AI is currently dispersed and unclear.  Developments in AI demand a sustained, coordinated response across government and wider society and clear, ethical leadership alert to both the dangers and the possibilities of AI.

* * * * * * * *

There are some key theological issues here.  My list is growing but five stand out:

  1. What does it mean to be human?

Every advance in AI leads to deeper questions of humanity.  As a Christian, I believe God became a human person in Jesus Christ.  Our faith has profound things to say about human identity.

  1. What does it mean to be created and a creator?

A key part of being human from a Christian perspective is understanding that we are part of creation but with the power to create.  We need to understand both our limits and our potential.  AI encourages humanity to dream dreams but not always to set boundaries.

  1. Ethics needs to run through everything: truth

We need continually to emphasise the importance of truth, faithfulness, equality, respect for individuals, deep wisdom and the insights which come from human discourse and the whole ethical tradition, deeply rooted in Christianity and in other faiths.

  1. We need to be alert to increasing Inequality and poverty of opportunity.

The indications are already clear: without intervention, AI is more likely to increase inequality very significantly rather than decrease it.  AI needs to be held within a vision for global economics and politics which is deeper and better than free market capitalism.

  1. There is immense potential for good in AI but also immense potential for harm.

Serious damage can result from the wrong use of data and lives can be distorted.  Machines can and will be sexualised which will shape the humanity of those who use them.  Weaponisation of AI requires very careful international debate and global restraint.

Mental health and the Churches

“Why are you so full of heaviness O my soul
And why are you so disquieted within me?”

The psalmist asks the same penetrating, painful and honest question three times in Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalms testify here and elsewhere that anguish and pain are more than physical. We suffer within: mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But the psalmist helps us put into words deep questions to our inner self. We do not know always know what is the matter. We do not understand the source of our dis-ease. We are in dialogue with our souls.

The two images in the refrain are very powerful. My soul is full of heaviness: oppressed, weighed down. My soul is disquieted within me: storm tossed. Elsewhere the Psalms deploy the images of darkness, of watery chaos, of parched deserts, of trembling and inner pain. All of us can relate a little to these pictures. For some they are a constant companion.

An escalation

Mental distress is experienced in many different ways. The names we have for some conditions may be recent but the symptoms are deep in our common story. Even so, in recent years there has been an escalation of mental health related issues with the trends all in the same direction.

The news stories and research findings are sobering:

  • Clinically severe levels of anxiety and depression affect at least one in five of the population at any one time
  • There is an epidemic of self-harm among young people.
  • Suicide is the most common cause of death in men aged 20 – 49
  • Almost 10 million British adults are diagnosed with at least one mental health problem each year
  • Around one in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem over a lifetime.

Most of us will know someone in our extended family or network, or colleagues who is suffering mental health problems now. Mental health difficulties are spread unevenly across the population.

Some groups are particularly vulnerable to psychological distress presenting as depression because of issues or privation or prejudice. These include:

  • Older people living in care homes
  • People from the LGBT community
  • People on low income
  • People detained in prisons or refugee centres

Access to mental health services is more difficult for certain groups in our society. Care is not evenly distributed.

The deeper causes

Mental health is harder to define than physical health. The World Health Organisation defines health as, ‘..a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities . Mental health is, ‘…the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and others’, dignity and worth’ , closely linked with what the Hebrew Bible calls Shalom. It is therefore not simply – or even primarily – the province of specialist mental health professionals but something that should concern us all.

It is a deep insight of the Christian faith that there can be no human flourishing without a sense of meaning and purpose. That insight is confirmed and underlined by the sciences. The psychologist Roy Baumeister proposes four basic needs for meaning that must be met if human beings are to flourish :

  • Firstly ‘purpose’ (the need to see that our lives have a plan and a goal)
  • Secondly ‘efficacy’ (the need to feel competent and to make a difference)
  • Thirdly ‘value’ (the need to know that we have done and are doing the right thing in our lives)
  • And finally, and perhaps , most importantly ‘self-worth’ (the need to feel worthy of the love and respect of others, to have a valued place in a community – to belong)

Without meaning our lives will be dominated by chaos, helplessness, shame, and alienation.

Meaning is at the heart of Christian faith. In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon suggests that the increasing prevalence of mental health problems in the developed world is closely tied to modernity: ‘The pace of life, the technological chaos of it, the alienation of people from one another, the breakdown of traditional family structures, the loneliness that is endemic, the failure of systems of belief (religious, moral, political, social – anything that seemed once to give meaning and direction to life) have been catastrophic.’

Good medical help is vital. Those who work in mental health services, often with scarce resources, deserve our respect gratitude. It is good that we are finding courage to talk about mental health more without stigma. There are signs that the Government and NHS are increasing the resources available. I will be spending time on Wednesday this week at the Warneford Hospital with the Chair and Chief Executive of the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and look forward to learning more.

But the challenge is not simply to service providers but to our whole society. Mental health and wellbeing, should be seen not as the result of ‘cure’ but of the incremental building of networks of relationships and human connection, ‘knit together in love’, that support a sense of purpose, moral value, self-belief and self-worth. This must be undertaken corporately, as well as individually.

A Christ-like Church

There is considerable overlap between the promotion of wellbeing and our call to be a Christ-like church. As a Church we need to take the gospel more seriously: not the repetition of creeds or formulas but the truth that we are carry a message which is the power of God for salvation – for well being and shalom. This gospel we bear brings purpose and hope, value and self-worth. On the basis of the gospel we bear, we call people back from the cliff edge of modernity to the wells of meaning and community and truth.

We are far from perfect as a Church. But our calling is to create communities of kindness and reconciliation, of welcome and trust which serve the common good and are channels of peace and grace in the world.

As we develop our vision to become a more contemplative, compassionate and courageous church, what might we able to offer to a world which is so full of heaviness, so disquieted and ill at ease?

A courageous counternarrative

The Christian vision for mental health and wellbeing is profoundly counter-cultural. In a competitive and capitalist society, people are valued primarily as consumers and valued differently according to wealth and age. Those who are no longer economically productive (the old) and those who are not yet (the very young), are seen as less valuable. Those in mid-life who are at the peak of their productivity often struggle with the stress and pressure that this brings, and feelings of inadequacy that they are not doing well enough. And against this backdrop, people are invited to invest in an impossible dream– that sickness can always be cured, and that old age and death need never happen to us.

The Christian perspective invites us to face facts, and gives us the courage to gaze into the darkness because we know that in the end it cannot overcome the light of Christ. A Christian vision of wellbeing is centred on the image of an interdependent body with Christ as its head, a body in which grows to completeness in part through the transfiguration of suffering, a body which finds its strength in weakness, and a body in which the more marginal voices often turn out to be speaking the most fundamental truths.

Whenever we declare “Blessed are those who mourn” we are encouraging a way of life which embraces rather than denies inner pain and grief and loss. We are affirming those who find life very difficult, including many clergy and lay ministers, but seek grace in the midst of distress.

As churches grow more into the likeness of Christ we need to embrace a culture of interdependence, to value those who are vulnerable, ‘different’, or in pain or distress, and to be prepared to learn from them and not simply to minister to them. On the other hand, they should not be places that make people more vulnerable or cause pain by mimicking or intensifying pressures already there in society. Churches should be places where mental health issues are well understood, for knowledge alongside perfect love, casts out fear.

A contemplative approach to life

Purpose, efficacy, value and worth are essential to mental health. Contemplation, stillness and reflection are in turn key to developing both meaning and resilience.

The psalmist is able to forge distress and emotion into a clear inner question: “Why are you so full of heaviness O my soul and why so disquieted within me”. The ability to ask that inner question is formed through contemplation.

Mental health chaplain, Mary Ellen Coyte , who has experienced mental distress, says, ‘For me, various form of contemplative prayer – in particular the examen – have been deeply transformative and healing. The Ignatian model of spiritual experience (as cycles of spiritual movements between consolation and desolation) within another cyclical framework, that of spiritual growth, has been very containing and supportive.’

Mindfulness is recognised as preventative for mental distress. It is practised in businesses, the NHS, schools, and government. Mary Ellen asks, ‘Why does the church have so little faith in contemplative practices including from its own tradition? There are few churches in the diocese with regular mindfulness or contemplative prayer groups. Mindfulness is very valuable but, for Christians, it can be even more helpful to have the congruence of our own contemplative tradition.’ Her conclusion is, ‘There is a craving in society for meaning and spiritual nourishment and this is a wake up call to the Church to foster safe, deeper, more explicit engagement with spirituality.’

Compassionate spaces of acceptance

Churches offer a structure that has real meaning and power to enable people to deal with the crises which come in every life: death, heartbreak, despair and illness.

Churches are not audiences which gather at the same time each Sunday for an act of worship. Churches are living communities with story and history and opportunities for mutual help and delight. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Honesty is key.

Churches are discovering the importance of the vision set out in the beatitudes of ‘being alongside’.

For example:

  • The strategies advocated by the Spiritual Crisis Network and the May Tree project for those experiencing suicidal feelings advocate safe space, empathic company as well as grounding activity such as painting and gardening.
  • Community cafes such as More Plus in Aylesbury promote mental health and wellbeing by providing a safe space for people for make friends and break down social isolation
  • Alice’s Tea Party (SS Mary and John, Cowley Road, Oxford) is a monthly event for mental health service users to come together purely for social contact and mutual support.

Remembering World Mental Health Day annually on the Sunday nearest to October 10th brings mental health issues to the fore and enables people to be more open about what they have to deal with, and so overcome stigma.

Ensuring that someone in each congregation knows about the available statutory and voluntary services in their area as well as useful national organisations. In Oxfordshire, for instance, there is the 2017 MIND Guide. Or perhaps parishes might invest in sending one or two people on a Mental Health First Aid course, which the government will be investing £15 million in over the next year.

Schools, including church schools, can play an enormously supportive role to children and young people, through PSHE, combatting bullying of all kinds and giving opportunities to develop skills in emotional literacy. And Papyrus have some excellent resources to help young people.

The Psalmist’s cry echoes across the communities of our diocese as the people whom God loves cry out in pain and ask deep questions of their inner lives.

“Hope in God for I shall again praise him; my help and my God”.

+Steven Oxford

A Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod
18th November, 2017

This address was prepared jointly with my colleagues Alison Webster, Joanna Collicut and the Health and Social Care Group of the Diocese of Oxford. For an excellent introduction to the theme see this short film by Dr. Pat Deegan, speaking of her own diagnosis as a teenager with Schizophrenia.

The Oxfordshire MIND info line is 01865 247788

The Director of MIND has said that if people ring this line for help/advice, every effort will be made to signpost them to the service they need, eg for advocacy or benefits advice. There are branches of MIND in Bucks and Berks also.

A prayer for Mental Health Day by Alison Webster:

God of compassion,
You meant us to be both fragile and ordinary.
Silence the voices that say we are not good enough,
Haven’t achieved enough,
Haven’t enough to show for our lives,
That we are not enough.
Help us to know that we are treasure,
We are prized,
We are cherished,
We are loved.
By you.
So be with us in our corrugations of feeling:
When our hearts are in downward freefall, be with us
When our minds race with anxiety, be with us
When our throats close in fear, be with us
When sleep will not come, be with us
When waking hurts, be with us.
In the name of Jesus,
Who knew trauma, abuse, despair and abandonment
And has nothing but love for us,


‘Around one in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem over a lifetime’

  • McManus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R (eds) (2009) Adult Psychiatric Mobidity in England 2007 results of a household survey quoted in the Theos paper, The Bible and Mental Health

‘Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities’

‘It is a sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and others’, dignity and worth’



Contemplative, Compassionate, Courageous : Dorchester Area Development Day

A few weeks ago I invited the Diocese of Oxford to dwell deeply in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 in the coming year in many different ways.  As part of this dwelling deep we are holding a series of Area Days in different parts of the Diocese.  Around 240 people gathered on Saturday for the Dorchester Area Day at Marlborough School in Woodstock.  There were inputs from Bishop Colin on what is happening now across the Dorchester Area and from Maggie Scott, Deputy Chief Executive of Oxfordshire County Council, on the changing face of Oxfordshire.  We prayed together and worked around tables on a vision for the future.  There was a real sense of energy and purpose in the gathering.  This is the text of my opening address which I hope will be helpful for all those exploring the beatitudes this year.

Watch Bishop Steven’s Address or listen below

Thank you very much for gathering here today for the first of four Area Days across the Diocese of Oxford.

Exactly a year ago today I was installed as the 43rd Bishop of Oxford in Christ Church.  Many of you were there. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement and support across the year.

I set out on a journey to discover the Diocese focussed around 29 deanery days.  Thank you for all your hospitality and time on those days.  We began in Abingdon in December and finished in Henley in July.

I met with clergy and ministers over lunch; visited community projects and schools in the afternoon; had dinner with a group of ten or so lay people and then had an open meeting.  More than 3,000 people came to those meetings.

I ate a lot of cake.  When people ask what did you gain, I sometimes say about half a stone.  The Chipping Norton Deanery was the Deanery with the best cake.  Chipping Norton and Henley built the most exercise into the day.  I was chased by a large black pig called Nuke in rural Buckinghamshire.  I went to factories and farms and community ventures aplenty.  And I did my best to listen.

Together we are the Church in the Diocese of Oxford across Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes.

Together we are living network of more than a thousand congregations and chaplaincies and schools.  Together we work with God’s mission in every city, town, and village across the world.

Together we have many strengths.  great people; our Area system; significant resources; our schools; excellence and expertise in many different places

Together we face many challenges.  We are sometimes anxious and inward looking.  We are overbusy.  We are not always good at teaching the faith to enquirers.  We are older and less diverse than our population.  We are sometimes fragmented.  Our resources are not always aligned with our goals.

But together we have many opportunities: we are a diocese of immense influence and potential at a crossroads of the world.

Together we are called to dream dreams and see visions of what could be.

And that is what this next year is about.  We have worked for some years with Living Faith.  That has borne immense fruit – especially in reshaping the life of the Diocese around God’s mission.  But this is a moment when we need to stop and think and listen and pray again and discern together God’s vision and direction for us as the Church in this Diocese.

We are asking two questions: What kind of Church are we called to be?

We are also beginning to ask: What should we, therefore, do together?

We have asked the whole Diocese to work on this first question to think and pray and reflect for a year.  That is the main focus of this day.

We have asked six working groups to listen to that reflection and then to think and plan around six themes:

  • To make a bigger difference in the world
  • To make disciples and grow the local church
  • To plant new churches and congregations
  • To serve every school in our community
  • To put the discipleship of all at the heart of our common life
  • To celebrate and bless our largest, fastest growing city: Milton Keynes

But we can only move forward together if we have a common understanding of what kind of Church God is calling us to be in this generation and in this place.

Which is why the first of our questions is by far the most important.  What kind of Church are we called to be?

I have observed processes of change in the Church over many years.  I have learned some lessons from that journey.  The first and the most important is that real change and renewal always begins as we catch together a fresh vision of Jesus Christ at the centre of who we are and who we are called to be.

Telling each other the story of our decline does not generate life and hope and change.  Setting each other unrealistic targets and demanding more with less resources does not generate life and hope and change.  Calling the Church back to Jesus Christ is the only way forward.  Seeing Christ anew, returning to our source and our centre, learning to speak of the Church again, the Body of Christ, with hope and joy and love – these things give life and energy and enable change to happen well.  So that is what we are going to do.

What kind of Church are we called to be?  A Christ-like Church.  A church which is more like Jesus.  I have a very simple ambition for the Church in this Diocese. It is that we become more Christian; that we set Christ at the centre; that we try and be like him; that we see Christ formed in us again as individuals and as communities.

How do we become more Christ-like?  By spending time with the risen Christ in scripture and sacrament; in prayer and fellowship; in mission and in service.

I am asking the whole Diocese in this coming year to dwell in one particular bible passage: the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew.  The most famous and beautiful beginning to the greatest sermon in the entire history of the world: the sermon on the mount.

The beatitudes are almost the first substantial words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus has been baptised by John.  He has been tempted by the devil.  He has begun his ministry in Galilee. He has called Simon and Andrew and James and John with the simple invitation “Follow me”.  He has travelled and taught and healed the sick.

Now he draws apart up the mountain and his disciples come to him. These are words for the Church but they are also immense good news for the whole world.  Jesus speaks to this embryonic church, the people who will be his body, his bride, his own people.  Jesus speaks to us in words of joy.  Every beatitude begins with “Blessed” – happy, fulfilled, at peace. Jesus speaks to us first in words of hope. Every beatitude has a rich promise.  Each begins in blessing and ends in even more.  Jesus speaks to us in words of abundance and not scarcity.

Jesus speaks to us about himself.  He describes in these beautiful, well-crafted promises his own qualities, his own character.  One of the best ways to read the beatitudes is as a kind of self-portrait of Christ.  This is the Jesus Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will reveal to us through the gospel.

When Jesus says Blessed are the poor in spirit, we remember his prayer on the mountaintop and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  When Jesus says Blessed are those who mourn we remember the way he is deeply moved by the sick, the bereaved and his tears before Jerusalem. Blessed are the meek reminds us of the foot washing, his call to be a servant and his riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  To be hungry and thirsty for righteousness reminds us of his care for the poor and those who have nothing and his rebuke to religious leaders.

Jesus words on mercy call to mind his gentleness with widows and with children and with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes.  His words on peacemaking remind us of his death on the cross and his bringing reconciliation to the whole world, his casting out of demons.  His call to be pure in heart reminds us of his own authentic life, his call for inner purity, for secret disciplines.  Blessed are the persecuted takes us to the passion and his own example of bearing pain and hardship for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Jesus speaks to us about what it means to be human.  Jesus comes to show us what God is like.  But he comes also to show us what it means to live abundant life.  The most abundant and rich and fulfilling life is not the life of the rich and famous, the lives which fill Hello magazine, the lives young people grow up longing for.  The most abundant and rich and fulfilling life is indeed to know that you are poor in spirit and incomplete without God; that you have a heart of compassion to weep for the suffering in the world rather than building walls to shut it out. To live well is not to think you are the best, to get to the top of the pile but to see your place in the world with humility and meekness and therefore joy.  You were not made to be blind to what is wrong or to turn away but to fight it.

You were not made to be perfect but to be merciful: to forgive your own failings and imperfections and those of other people.  You are not called to be a victim of fear and anxiety and guilt.  You are called to keep your heart pure through the whole of your life and to see it restored in God’s image and take flight.  You were not made to spend your life angry and bitter and disappointed and at war with the world but you were made for peace and harmony with creation and with all people.  You are not designed to bend to every pressure, as simply as a consumer.  You were made to make your mark on the world: to be resilient and strong and bear the cost of your convictions.

Jesus speaks to us in the beatitudes about what it means to be the Church.  This is you plural not you singular.  This is how we are to be together.  These beatitudes describe what kind of Church we are called to be.

Eight qualities is a lot to ponder and remember.  I can hold them in my mind but I’ve had lots of practice.  For that reason, I want to focus the reflection and vision of the Diocese around three qualities which sum up what it means to be a Christ-like Church and sum up what it means to be the Church of the Beatitudes.

We are seeking to be a Church which is more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous as we live out these words together.

To be contemplative means to spend time with.  We are called to be a Church which spends time with God, whose life flows from God’s life, from worship and prayer and stillness and reflection and loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  To be contemplative means to see the glory of God reflected in creation and to learn to live gently on the earth.

To be contemplative is to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to be pure in heart in order to see God.

The Church of England needs to learn to do God really well again.  We are in much of our life an anxious church in an anxious world.  An anxious church finds compassion very difficult.  We are worried about preserving our own life.  An anxious church finds courage very hard.  We want to stay with the familiar pathways.  An anxious church is easily distracted from what is really important, like the Martha of Luke’s gospel. An anxious church is likely to be far too busy to be good news to the world.  The antidote to anxiety is dwelling deep in God: in contemplation, stillness, reflection, a well-ordered life.

The many different communities we serve need a contemplative church.  The people around us who are like sheep without a shepherd need a church which is willing to take God seriously.  We are really no earthly use without a heavenly dimension.  We are a poor social club.  We are not the society for the preservation of ancient buildings.  Without contemplation, we can easily become an empty group of do-gooders concerned more for our own survival than for the salvation of the world.

To be compassionate means to suffer or feel with.  We are called as a Church to grow communities of kindness and gentleness.  In the words of Isaac Pennington, the early Quaker:

“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another, but praying for one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”.

2.35 million people live across the Diocese of Oxford in cities and towns and villages.  In every place God has called an often fragile community of people to bear witness to what it means to live abundantly: to be leaders in compassion; to love our neighbours as ourselves and to help make the world a better place.  That is our calling.  We are called to mourn: to take the suffering of the world seriously.  We are called to be merciful.

Finally to be courageous means to live with all our hearts – as individuals and as a Church.  It means to rediscover our passion and energy and conviction, to really go for it as the Church in this place in this generation, to play the game for all its worth, to leave everything out on the field.

Our world needs a church which is courageous in our work for justice; a church which is courageous in our work for peace; a church which is courageous in living against the grain of our culture and bearing the cost of that, whatever it may be.

Our world needs us to be and we so often are, thank God, a Church which walks towards the pain and difficulty and grief and sorrow in the world and embraces the difficult questions and the work which no-one else will do.  We need the courage to dream big dreams together and to cast big visions – visions which will call out the best gifts of our people and make an immense difference to the life of the world.

Courage comes from a restored heart.  Compassion comes from a restored heart.  The heart is restored and renewed through contemplation: through resting in Christ, the true vine, so that together we might bear much fruit.

It’s very good to have so many people here from so many different churches.  250 among the many thousands who worship and serve regularly in our churches.  Please would you be the yeast across the dough of the Dorchester Area.  Encourage your PCCs and your home groups and your ministry teams and congregations and schools to join in this great work of listening to God this year, of dwelling deep in the beatitudes, of catching a vision of what it means to be more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous as a Church and to be part of God’s great work of renewal.

Called to be Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous

I am writing to invite every church, chaplaincy, small group and school in the diocese to do something very simple but life changing over the next year.

The Burning Bush

A few weeks ago I was invited to address the presbyteral session of the Methodist Conference meeting in Birmingham. The invitation came from my friend and former colleague, Roger Walton, the President of the Conference.  This is the text of the address.

The Burning Bush

“Moses was keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God”.


The old shepherd limped across the desert with his flock, sticking to familiar pathways wherever he could.  He’d spent most of his life avoiding responsibility and leadership.  There had been ambition, certainly, in his youth.  He’d tried to lead but it had all gone wrong.  He’d been fortunate to escape with his life.  He’d lived ever since far from his people, tending the flock of his father-in-law.  He’d heard things were bad, of course.  Some news reached him even in the desert.  He prayed from time to time.  But there was nothing he could do.

Until that day, on Horeb, when everything changed.  His eye was caught by a bush on fire.  He looked more closely.  The bush was blazing.  He saw the flames, heard the crackling of the wood, felt the warmth.  The bush was ablaze, yet it was not consumed.  Moses turned aside to see.  God called him out of the bush.


My intention this morning is to explore the themes of vocation and ministry and leadership through the story of the call of Moses as told in Exodus 3 and 4.

I have had a growing conviction over many years that as a Church we need to reconnect in a much deeper way with the Scriptures and the tradition in our reflection on leadership.  We have been distracted now for a generation by the bright lights of the business school and by all that the social sciences can teach us about the exercise of leadership in communities.  There are clearly things we can learn from that source.

But we have neglected to explore the deep mine of our own tradition for those lessons on how to lead.  We need to recover them for they contain vital lessons not only on the exercise of leadership in communities as ministers but lessons in leadership for headteachers and school governors; for politicians and business leaders; for vice chancellors and civil servants.  Every time we address a congregation, we are addressing a group of leaders: people of great influence.  One of our tasks as ministers of the word is to explore and expound this deep rich seam of reflection on leadership in the Old Testament and the New; in the early Father’s of the Church; in our history, our theology and our practice down the generations.  We are part of the longest continuous tradition of reflection on leadership in communities there has ever been in the entire history of human culture.  The entire story of Moses is a story of what it means to exercise leadership.  Exodus 3 and 4 are where that story begins.


The elderly shepherd stands on Horeb, the mountain of God.

“Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up”.

Moses is living, as you will remember, in the place of exile and failure.  Forty years ago he attempted to assume a position of power and influence among his people both as their protector and as their judge.  He was rejected both by the Egyptians and by the Israelites.  He fled to Midian, far away.  He is living as an alien in the foreign land. The story of his call is a story of restoration as well as vocation.

When we first read the story and often when we interpret the story, we see the burning bush as a dramatic device.  This is the way that God attracts the attention of Moses.

There is a bush fire by the roadside which draws the eye.  Moses draws nearer.  The bush is blazing but not consumed.  It is this, not simply the fire, which causes Moses to turn aside long enough to hear the voice of God.

But down the years many of those who have gone before us have reflected deeply on this passage and they have found more in the burning bush than a dramatic device to hold Moses’ attention and curiosity.

We all know the principle of fire which needs fuel to feed it.  In our house we have a log burner.  It is at the very heart of our home.  When they come home our four adult children love to sit in front of it and to gather around a living flame.  But this fire will not work without fuel.  On a cold winter’s afternoon, we can easily burn two baskets of logs. The idea that we could put the logs in, enjoy the fire and then take the logs out again and put them back in the garage is absurd.  They are turned to ash.

But this fire in Exodus burns and is not consumed.  How is that?  Moses is curious and so draws near and hears the voice of God.  The burning bush is a narrative device.

But the saints who have pondered this down the years have seen more.  They have connected the burning bush with another fire which burns and does not consume: the fires of Pentecost, the flames which appear above the heads of each of the disciples.  The flames cause them to burn with passion – with love for God and for others – but not to be burned up.  The burning bush describes a profound mystery at the heart of the discipleship and ministry.

The burning bush and the flames at Pentecost are a picture of God’s love for us and for everyone God has made.  God’s love is disproportionately passionate, burning, but not overpowering or consuming the object of God’s love.  This is the love which sets our hearts on fire as we read the scriptures and celebrate the sacraments but which does not consume us.  This is the passion which burns with love for God’s people, which hears their cries, and brings God to answer their prayers in his dialogue with Moses.

Passion is one of those beautiful English words.  The meaning of passion combines strong love and and strong anger at injustice and suffering. There is a vital place for passion in our discipleship and in ministry.  If we live with our eyes open, we will be deeply moved, often, by the suffering in the world, by injustice and by the state of the Church.

In our call to be disciples we are invited daily into a relationship with this God who loves us deeply but whose love does not overpower us or swamp our will or wipe out our personality.  God is not the dominant husband or wife in whose shadow the other partner disappears.  God sets us on fire but does not consume us.  Christian discipleship is not about self negation of gifts or personality but about the flourishing of each individual.

God’s grace at the burning bush is a model too for our ministry. We are to be like that with others: to build them up to be the best they can be not to use them for our glory.

Passion in discipleship and ministry needs to imitate the burning bush.

In the words of an old ACCM selection document, one of the great signs of spiritual and personal maturity in a minister is to burn but not burn up – to burn but not to be consumed.  We are called to a long steady love and a long steady deep anger at injustice but held within a confident vision of the God of order, of creation, the God who has won the victory.

That is not an easy vision to articulate or live, but it is a powerful vision of God’s passion and passion in ministry.


The great Christian tradition on how to lead in communities is based on a single, powerful insight about leadership which is deeply countercultural.

Our tradition is based upon the simple and deep conviction that leadership in communities is very, very, very difficult.  That conviction is underscored more and more deeply for me the more I am called to exercise leadership and observe leadership in others.

The wisdom for leadership which has emerged in the last generation from the social sciences and from business can be very helpful.  But it is based on the premiss that leadership is basically very straightforward.  All you need to do is master a few basic disciplines and rules, usually all beginning with the same letter.  All you need to do is read my book, attend my seminar, take an MBA and you will be equipped to lead others.  The simpler we believe something to be, the more likely we are to fail.

Pope Francis gave a TED talk recently.  It is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.  I found it very moving to listen to the Pope telling the TED community the story of the Good Samaritan as if they had never heard it before.

Francis best line is a quotation from an Argentinian proverb: “We have a saying in my country: the exercise of power without humility is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.  We damage others and we damage ourselves”.

Francis takes us to one of the central reasons why the exercise of leadership is difficult.  The exercise of influence is not a neutral thing.  The exercise of power has an effect upon us: it touches and changes our inner being, our souls.  Our experiences of leadership affect us very deeply.

The Old Testament narratives of leadership by and large offer us scores of different ways in which leadership goes wrong.

The patristic tradition on leadership is based on exactly the same conviction.  There are four classical texts which carry the tradition.  Three of them are written on exactly the same pretext.  John Chrysostom writes On the Priesthood.  Gregory Nazianzen writes On his Flight to Pontus.  Pope Gregory the Great writes The Pastoral Rule, one of the most influential texts in shaping leadership in the western world.

All three write on this pretext: exercising leadership as a presbyter or bishop is so difficult, so very very difficult, so fraught with danger for your inner being and your soul, that it is much better to run away to a far country rather than be ordained to this ministry.  All three claim that they themselves ran away.

It is an insight preserved in the Orthodox ordination services where the candidates do not process in with honour but at an appropriate moment in the service are discovered at the back of the assembly, like Saul hiding among the baggage, and dragged before the bishop to be ordained.

The leadership we offer is hard in itself: we are confronted daily by intractable situations; scarce resources; resistant communities; impossible tasks.  We are confronted daily by our own fallibility.  The leadership we offer and the way we offer it will over time distort and shape our personalities and our lives if we allow it to do so.

It’s my habit to reflect often on the leadership I offer in four domains.  The leadership I offer in the world; the leadership I offer in the church; the way I work with individuals and teams; and the way I am watching over myself.

I have learned over many years that the place attention is most needed and the foundation of everything else is the diligence and wisdom to watch over myself, my inner journey, my character and disciplines for everything else will flow from that and the knots and problems of leadership will often but untangled in that deep inner dialogue.


Moses stands before the burning bush.  He hears the very voice of God speaking to him.  God introduces himself: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob”.  God has observed the misery of his people.  He is coming to deliver them to bring them into a good and broad land.

Moses is invited into a profound and beautiful relationship of passion: for his heart to be set on fire again.  He hears God calling him: “So come, I will send you to Pharoah to bring my people out of Egypt”.

But here is the second mystery in the story.  Moses does not say yes to this call.

“But Moses said to God “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt”.

You know the passage at least a little.  For the remainder of Exodus 3 and most of Exodus 4 the dialogue continues.  Moses offers not one, not two, not three, not four but five excuses as he attempts to avoid God’s call.

One of the paradoxes of the story is that Moses never actually says yes in the narrative. He is a reluctant leader.  Moses offers the living God five different excuses.

I paraphrase.

Who am I? (verse 11)

God replies by simply saying I will be with you.

Who are you? (verse 13)

“But Moses said to God “If I come to the Israelites and say to them “The God of my ancestors has sent me to you and they ask me “What is his name”, what shall I say?

This passage links to the revelation of the divine name, the high point of the passage.

They won’t believe me (4.1)

I can’t speak very well (4.10)

O God please send someone else (4.13)

Moses debates and argues with the living God as he is to do many more times in the great narrative of the Exodus.  In this very dialogue there is a living illustration of the burning bush, the fire which does not consume.

What is Exodus teaching us here?

First that God invites Moses first and foremost into relationship, friendship.  This is not simply a servant and master relationship.  There is dialogue, debate, argument based on mutual respect, even though one of the partners is the living God.  God is patient, at least for the first four excuses.  One of the themes of the whole Book of Exodus is the patience of God.  God answers each of Moses’ questions.  God nurtures Moses calling.

Passion is debate and engagement with God and in prayer. Passion is full of life. The opposite of passion is acidie.  Spiritual listlessness neither being cold nor hot. The Psalms teach us to take our passion into our relationship with God. To lament, to be angry, to argue, to grieve.

One of the great privileges of ministry is inviting other people into this kind of service of this kind of living God.  Helping them to foster this rich inner dialogue and encounter.  One of the great privileges of Christian discipleship is this kind of debate with the living God as we wrestle to work out our salvation and our vocation.

The second lesson lies in the actual excuses themselves.  I have found throughout my ministry that the same deep inner questions of character emerge and re-emerge at each stage of life and responsibility.

The deep questions Moses asks have to be revisited in internal and external dialogue regularly.  They are not once and for all questions.  I think the narrative shows that Moses himself will go on visiting them as the story unfolds as we do.

I am doing some work at the moment with a transition coach as part of my journey of letting go of my responsibilities and diocese in Sheffield and engaging with larger and different responsibilities as the Bishop of Oxford.  I’m only part way through that process.

But it is largely an inner journey not an outer journey.  It’s not primarily about learning new skills.  It’s an invitation to go deeper in my understanding of God and my understanding of myself.

In particular I’ve had to confront in a new way a struggle that has been present for me throughout my ministry: with a lack of courage and self doubt.  Who am I?  I can’t do this.  They won’t believe me.  I can’t speak very well.  O God please send someone else.

Naming and confronting my fears has been vital in that process of growing in leadership.  The answer to them is, I think, that gentle dialogue with the living flame of God’s presence which burns but which does not consume: the call to know God better as the heart of our ministries and the leadership we offer.

How that dialogue happens is vital to the fruitfulness of our ministries.

One of the regular things that happens in ministry is not so much that we resign or withdraw from what we are called to do – although that does happen from time to time.  It is rather than we resign or withdraw inwardly even through outwardly we continue to do the job.  There is an inner abdication of vocation.

Outwardly we are in office but we are not in power.  We disengage.  It’s as if we are in a game of baseball.  We stand on the batter’s diamond.  But again and again we let the ball sail past with no intention of striking it out of the ground.  Opportunities to do good come but we fail to respond.  There is an inner weariness of spirit, a paralysis caused by fear, a lack of hope and joy in our engagement.  We professionalise and bureaucratise our calling and the church.  Our sense of being on fire for God diminishes.  Our hearts are no longer strangely warmed.


If you find yourself in such a moment, individually and corporately, can I commend careful and prayerful engagement with the story of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4 and the two riddles it contains: the bush which burns but which is not consumed.  The call which is offered but which is not answered.

Again and again in our ministries, God recalls us to the fire in faith and love and gentleness – rarely in the same ways, often in new and creative ways.  We will be called to reflect on our own identity, on God’s nature and identity, upon our perception of the church, upon our perception of our own abilities, on the excuses we offer.

There is no way to engender passion for Christ, for the Scriptures, for justice in others unless you are first set alight by God and maintain that passion throughout your ministry.  If you are to set hearts and lives on fire for God, as I hope and pray you will, you must first be on fire again yourself.

I was privileged to be the Anglican fraternal delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome on Evangelisation in 2012.  It was a powerful experience and one that has stayed with me.  There were 400 cardinals, bishops and advisors from all over the world sharing with one another how difficult it is to pass on Christian faith in the contemporary world.  The most moving moment in the Synod came when one of the senior Vatican cardinals stood up and said: it is we who need evangelising.  We need ourselves a deeper experience of Christ.  It is out of that deeper experience of Christ in the Church that mission and ministry and good leadership will flow.

We end this session with the beautiful and powerful words of Charles Wesley which draw on this powerful image of the fire which burns but which does not consume and God’s gentle yet powerful call to service and to ministry:

O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire
and still stir up the gift in me.

Still let me prove thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.

Address to the Presbyteral Session of the Methodist Conference

23rd June 2017


On Fragmentation

A Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly” says the prophet Jeremiah of the leaders of his day.

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace” where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8.11).

All those called to leadership in society and the church need to pay careful attention to the wounds of God’s people.  God’s people in every part of the world.  There are no simple solutions to those ills.  There is no remedy in pious slogans.  Reality is not changed by soundbites.  The answer does indeed lie in peace, shalom, wholeness but words alone are not enough to mend the fractured earth.  “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly.”

The world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 according to the United Nations.  A terrible famine stretches across Africa from Nigeria to Yemen through Somalia and Sudan. The Disasters Emergency Appeal was launched at midnight on Wednesday. I hope we will respond generously as individuals and churches.

The commentators agree, these catastrophes are the direct result of human conflict: disastrous civil wars and rivalries; corruption and greed.  Fragmentation, blindness and complacency in the developed world as well as the developing nations. On Thursday, in the midst of a humanitarian disaster the world’s richest nation cut its aid budget.

“They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly,” says the prophet. Our world is interconnected. We celebrate later this the Fair Trade Foundation’s plans for relaunch I am joining those who are supporting amendments to the Criminal Finance bill to make it more difficult for politicians in every country, including Africa, to launder funds and avoid the taxation which is needed to build local schools and hospitals and nations.

Parliament passed the bill this week to begin the process of leaving the European Union. The British electorate voted a year ago to change our relationship with Europe. There are different and legitimately Christian views on how that relationship is best re-imagined. As that process begins we need to be honest and alive to the dangers of fracture in our wider European relationships and fracture in our own United Kingdom.

There is a pressing need to reach deeper than the careless slogans which shaped the referendum campaigns a year ago. There is a need for a serious reimagining of Britain’s place in the world and our national identity and values. The wounds within our nation are real. The referendum exposed them. The Brexit process must now seek to heal them and to change but also strengthen European integration.

The Churches and the faith communities have a critical role to play in healing divisions and renewing political debate from the profoundly Christian foundation that every man, woman and child is made in the image of God and of inestimable value.

There is inequality and fragmentation within our own communities within this Diocese. According to figures published yesterday, there are now four million children in poverty in the United Kingdom, the highest since the 2008 financial crash. The Diocese is publishing today a powerful new piece of research, For Richer, For Poorer, Poverty and Livelihoods across the Diocese of Oxford.

The report compares statistics from neighbourhoods across the entire Diocese to build a picture of poverty and deprivation Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Bucks and Milton Keynes. The maps show fragmentation: wealth and poverty side by side. Poverty in relatively wealthy communities is often masked and hidden.  The report exposes what churches in many of our communities already know: there is a need for foodbanks, for homeless provision, for work with refugees for engagement with children’s centres all across this Diocese.

We need to take great care in our nation and across the world. Inequality is growing. Awareness of inequality is also growing, driven by social media.  In those conditions resentment and anger deepen and surface in unexpected ways. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly.”

The world changes. Life grows more demanding for many, especially for those in work. I’ve heard much on my deanery visits of the stress created in families and individuals which is caused by the high costs of housing in this region, the need for both partners in a marriage to be working in demanding jobs, the accelerating pace of life and the fragmentation of families and individuals which is the inevitable result.

In this context we need as a Church and as the Church of England in this diocese to take ourselves much more seriously, if I may say so. What we are and what we do in every city, town and village is vital and transformative for individuals and communities. By the grace of God, we are making already an immense difference.

As we gather for worship in Lent, we sometimes use these words:

“We come from scattered lives to meet with God

Let us recognise his presence with us.” (Common Worship, New Patterns for Worship, A Penitential Service, Greeting).

Week by week, those who lead scattered lives in a fragmented world gather.  We bring our wounds and the wounds of the world to God’s love and healing and grace. We find again unity and wholeness within our worship and prayer.

We find again the strength and vision we need to be people of influence, disciples and apostles of Christ in our families, in our communities, in our workplaces and in wider society.

This morning in our Synod we will consider together the report Setting God’s People Free on lay leadership and discipleship.  Matthew Frost, one of the authors of the report will join us. The report calls for a change of culture in our common life: a shift to find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life as disciples in our common baptism. There has never been a more important time for the Church to break free of clericalism and affirm the value of both laity and clergy in the mission of God to the world based on our common baptism.

The world and our nation need us to be the best Church we can be in this season and in our time. The wounds of God’s people are so great and so serious.

It is in that context that we need to set the deep questions with which we wrestle and this morning we will also spend some time reflecting on the current debates on human sexuality. Here too the wounds of God’s people are deep and serious. There is need for great care and tenderness in our dealings one with another, for careful listening and discernment. The Archbishops have called in their letter after Synod for a radical new inclusion in the church. I am personally committed to that vision. We will need to explore together in the coming months what that call might mean within this Diocese for lesbian and gay people, those who are bisexual, transgendered and intersex, both within and beyond the church.

“We come from scattered lives to meet with God

Let us recognise his presence with us.”

In the period since this Synod last met, I have visited 15 of our 29 deaneries. Thank you for your welcome and hospitality. Each day has been inspiring in different ways. I’ve come back full of joy and hope and stories to tell.

I’ve been learning much, not least that we are indeed a large and diverse diocese. No two deaneries so far have been the same. We are called to be the Church in so many different places and contexts and ways.

I have been asking two questions as I travel, what kind of Church are we called to be and what are we called to do together as a Diocese. What are our priorities?

I believe we are called to be a more Christ-like Church: the church of the beatitudes. As many of you will know, I’ve been searching for just three words which will capture that ethos for the next part of our life together: to bind the Diocese together in God’s mission and guide us forward.

The three words are settling now. I believe we are called to be and become a contemplative diocese, poor in spirit, rooted in God’s presence, in peace, and wholeness and stillness. We come from scattered lives to meet with God. In a wounded, fractured world it is only a deeply contemplative Church which can bring God’s grace and love to those who need it.

I believe we are called to be and become a compassionate Church: taking seriously the wounds of God’s people.

I believe we are called to be and to become a courageous Church as laity and clergy together: courageous in bringing peace; courageous in seeking justice; courageous in our witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ.

We will be gathering more than a hundred people from the leadership community of the Diocese in May to work on these questions: what kind of church are we called to be and what are we called to do together.  Please pray for that gathering. I will report the outcomes back to this Synod in July.

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace.”

We are to be people who take wounds seriously: in the world, in our nation, in our Church, in ourselves.

We are to be a Church of radical inclusion for all, cherishing the gifts of lay and ordained together.

We are to be a Church which is contemplative, compassionate, courageous.

We are to be a Church which takes herself seriously not for our own sake but for the sake of the world.

We come from scattered lives to meet with God

Let us recognise his presence with us.

+Steven Oxford

18 March 2017


Sing to the LORD a new song

Welcome Eucharists

Psalm 96; Matthew 5.1-10

Thank you so much for your welcome.  It is very good to be here.

I’m deeply thankful for the Church in these three counties.  I have experienced good things over many years. I am enjoying working with Bishop Colin, Alan and Andrew and the rest of the senior team.  I have come initially to listen and to learn.  I am an imperfect bishop in an imperfect church but together we serve the God who makes all things new.

To all of you from across this county, clergy and lay ministers and wardens and officers and every disciple: thank you for all you give to the life of the local church and to mission in the new community.  Please pray for me.  It will take me a while to visit every place but I look forward so much to being with you.

This season marks a new beginning for me and a new beginning in the long story of the Diocese of Oxford.  As Christians we should not be strangers to these new beginnings.

The Psalms mean a great deal to me as I expect they do to you.  For this nine months I have been trying to dwell in a particular verse from Psalm 96 and to hear what God is saying to me through this part of scripture.

We heard it read earlier.  This is my calling and our calling.

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.

The whole of creation is summoned to worship and to joy.  The kingdom of God is breaking in: the kingdom of justice and mercy and peace.

One of the wonders of being alive is that life never stands still.  Our lives are constantly changing.  Each day there are new blessings to appreciate, new wonders to discover, new adventures to be had. There is nearly always a new song to sing.

I have recently taken up running for the first time in my life since primary school.  It certainly surprised my family.  I went to one of those fancy shops and bought some proper running shoes. I downloaded an app to my phone which claimed it would take me from 0 to 5 K in 8 weeks.  I started very tentatively.  Everyone thought I would give up after three weeks.  Rather to my surprise, I’m enjoying it.  I ran 5 K just this morning and completed the app.

A few weeks ago I sent a text to my children to say I’d been for a run and posted a picture of my muddy running shoes on our family Whatsapp.  One of my sons texted back: “Who is this and what have you done with my dad”.  My other new hobby for the summer has  been learning how to make pies.  The two things sort of balance each other out.

Sing to the LORD a new song, Sing to the Lord all the earth.

As God’s people we should be ready for new things.  That is not always how people see us. There is a story told in my native Yorkshire about a dialogue between a Bishop and a Churchwarden.  Bishop:  How long have you held office.

Warden: About forty years Bishop.

Bishop: You must have seen a lot of changes in that time

Warden:  Aye and I’ve opposed every one of them.

There is more in this text than the call to embrace change and variety and experience the richness of God’s love and God’s gifts..

Psalm 96 is not directed to the Church.  Psalm 96 is a call to the whole world.  Through the words of Psalm 96, God’s people are singing to all the earth and summoning the world to newness and to joy.

O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, we say to all who will listen, bless his holy name; tell of his salvation from day to day”.

Rarely has that new song been more needed in our nation and in our world.   Year by year, the earth’s climate is changing.  We are living in the midst of the greatest human migration in history. In every country including our own there are questions of identity.  Who are we as a nation?  Inequality grows year by year. The world faces immense challenges.

What kind of a song are we called to sing as a Church in such a time?

When the world is being shaken, we must sing a new song of hope
When the world is hurting, we must sing the new song of healing and salvation.
When the world grieves, we sing new songs of resurrection.
When the world grows more unfair, we must sing God’s new song of justice.

To those who are enslaved and prisoners, we teach new songs of freedom
To those who are afraid, we share our songs of courage
To those who are dragged down by sin, we sing of God’s forgiveness
To those who are confused we sing God’s clear new song of truth

In this divided world, our songs reach out to strangers, to welcome and build bridges.
In this restless world, our songs tell of God’s peace and our final rest in heaven
In this polluted world, we sing a new song of care for God’s creation
In this world of vanity and pride, we sing songs of humility and meekness
In a world which lives for itself, we sing of love of God and neighbour.

The song we sing is the song of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a song of great power and love.  Perhaps we do not sing it very well or as clearly as we could.  Perhaps we have forgotten its immense potential to transform human life.  Perhaps we have lost confidence in the immense importance of the message entrusted to the Church.  We need to find our voice again.

I look forward to working in partnership with all of you across this city in the coming years in all parts of the city.  One of the concerns I will bring as Area Bishop here and as Diocesan Bishop is a concern that we teach the faith well to adults, to enquirers, in every context.  I look forward to learning what you are doing now and to building together for the future.  We need to find our voice.

[In 1963, at the height of the American Civil Rights movement, 250,000 people gathered in Washington to urge change and freedom in America.  They were addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King.  He delivered the speech which began:  “I have a dream”.  His song is inspired by scripture and by the Christian message.  The trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, sang to the crowd.  They sang Pete Seeger’s song, If I had a hammer.  They sang of the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, the song about the love between brothers and sisters, all over this land”.  Their song helped change the world.]

We need to find our voice again and find the confidence to teach the world a new song.  In every part of this Area, God has called a community of Christians to be the Church.  In every place, God calls us to sing a new song in the midst of this weary world.

We sing this new song as we gather Sunday by Sunday in every city, town and village.  We sing this new song as we are scattered in schools and colleges, workplaces and homes.  We sing this new song in the words we speak.  We sing this song in the way we live our lives.  We sing it as we live the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel: as we are people who are poor in spirit, compassionate, full of kindness and mercy, hungry and thirst for justice becoming more like Jesus Christ.

And as we sing, and pray and serve and work so God uses our songs for good, to spread his love, to draw others into his family, to be the change we want to see.

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.

I look forward so much to working with you and getting to know you in the coming years.  Please pray for me and I will pray for you.

I hope that together we will sing a new song to the LORD and to this needy world


For a clip of Peter, Paul and Mary singing in Washington in 1963 see Peter Paul & Mary Talk about The March On Washington & Sing