It was good to welcome over 450 clergy and LLM’s to five different Bishop’s Study Days across the Diocese of Oxford in November. We welcomed a guest theologian at each of the study days who gave us a deep dive into the Christian tradition. Their addresses will be published later this year in a new book called Rooted and Grounded: Faith formation and the Christian tradition. This is the text of my opening address to those days. Read more
A year ago I invited the Diocese of Oxford to listen to God through a particular passage of Scripture: the beatitudes of Matthew 5.1-10.
We are exploring our call to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous.
I know from different conversations, gatherings and written feedback that this has been very fruitful. Many groups listened to God through the beatitudes through dwelling in the word during meetings.
More than 6,000 people engaged with the study booklets we produced on the beatitudes and on Lazarus. Many churches developed sermon series or other good ways of study.
One of the main conclusions of our year of listening is that we need to do this more and continue to focus on what it means to be a more Christ-like Church. Lots of good practical strategies have emerged for local churches and for the diocese and these are moving forward.
However this listening is more important than anything we may decide to do, individually and together. I am therefore inviting the whole Diocese to a second year of listening, this time through the Letter to the Colossians and especially Colossians 1.15-20 and Colossians 3.12-17.
Again the focus will be on exploring more of what it means to be a Christ-like Church. The first short passage focusses on Christ, the second on the life of the Church. Again, there will be many different ways to listen through the text. Here are two resources to begin the process:
- A print-out of the Bible passage suitable for use when dwelling in the word
- The addresses I offered at the clergy conference in May on Colossians 1-3
The Diocese will be producing a short study booklet similar to the Beatitudes booklet in time for use in Advent 2018 or Lent 2019 based on these addresses. More details later.
I hope that listening to God in this way through scripture will resource our personal lives and also the life of every local church. Over the course of the next year, the Diocese is planning to develop a very simple resource to support renewal and mission locally which builds on all we have been learning through this process of developing fresh vision.
A year ago we established six working groups to look at what we might attempt to do together. These groups have listened deeply to Scripture and to the Diocese. They have developed plans which flow from this call to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world. I gave a recent update on these at the Diocesan Synod in June. There will be further updates in the coming months.
But we want to begin a new academic year not with a whole list of things to do and not with a range of goals and targets or a fifteen point comprehensive strategy.
Jesus said to Mary and Martha: one thing is needed. In a time of great challenge for the world and for the Church, we are called to listen and ponder and reflect on what it means to become a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous.
Grace be with you
Address to General Synod
2017 was BP’s biggest year of exploration since 2004. Shell boasts on its website: “We have no immediate plans to move to a net zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years”
At Shell’s annual meeting in May this year, only 5.5% of investors supported a resolution calling on the company to set emission-reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement.
According to a 2017 report from ShareAction, Shell and BP’s ‘base case’ scenarios for business planning were both found to be ‘consistent with 3-5°C+ of global warming (source)
The world is on a trajectory to catastrophic climate change if nothing more is done. We need a much greater urgency in this debate grounded in a hope that things can change.
I sit as a member of the Advisory Board of the Oxford University Environmental Change Institute, one of the most respected global institutions for interdisciplinary study on these themes. I was asked to join the board 18 months ago in recognition of the key role that faith communities need to play in the change we need to see.
Myles Allen is Professor of Geosystem Science at the ECI and closely involved in the IPCC. Myles has argued that the most important figure in the Paris Agreement is not 1.5 or 2 degrees. The most important figure is zero: we need net zero carbon emissions to stabilise global temperatures at any level: 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees.
We potentially need to reach net zero as early as 2050 if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to be met. Any company making 40 year investments that does not have a plan for net zero by 2050 is either counting on Paris goals not being met or neglecting its duties to its shareholders.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to see global peak carbon in 2020 and a reduction to net zero by around 2050.
Therefore the most important question to ask fossil fuel companies now is what are your plans for the reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2050? What are measurable the staging posts along the way? How will you remain profitable through that transition?
I am sure that the period 2015-2020 (or thereabouts) is the right period for engagement. I am really grateful for all that NIB’s have done and for the Transition Pathway Initiative. The work has been outstanding. I think TPI will be needed for a long time into the future whatever the outcome of our debate today.
But there is a growing global community of churches, institutions and investors who are realising that engagement alone is not enough. Laboured and incremental change is nowhere near what is needed. Internal engagement needs to be combined with external pressure to make radical change.
We have a very serious ethical issue before us as a Church. Achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement requires 30% of oil and 50% of known gas reserves to remain unburned. If we continue to invest in these companies beyond 2020 we will be making money from practices which will harm the poorest people on earth and the planet itself.
The threat of imminent divestment beginning in 2020 is not an alternative to engagement but a vital part of that engagement. We will not be walking away. Engagement can and should continue by different means.
The Church of England has a responsibility to lead on this issue within the United Kingdom and internationally through the Anglican Communion. That moral leadership depends on aligning our investment practice and our lifestyle with the global vision for a net zero carbon world by 2050.
8 July 2018
The following text, adapted for the blog, is the core of a keynote address on leadership, given by Bishop Steven to over 500 Christian leaders at the 4th Forum christlicher Führungskräfte in Fribourg, Switzerland in March 2018. The keynote address was recently referred to in the Financial Times Business Education supplement.
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 ago. 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.
17th March, 2018.
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.
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?