Over four talks Bishop Steven is exploring God’s mission in Macedonia, in Greece and in the great city of Ephesus. In session one we discovered the first two principles of deep water fishing: the Holy Spirit directs and inspires new movements of mission, and God is already at work in unexpected places and unexpected people. In session two we travel to Greece and the story of how the disciples put out into deep water in strange cities where no-one had ever proclaimed Christ…

This page includes images and text by the Revd Janet Minkkinen of St Andrew’s Church Cippenham who is on pilgrimage. If you would prefer to watch +Steven teach this session, scroll to the bottom of this page for the video. 

Session 2: Greece

Luke describes in Acts the different ways in which Paul and his companions put out into deep water and let down the nets. Luke’s focus in Acts is on evangelism and church planting, but that focus is clearly set within the broader horizon of God’s mission and God’s kingdom.

In Macedonia, we drew out the first two lessons to inspire our own work. The first is that the Holy Spirit directs and inspires new movements of mission. The second is that God is already at work in unexpected places and unexpected people: Lydia and the young girl and the jailer and his family. Renewal in mission is not usually about steady and incremental change. It can often be about deep water and risk and the new thing that God is doing.

From Macedonia, we move on now to Greece. In Acts 17 and 18, Paul moves through four of the major cities of Greece. He visits Thessalonica and begins his mission in the synagogue. This is the pattern familiar from Acts 13 and 14. People come to faith. The Jews become jealous. They drive Paul out from the synagogue then stir up the city authorities against him. You may remember the famous taunt: “Those people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also”.

Silas and Paul move onto Beroea. Here the reception is completely different: “They welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so”. The mission here bears fruit until people come from Thessalonica and stir up this city also against Paul.

From Beroea we come to Athens. Paul spends time watching and listening to this city full of idols. He debates not only with the Jews but in the market place with the philosophers. Eventually, he speaks to the assembly on the Areopagus, and we hear for the only time in Acts an address to educated and literate citizens in a famous university city.

But the fruit of this ministry in Athens is meagre. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this”. At that point, Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them”.

There is to be no great intellectual breakthrough in Athens.

Then finally in Greece, Paul comes to Corinth where he is to stay for 18 months to found the Church with his colleagues Priscilla and Aquila. We know about Paul’s ministry here from the Corinthian letters as well as from Acts 18. The church here is a church of and for the poor. The ministry here is a much more fruitful ministry. The Lord appears to Paul in a vision and says this: “Do not be afraid but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people”. He stayed there for a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

Again and again, the disciples put out into deep water in strange cities where no-one has ever proclaimed Christ. Paul and his companions are doing what Jesus commands Peter to do in Luke 5. Paul and his companions are doing what we are called to do in Amersham and Didcot and Charlbury and Ascot.

What lessons can we learn? There are of course three I want to highlight, though I haven’t managed to make them begin with the same letter. They all seem to me to be very important to our work.

(scroll down to continue)

Janet writes: “We missed out the towns of Amphipolis and Apollonia, but stopped to see this huge statue of a Lion that Paul must have seen. The Lions are normally in places where battles have taken place in about 300BC. From there we made our way into Thessaloniki named after Alexandra’s the Great sister. In Thessaloniki Paul tries to explain that Christ first had to suffer and then be resurrected from the dead. Some were persuaded, but many were unhappy with his words of hope. As Bishop Steven reflects on the deep water that we are to go out into, we also need that steadfast hope and trust so that we too are faithful to the truth. I visited the church of St Demetrios coming face to face with his relics. His witness and martyrdom makes you reflect, that is very very deep water. Many Christians around are world are persecuted for their faith and belief in Jesus Christ and refusing to be silent. I feel humbled and pray for courage.” – 14 May 2019


Principle number 3: different places respond in different ways

(see the previous talk for principles one and two)

The first is simply stated but really difficult to take on board for all of us. The same gospel proclaimed by the same people in different places provokes a very different response:

Rejection in Thessalonica, a warm welcome in Beroea. Indifference in Athens. Passionate welcome in Corinth. Different places respond in different ways to the gospel.

We can’t always see the reason for this, especially if we don’t have ourselves wide experience of the church in different places.

As you will know, I served for seven years as the Bishop of Sheffield. Church attendance is very low in Sheffield per head of population. If you go back in time and look at figures from the past, it remains historically very low across all denominations. No-one quite understands why. Whatever is happening in the wider world and whatever strategies are adopted, relatively low church attendance remains.

Within our own Diocese, we have at least two areas, South Bucks and the city of Oxford, where church attendance and churchgoing remains high relative to national trends. It’s possible to point to some reasons for that. But we also have other areas where attendance is as low as anywhere in the country, particularly in the major conurbations of Reading, Slough and Milton Keynes.

In our many rural areas, congregations are very small relative to urban and suburban communities. But as a proportion of the population, they are often very high, particularly at Christmas and other major festivals.

So as we put out into deep water, we need to expect that the outcomes and the responses will be different in different places. We are not going to see neat and uniform growth. We should not put that burden of expectation on one another. One of the marks of authentic mission will be that the response and fruitfulness will be different in different places.

The Bible uses the agricultural metaphors to understand and describe this. In some places the ground is too hard. It needs to be broken up and ploughed and made ready. In others, the time is right to sow seeds and begin new ministries which may take years to come to fruition. In others, there is a crop ready for harvest. Sometimes we can see this in advance. But most of the time, we can’t.

I don’t think Paul knew that his ministry would be better received in Beroea than in Thessalonica. I don’t think he would have changed his itinerary if he did know that.

Now we love as a church to measure outcomes. This is largely a product of our insecurity. Like our forebears, we seek validation in numbers. We love to compare one ministry and place with another. Sometimes we do it to bolster our confidence and because we need the affirmation. Sometimes we do it to pull ourselves down and prove again to ourselves that we have failed or that our ministry is not of value.

I have a friend who worked in inner-city ministry, and he would often say that when suburban clergy get together, they play the game of my congregation is bigger than your congregation. When inner-city clergy get together, they play a different game: my area is worse than your area – a kind of clerical version of Monty Python’s sketch of the four Yorkshireman. “Outside toilets. You were lucky.”

We need to be prepared for the outcomes to be different – some more difficult, others more positive and fruitful and affirm both. That’s one of many reasons why beginning with appreciative inquiry [expect to see more about appreciative inquiry from the Diocese in the coming weeks] and affirmation seems the right way to plan.

One of the things I have heard very clearly across such a large Diocese is that we must be very wary about transferring unrealistic expectations from one part of the Diocese to another which then become impossible burdens and sap the confidence of the church.

It’s wonderful that as a Diocese we have several large churches in the centre of Oxford. I praise God for them. But we cannot take the expectations of growth and success in those large churches and transfer them onto small congregations in rural West Berkshire. The soil is very different. The resources are different. The story is different. Acts underlines this again and again.

The rural church is very different from the suburban church. The inner city is different from the suburbs. Inner city Slough is different from Blackbird Leys on the edge of Oxford though both may be deprived. The Diocese is made up of thousands of different places, each with its own story and its own response to the gospel. God is at work in each. But we must avoid the temptation to standardise, to project expectations. We must allow for difference.

Principle number 4: we need to be courageous

My second lesson for deep water fishing from Greece is the lesson that we need to be courageous, to persevere and try again. We need this courage especially in respect of past failure whether that is specific failures in mission or the general climate where ministry has not been fruitful or particular failures such as safeguarding or division in the life of the Church.

All of these things sap our confidence and morale. When confidence and morale and hope are low, it is really very hard to get out the boats and put out into deep water and let down the nets.

Imagine the courage and confidence required by Paul in these two transitions. He moves from Thessalonica where there has been hostility and rejection and apparent failure to Bereoa. He is not to know as he walks into Bereoa that things will be different. But they are, at least for a while.

Even more, imagine the courage and confidence to move from Athens to Corinth. Paul has been mocked in Athens in a very public court appearance. There has been very little fruit. He gathers himself and finds the courage to put out into deep water again and goes to Corinth. There are signs he does some things differently. There is a much greater emphasis on teamwork rather than a solo mission. There are signs in I Corinthians that there was a major shift in his preaching and teaching. This is how Paul describes in his own words the beginnings of his ministry in Corinth:

“When I came to you brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom”. You might think this was exactly what he was trying to do in Athens.

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (I Corinthians 2.1-3).

It’s really difficult to find the courage to start again. It’s especially difficult to find the energy to start again in a completely different place: not to simply do again what you have always done but slightly differently.

We all know the answer to the question how many PCC members does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Change?

Or the story of the Yorkshire bishop who asked a churchwarden how many years he had been in office. ’40 years’ came the reply. ‘You must have seen a great many changes in that time said the Bishop’. ‘Aye,’ said the Warden. And I’ve opposed every single one of them’.

Hats off to clergy and PCCs who are bold enough to put out into deep water. To the young mum who dares to suggest employing a families worker. To the curate who leads an environmental audit. To the Vicar who raises the question of a new informal service in a rural benefice. It’s not easy to start again. We need to cherish every person who has the passion and boldness to make a suggestion and cherish even more the person who rolls up their sleeves to have a go.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the next steps in renewing catechesis across the Diocese: the ministry of welcome and accompanying new Christians to baptism and confirmation. It’s such a key ministry for the renewal of our mission.

We have a long way to go.

I think one of the chief obstacles is a lack of courage and confidence. Offering an annual way in which people can learn about faith and explore as enquirers feels in too many places a very significant risk for the clergy. What if I offer this and no-one comes? What if they come and no-one comes to faith?

It won’t be the same in every place, but we need to encourage one another. That again is why it is so important to root all of our planning and ventures in encouragement and affirmation and building hope and confidence in the people of God. The local church is not a problem to be solved. In the present context, clergy and congregations need nurture and inspiration to get back into the boat, to put out into deep water and to let down the nets.

Nobody can read Acts 17 and 18 and say Paul had an easy ride. We can read Acts 17 and 18 and see that there is an iron determination in Paul’s mission simply to keep going, as Paul will say later, to fulfil the ministry which God has entrusted to him. We need that iron determination that dogged perseverance in God’s mission across this Diocese.

Let us pray.

God of love
The sea is so great and our boat is so small.
Inspire your church as we put out into deep water
Help us to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous in your mission.
Guide us by your Spirit to discover where you are working
Help us to join in the building of your kingdom
And anoint us afresh to make disciples in your name
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ who calls us and sends us
With you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.


Common Vision Conference
High Leigh, 9 May 2019


Go to session 3


Watch Bishop Steven deliver this talk

This session was first given at the Common Vision Conference in May 2019.

Click the speaker icon in the bottom right of the video frame to switch on audio.

All the way through the Acts of the Apostles the disciples are living out Luke 5. They continually put out into deep water, let down the nets and see what happens even in the most unlikely circumstances. +Steven traces part of that story over the course of four talks looking in turn at God’s mission in Macedonia, in Greece and in the great city of Ephesus. What lessons can we seek to learn as we turn our boats away from the shore to deep waters and let down the nets for a catch?

This page includes images and text by the Revd Janet Minkkinen of St Andrew’s Church Cippenham who is on pilgrimage. If you would prefer to watch +Steven teach this session, scroll to the bottom of this page for the video. 

Session 1: Macedonia

The story of the spread of the Christian faith across the Roman world is a story full of surprises. It is a story of both suffering and joy. It is a story of human endeavour and God’s agency. It is a story to which the Church has returned again and again through two thousand years as we seek fresh inspiration in God’s mission. It is the story told by St. Luke both in the gospel and in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles.

In every era of the Church, Christians have turned to Luke’s great narrative to find renewal and to return to first principles. In the eighth century AD, the great English historian Bede bases his Ecclesiastical History on the Book of Acts. In the early twentieth century, the Anglo-Catholic theologian, Roland Allen reflects on the story of Christian mission in China in his seminal book: Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s our ours?. In the late twentieth century, the American Episcopalian priest Dennis Bennet turns to Acts to describe his experiences of God which were the beginnings of charismatic renewal in his book Nine O’clock in the Morning.

In these talks, I want to continue this tradition of reflection on the principles of Christian mission in Luke and Acts. We are reflecting together as a Diocese on what it means to be a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. We have listened carefully to the kind of church we are called to be in the Beatitudes, in the story of the raising of Lazarus and in the Letter to the Colossians [you can find the common vision study guides on our online store].

We are now at the point where we are beginning to move forward in God’s mission together: to attempt new things in new ways for the sake of the kingdom of God. We are doing this as a single Diocese and also in our parishes, benefices and deaneries and in our schools and chaplaincies.

As we begin to act and to do new things, so this is a good moment to listen to the Book of Acts, as framed by Luke, and to find fresh inspiration for mission in our own day.

The Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of Luke is not simply Part One of a two-part work. The Gospel is the most important of the two volumes. The Gospel frames the story of the Church which follows. In particular, Luke sets the horizon for Christian mission in his gospel through two key passages set near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The first is in Luke 4, the second in Luke 5.

In Luke 4, Jesus comes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the Book of Isaiah. You will know the passage:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4.18).

Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down. “Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The horizon of Christian mission is set wide. The mission of Jesus is about the transformation of the whole world and the bringing in of the kingdom of God.

Luke 5 then sets a frame for one central part of Christian mission: the calling of disciples to follow Christ and to be agents of God’s kingdom. Jesus is teaching by the lakeside. He gets into the boat of Simon Peter. After he has finished teaching, he said to Simon: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

They put out into deep water. They find a miraculous catch. Simon falls to his knees saying: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.”

This is the moment we have reached in the story of our own Diocese and of our common vision. At the end of this conference, I hope every person here will be willing to say to the parishes and deaneries: “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

I expect that some people at least will respond in a similar way to the disciples: “Look, we have worked all night and caught nothing”. Ministry has not been too fruitful of late. The things we have done are not really making a difference. But I hope they will go on to say: “Because that is the call of Jesus we will let down the nets.”

And I hope that in many different places, there will be the equivalent of a miraculous catch of fish: new disciples; renewed vocations in the workplace; a fresh relationship with schools; new congregations planted; children’s and youth work renewed; the captives set free; signs of the kingdom in ways we do not expect.

And I hope that in many different places we will fall down on our knees to God in wonder and amazement: “Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful person” as we see the great harvest of the kingdom beyond our expectations.

This process is not about the rolling out of a strategy; it is not about fixing a problem. This process is about being a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church: about putting out into deep water and letting down the nets and seeing what God will do.

(scroll down to continue)

Janet writes: “The journey in St Paul’s steps begins in Neapolis, modern day Kavala. The place where St Paul steps ashore from Troas is St Nicholas Church. The beautiful mosaic shows the man of Macedonia calling Paul: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  Those words spoke to me deeply. Who is calling me! Who is calling you, are you willing to go out into deep waters as Bishop Steven shared with us? Paul was so brave crossing into new lands, into Europe, bringing good news to our land. The last picture is the view from my hotel balcony, the harbour full of fishing boats all is calm and at peace.” – 12 May 2019

Principles for deep water fishing

All the way through the Acts of the Apostles we see the disciples living out Luke 5. They continually put out into deep water, let down the nets and see what happens even in the most unlikely circumstances. They are continually amazed in different ways at what is happening which is beyond their expectations.

Renewal in mission is not really about business as usual. It is not about a bit more of the same. The renewal in mission we need is about deep waters, about adventure and risk and joining in the new thing God is doing.

Over this series of talks, I want to trace part of that story as told in Acts 16 to 20. We will look in turn at God’s mission in Macedonia, in Greece and in the great city of Ephesus and seek to learn lessons as we turn our boats away from the shore to deep waters and let down the nets for a catch.

The story begins in Macedonia. Paul and his team are stuck. They do not know where to travel next. They try one way and then another.

“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatian, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go to Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Mysia they went down to Troas. During the night, Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to help us”. Only then do they set sail.

Principle number 1: the Holy Spirit is guide and director.

At every point in the Acts of the Apostles where new things happen in mission, the Spirit does something new. This is not human endeavour. This is the work of God. God is already at work. The work is rooted in listening: in contemplation which is itself guided by compassion and shaped by courage.

Paul and his companions sail to Philippi, a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. Philippi is very deep water. The gospel has now crossed into Europe – a whole new continent and culture. We are beyond the edge of the Jewish diaspora now: the places where the Jewish community has spread. This makes Philippi different. It is a completely new town. Think of the many new towns which will be built in our diocese over the coming 12 years. The population here is mainly former soldiers.

There is no synagogue. This may not seem significant to us but it is very significant to Paul and his companions. They have a method for proclaiming the gospel up until this point. Find the synagogue. Preach there until thrown out. Form a church.

There is no starting place in Philippi. It looks at first as though Philippi is very unpromising territory. The kind of place where you might fish all night and catch nothing. So where to begin? By praying and looking and listening. By the time the Sabbath comes round, the disciples have discovered that there is a place of prayer by the river and a number of women who are worshippers of God gather there. God is already at work. This is the place to begin.

Principle number 2: God works in unexpected ways and unexpected people.

Everyone’s story is different. Paul may be looking for converts just like himself: promising rabbis in the making. But one of the signs of authentic mission is unexpected conversions. The three most prominent converts in Philippi are a migrant businesswoman and dealer in purple cloth; a young mentally fragile slave girl and the town jailer and his family. Not the most promising and obvious raw material for a new church, we might think. But these are the ones in whom God is working and working powerfully and working differently.

Luke is a profound student of Christian formation. Acts takes great care here in describing the ways in which each of the three Philippian converts comes to Christ. The language in each case is unique as each person’s story is unique.

With Lydia, Paul uses the metaphor of hospitality. There is first hospitality of the heart, language of an opening door: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul”. God has been at work already, preparing Lydia. At the right moment, God brings Paul to speak by the river. The Lord opened her heart. Lydia and her household are baptised: this is the first of two mentions of baptism in Philippi.

Then the hospitality of the heart is mirrored in the hospitality of Lydia’s home. The new Church is given a base and a meeting place. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. And she prevailed upon us.

Paul and his companions are making things up as they go along. That’s what it is like to put out into deep water.

The second convert is a slave girl. She follows Paul and his companions crying out after them. Eventually, the slave girl is set free. But Paul and Silas are imprisoned by her owners. There is a public beating. Paul and Silas are put in prison.

Even in prison there is rejoicing. In the midst of the rejoicing there is an earthquake. The jailer believes the prisoners have escaped and rushes in to end his life. But the prisoners are still there. The jailer himself is set free.

Then there is another beautiful symmetry. The jailer washes the wounds of Paul and Silas. Then he and all his family are baptised without delay. There is a double washing, a twofold liberation.

God works in unexpected people in unexpected ways. The beginnings of the Philippian church remind us that this work sometimes begins with just one individual or family. If we are to see this renewal in mission across our Diocese, we will always need to begin with just one household, just one person, to see new life come to birth. A new congregations is planted. Paul and his companions eventually move on.

Our first two principles for putting out into the deep:

[1] The Holy Spirit is guide and director.

[2] God works in unexpected ways in the most unlikely people. Christian mission is neither neat nor tidy.

Our common vision

As a Diocese, we are reflecting on how we encourage one another in this renewal in mission in ways which are contemplative, compassionate and courageous. It would be all too easy at this moment in time for the common vision process to become a programme with measurable, predetermined outcomes, something tame and domesticated, geared to helping the Church be a slightly bigger church, a slightly better church, a slightly more efficient church.

This is not our calling. We are looking for our common vision to be a wider and wilder process, following the Spirit’s call. We are encouraging one another to put out into deep water, to be open and obedient to the Spirit, to open up the spaces for God to be at work, to look for God’s work in the most unlikely places and people, to see what God will do.

The deep water is an uncomfortable place. When we set sail, we entrust ourselves to God.

Let us pray.

God of love
The sea is so great and our boat is so small.
Inspire your church as we put out into deep water
Help us to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous in your mission.
Guide us by your Spirit to discover where you are working
Help us to join in the building of your kingdom
And anoint us afresh to make disciples in your name
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ who calls us and sends us
With you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.


Common Vision Conference
High Leigh, 8 May 2019


Go to session 2


Watch Bishop Steven deliver this talk

This session was first given at the Common Vision Conference in May 2019. The session had started with a power outage…

Click the speaker icon in the bottom right of the video frame to switch on audio.

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:

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


September 2018

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

Further reading

Bishop Steven at General Synod

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

Read more