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

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

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

What are the names of your fish?

Which is your favourite football team?

What colours do you wear in church?

How old are you?

How much do you earn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can shift that?

Well, we could become non-relational.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


14 March 2020

Bishop Steven is currently on sabbatical. 

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

Presenting everyone mature in Christ 845x321

This week over 400 people gathered in Christ Church for the Festival of Preaching. The conference was fully booked with a waiting list and a very high level of energy. There excellent and moving contributions from a galaxy of great speakers including our Dean, Martyn Percy, Brian MacLaren, Paula Gooder, Margaret Whipp and others. Below is my contribution, but look out for the others and talk to those who were there.


Paul writes in Colossians:

“It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we might present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle, with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me” (Colossians 1.28-29).

St Paul sets out the central goal of Christian preaching: forming people into the likeness of Christ and into Christian maturity. This formation and preaching is centred on presenting Christ: It is Christ whom we proclaim. This is the Christ of creation and redemption unfolded in the great Colossians hymn in 1.15-20. This is both human labour and enterprise: for this, I toil and struggle. It is also a work which goes beyond human skill and flows from the energy which the God the Spirit inspires within me.

Catechesis, formation into Christ and into maturity, is central to early Christian preaching. The same picture is reflected in the narrative of Acts. Paul’s ministry in Ephesus is focussed around daily dialogue in the Hall of Tyrannus for two years (Acts 19.8-10). In Acts 20, Luke shows us Paul looking back to that ministry, teaching publicly and from house to house (20.20). Paul asks the Ephesian ministers to remember that “I did not cease day and night to warn everyone with tears”. This is a demanding passionate ministry, centred around forming individuals and the Church into the likeness of Christ.


As the Church in this diocese, we discern that our calling is a simple one: we are called to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. One of the central outworkings of that vision is the renewal of catechesis across the diocese: the cluster of disciplines centred around baptism: the welcome and nurture and teaching of children and families and young people so as to present every person mature in Christ.

Last week I was on a pilgrimage of prayer across Berkshire. I visited almost 40 churches travelling by boat, by foot and by bike. In every church I took a picture of the font and we prayed together for the renewal of all the ministry which flows into and out of the font: the welcome of young children whose parents have just enough faith to bring them to baptism; all the teaching and nurture of children and young people; walking with enquirers and new believers to bring them to baptism and confirmation; enabling the whole church to live out our baptism in every part of our lives.

Almost everyone I have ever worked with has tried to persuade me not to use the word catechesis in public. It’s not the most accessible of words. But it is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and describes a cluster of ministries and practices around Christian formation and supporting enquirers as they explore faith and come to baptism and learn all of what the Christian church means.

At the centre of the word catechism is the word echo. In the words of John Chrysostom, we are seeking to form an echo of the living word of God, Jesus Christ, in the heart and life of every believer.

The whole church needs a recovery and renewal of catechesis in our day. According to the recent British Social Attitudes survey, 52% of people in the United Kingdom are now of no religion: that proportion is far greater among the under 30’s. It seems to me that we are called now to become again a deeper church, mature in Christ, and that is more important than becoming a larger church, to serve our society well and to hand on the faith to the next generation.

Routed and grounded book coverIf we are to become a deeper Church then we must seek the renewal of catechesis informed by scripture and by the great tradition. This week sees the publication of a new book, Rooted and Grounded, which it’s been my privilege to edit. Six Oxford theologians have taken a deep dive into the tradition and explore what we can learn from catechesis in earlier generations: Sue Gillingham writes on the Psalms and Jennifer Strawbridge on the early Christian creeds; Carol Harrison writes on the patristic period and Sarah Foot on Anglo Saxon catechesis. Simon Jones focusses on the connections between liturgy and formation and Alister McGrath on the abiding importance of the creeds. I commend it to you.

Catechesis involves a range of different disciplines: working with individuals and families, as Paul writes. Working with small groups of people in different contexts. There is much we can learn about forming good habits of prayer, about liturgical welcome and celebration of the sacraments, about incorporating people into the community; about the pastoral care of new Christians.

But this is a Festival of Preaching. My purpose today is to focus on the connections between the ministry of preaching in the life of the Church and Christian formation or catechesis. What role should our preaching play in this work of Christian formation? What can we learn from the practice of the Church down the centuries? How should we connect preaching and catechesis in the 21st century?


Preaching and public proclamation has always played a role in catechesis. From earliest times, public preaching in the main assembly of the Church, at the eucharist, serves to expound the faith for beginners as well as for the mature disciple. In some churches in some periods the enquirers, the catechumens, are a distinctive group, and the preacher will turn to address them, especially in certain seasons of the year. But all of the time, preaching is open and accessible, addressing the person on the edge of and beyond the congregation as well as the believer. We have examples from the patristic period of single sermons and series of sermons addressed largely to those enquiring about faith. Augustine provides two example sermons to the deacon Deogratias in his book On Instructing beginners in the faith. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, has left us a whole series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer in which he unfolds the entire gospel through a single text.

In the Anglo Saxon period, England was evangelised by monks who established deep places of faith and prayer and travelled from there to preach and baptise new believers. The core of their teaching as in the patristic period is the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. In 1281, in the Middle Ages, the bishops of England met at Lambeth and issued a decree. The clergy were to expound the Christian faith in every parish no fewer than four times a year. This is an era before printed books and literacy. The syllabus, according to Eamon Duffy, consists of the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments, the seven works of mercy, the seven vices, the seven virtues and the seven sacraments.

Communication and formation changed at the Reformation because technology and education changed with the invention of printing. The English clergy faced the challenge of expounding the faith of the Church in different ways and to help them understand the scriptures, now translated into English and available in every church. The central texts remain the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the commandments now folded into the Prayer Book catechism. Every minister is obliged to teach the catechism in his parish. Every minister’s first task following his ordination was to write and preach his catechetical sermons expounding the whole faith. The traditional theological syllabus in the Universities is geared towards enabling the clergy to expound the faith in this way. Catechesis is a central concern of the English clergy in a way which is often not the case today. I believe we need urgently to set again the desire to present every person mature in Christ at the centre of our preaching and teaching.


But how are we to do that? The challenge is significant. The water table of knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith falls with each generation. Our preaching clearly needs to be open and accessible. It needs to address the questions people are asking. Our preaching needs to provoke thought and questions as well as provide answers. We must not assume too much in terms of knowledge, but nor must we talk to people as if they are children. We must offer good news but acknowledge also the pain and difficulty and questions and suffering in many people’s lives.

We must know and understand our congregations. Good preaching is one half of a dialogue. The preacher’s address to the congregation will be based on hours of listening not only to the scriptures but to the people in his or her care. And not only to the people in his or her cure of souls, but to the wider culture. What are themes and the issues? What can I say which will build a good bridge of communication between us and establish trust and gain a hearing?

We must use language which is accessible to our congregations and communities. Too many sermons miss their mark because life-giving truth is obscured by language that is too dense or insufficiently thought through.

Luke tells us over and over again in Acts that the apostles proclaimed the gospel with boldness. The term does certainly carry the meaning of courageous in the face of opposition. But it carries also the term “transparent, open and plain speaking”. How many of us I wonder have had the experience of preaching to an all-age service, thinking we are addressing the children, and have received the most positive feedback from adults because that is the only sermon in the month which our congregations can access?


cycle of catechesis

(click image to enlarge)

I want to focus the relationship between preaching and catechesis in a single area, if I may: the dynamic resource which is the Christian year, the cycle of the seasons.

The notion of the Christian year evolves in Christian history as the Church explores the relationship between preaching in the context of liturgy and catechesis, Christian formation. Easter became the central focal point for adult baptism: we die with Christ and rise again. Baptism at Easter is preceded by 40 days of intense preparation. Lent then emerges from the catechetical needs of the church. The period before Lent, the Epiphany season, then becomes a time of invitation: who will take the step of enrolling to be baptised this year? The period after Easter becomes a time for the deepening of faith.

The long story of salvation history finds its mirror in the liturgical cycle of the Church’s year; the gospel is summarised in the Apostle’s Creed and that Creed is taught in an annual cycle of Christian formation.

It is common in the ancient world and now for someone to be part of the community for several cycles before active faith is stirred and awakened and the person enters fully into the Christian way as a disciple. Once a person has learned the faith for the first time and come to baptism and confirmation, then year by year that faith and understanding are deepened within the framework of the great story of salvation lived out and expressed in our liturgy. The story is revisited over and over again at different stages of life and of faith development.

Rowan Williams expressed all of this more eloquently than I in an address on fresh expressions and the sacramental tradition around ten years ago:

“Every year (the great drama of salvation) is re-enacted. We begin by imagining ourselves in the world before Christ, longing for a release, a new horizon, a world of liberation whose nature we don’t yet know. We celebrate the miracle of God arriving in flesh and blood in our world and we trace his path through struggle and suffering to death, trying to shift our perspectives and change our priorities…..so that we see all this as the way into life and out of falsehood.

“We receive the shattering news that death cannot contain the flesh and blood of Jesus and cannot end the life-giving relationships he creates. And we find that in the community where these relationships are recognised and thought about and lived out, we learn how to relate to God the Father as Jesus does and to understand that each of us is necessary to the life of the other – the communion of the Holy Spirit. Into this annual course of discovery we put our particular concerns and changes and new perspectives, and it dawns on us slowly that we are finding out who we are by finding out who Jesus is – and vice versa” [i]

The sermon is essential in drawing out this annual cycle of formation. The Church Year and the lectionary are there to support our year by year exploration of the faith, the work of Christian formation, as we address in our preaching enquirers and Christians already on the Way. Let’s take that thought and unpack it further into a framework for preaching and catechesis for our own day.


The centre of this annual cycle of formation is Easter Day: the day of resurrection; the day of joy; the day of baptism and the renewal of baptismal promises.

It is preceded by Lent: the period of preparation for baptism. This is the season above all to explore the heart of the gospel and the core texts of the gospel for the sake of those we are accompanying to baptism and for the whole church.

For this, it is essential to grasp the core shape of the Christian faith in terms of our learning. The Christian faith is not a faith in which you progress through knowledge to greater and deeper stages of initiation and membership. You begin with the basics and then do something more advanced and so on and so forth. There have been distortions of the Christian faith all down the centuries which have been shaped in that way. In the New Testament and early church period, those systems were called Gnosticism. Our salvation comes through knowing.

The Christian faith is about being centred in Christ and the death and resurrection of Christ and baptism. The Letter to the Colossians has the great baptismal images at its centre: death and resurrection; putting off and putting on. The central verse of Colossians is 2.6-8. The writer is combatting a move to urge the Colossians to move on to so-called deeper, more esoteric things. He does this by exposing the centred nature of the faith.

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives him him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Lent in my view is not a season for going further for the church in our knowledge, but a season for re-centering our lives upon the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ. The four great catechetical texts, the Lords’ Prayer, the Creed, the Commandments and the Beatitudes are ideal for the whole Church to focus on in Lent, with those preparing for baptism. The new series of Lent Pilgrim and Easter Pilgrim material this year was an attempt to do that in individual guided reflections.

It is followed by the Easter season, a time for those who have been baptised to reflect on the deepening of their own faith in the sacramental life of the Church and on the living out of our discipleship in the world.

Go back a stage before Lent, to Epiphany, and we have a season of invitation beginning with remembering the baptism of Christ.

That leaves the autumn as a season for proclaiming the great universal themes of the gospel.

The whole year then forms a cycle of catechesis, of evangelism and nurture, welcoming those who are new to the faith, and of helping the whole Church deepen our encounter with the living Christ.

We begin the cycle in September with the season of creation. We explore the great themes of what it means to be human, to live in relationship with the creation and with our creator. As environmental themes make their way up the agenda of our society so they will need to make their way up the agenda of the church. The harvest and creation season begins the year by focussing on who we are in relationship to the creation and to the creator.

As the days shorten, our themes move on to the second great theme and mystery of our mortality, frailty and imperfect and the relationship between life and death. The seasons of All Souls and All Saints, the season of remembrance, is a time to recall the people of our communities to their search for the living God, to remind them of the relevance of Christian faith and the insufficiency of materialism.

The story of our creation and mortality, God’s goodness and our frailty, then moves into the season of Advent and Christmas. In a world which is pondering deeply the question of what it means to be human, the Church dares to proclaim that Almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, became a particular human person at a particular time and season. Our calling as preachers is to take the familiar Christmas story, still known and understood in our culture, and encourage our congregation of enquirers and occasional worshippers to search longer and deeper.

Christmas gives way to Epiphany and the Church changes gear. Here we can learn something from Augustine and the early Church. In this season before Lent begins, we find the Church Fathers preaching to encourage people to enrol this year to be baptised, to enter into a more intentional season of formation, to make a step of commitment. This tradition is preserved loosely in the tradition of the evangelists call, but has disappeared from the life of many churches. I think there is a great deal to gain by offering that invitation across several Sundays in these weeks after Christmas. People respond by enrolling for baptism and confirmation and also enrolling in the small groups designed to nurture faith.

Holy Week and Easter are given a special significance where adults are preparing for baptism and confirmation as the candidates prepare to enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus and the whole Church walks the way of the cross.

In the early Church in the weeks after Easter, people shared for the first time in joining in the Lord’s Prayer and sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is an excellent season for going deeper into the sacraments, exploring the gift of the Spirit, preaching and teaching on the living out of Christian faith in the world in the whole of our lives. And so we come again to September and beginning again with creation.


Catechesis is central to the ministry of preaching and preaching is central to the ministry of Christian formation. Neither can be collapsed into the other. The two should not be identified as overlapping. Preaching will never be the whole of Christian formation. There will always be a need for one to one dialogue, small group formation and special instruction for those preparing for baptism. Catechesis will never be the whole of preaching. There are many other legitimate and necessary subjects for preaching which do not fall within a catechetical framework. Preachers are called to offer solid food as well as milk. But the two need to be brought into a creative dialogue in the mind and intention of both preacher and congregations so that, in the words of St Paul: “We might present everyone mature in Christ”.


Festival of Preaching, Christ Church, Oxford
September 2019

[i] Rowan Williams in Fresh Expressions and the Sacramental Tradition, edited by Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, Canterbury Press, 2009, pp. 5-6

On Saturday 29 June thirty candidates were ordained deacon at Christ Church Cathedral. The evening beforehand, Bishop Steven met with them to deliver the Bishop’s Charge.

“There is an important point in the ordinal where the Bishop speaks directly to those about to be ordained. To the deacons, the Bishop says:

“Remember always with thanksgiving that the people among whom you will minister are made in God’s image and likeness. In serving them, you are serving Christ”.

To those about to be ordained priest the Bishop says this:

“Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross”.

There are several biblical references underneath that sentence. The ordinal is a rich liturgical text. But one of them comes from the New Testament model for the Bishop’s Charge: Paul’s address to the elders at Miletus in Acts 20:

“Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son”.

The Book of Acts is a drama in three interlocking parts. The middle section focusses on God’s great mission through Paul and his companions. At the end of this middle section, Luke sets this profound and wonderful speech to Christian ministers as a retrospective.

This is the only speech in Acts addressed to Christians. It’s the place where the Paul of Acts is most like the Paul of the Epistles. Paul has lived through the most fruitful period of his ministry. The third part of Acts is about to begin, which will focus on suffering and trials.

The Church in the process of forging its vocabulary for ministry as Luke writes. As you know, there are various lists of gifts and ministries in the New Testament. These gradually settle into the orders of ministry we know today in the Church of England: deacons, priests or presbyters and bishops.

In Acts 20, Luke deliberately deploys all three terms. Paul invites the presbyters to gather at Miletus. Given the role Priscilla and Aquila have played in the story of the Church there, I find it difficult to believe that the group on the beach does not include women as well as men. Luke uses the term diakonian to describe his ministry in verse 24: “the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace”. Luke uses the term “overseers”, episcopoi, in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Paul isn’t here describing three different kinds of ministry. He is offering a picture of a ministry in three dimensions reflection service and evangelism, the sustaining ministry of word and sacrament which is the vocation of a priest and the ministry of leadership and oversight of yourself and of the church which is focussed in the vocation of a bishop but is the calling of all the ordained.

The first element of my Charge to you this evening is that for the whole length of your ministry, hold onto this wide and deep and adaptive image of your own ministry. Ordained ministry is a rich and complex concept to understand. Our different traditions trend towards simplification: we continually reduce ordained ministry to something we can manage or get our heads around.

So, for some traditions, the goal and end point is the celebration of the Eucharist, one part of the ministry of the priest. For other traditions, the end point is the mirror image: the ministry of the word and all else is subordinate to the privilege of teaching. For those in the charismatic tradition in recent years, the dominant category has been “leadership” and especially “church leadership”. For the liberal tradition in the Church of England, the real centre is being agents of the kingdom of God, part of diaconal ministry. For others in recent years, the only purpose of being ordained has been to fulfil the ministry of an evangelist.

None of these traditions is wrong. But ordained ministry is all of these things whether you have the title of deacon, priest or Bishop, or whether your role is a curate, an incumbent, a chaplain or a residentiary canon. You will always be a deacon. You will never graduate from washing up, setting out chairs and tables, serving the most needy in the community. You have been given a commission and authority to represent the Church in the world and to be an agent of God’s purposes of love. You have been entrusted with the good news of Jesus: to be an evangelist with every fibre of your being.

You will always (from tomorrow) be a priest. You are charged with the teaching and nurture of the people of God and ordering your ministry so as to sustain them in their ministry through the gifts of word and sacrament. You are called to prayer and to study so as to continually equip you for this demanding ministry. You are called to love and to treasure the Church and guard your heart against cynicism and bitterness of every kind. You are called to lead the worship of the people of God.

And you will always be called to oversight and leadership by virtue of your orders. You are called to watch first over yourself. You are called to work collaboratively with others, to release and build up their gifts and ministries. You are called to hold out to the Church an inspiring vision for her future and to bring that vision to reality. You are called to exercise leadership beyond the Christian community in the parishes you serve and in wider society.

Paul’s injunction to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock” stands at the very centre of his charge. The injunction gives a shape to the great Christian tradition of reflection on ordained ministry which will flow from the biblical tradition. Gregory the Great captures this tradition in his Pastoral Rule and he, in turn, shapes Richard Baxter’s reflections and those of George Herbert. Between them, they shape the Anglican tradition which follows. Why does Paul give such weight to this matter of watching over ourselves?

There are two reasons, and the shape of the Miletus speech is built around them. There is a simple structure of inclusion in the speech in respect of these themes: ABCBA. The first and most profound reason is that all Christian ministry is about the whole of who you are, not simply about what you do. The second and equally demanding reason is that this ministry to which you have been called is really very difficult. Unless you give due priority to watching over yourself, then the way you live your life will undercut your ministry and that ministry itself may not be sustainable.

Paul begins and ends his address on the theme of incarnational ministry: ministry is about character before competence or knowledge. His first words to the Ephesian presbyters are these:

“You know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me”.

In commending his ministry, Paul draws attention first not to the quality of his teaching nor to his superior knowledge nor to his oratorical skills but to his whole life. That is the depth of the challenge we face. The Greek means literally, “You know how I was among you”.

Paul is appealing to the great pattern of the incarnation in Christian ministry. The Son of God takes flesh and comes to live among us, showing us by his life and character and love what God is like. That is our challenge also.

There are echoes here of the Beatitudes as you will see and to the three qualities we are seeking to live out in the life of our Diocese as we seek to be more Christ-like for the sake of God’s world. Paul commends meekness: there is a clear link between humility and contemplation. Paul commends his tears, his compassion. Paul commends his endurance and vulnerability which is deeply connected to his courage.

At the end of the speech, Paul returns again to where he began, to the power of his example. “You know yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example”.

The Rule of Benedict picks up this theme in Chapter 2 on the Abbot of the monastery. The Rule says this: “Therefore when anyone receives the name of abbot he is to govern his disciples by a twofold teaching: namely all that is good and holy he must show forth more by deeds than by words; declaring to receptive disciples the commandment of the Lord in words but to the hard-hearted and the simple-minded demonstrating the divine precepts by the example of his deeds”.

If that is not enough, then the speech unpacks the second distinctive about the Christian approach to ministry and leadership in communities: our task is really hard. We forget that at our peril.

There are three mentions of tears in the passage: one each side of the call to watch over ourselves and one as Paul and his friends embrace on the beach at Miletus. They echo the strong theme of suffering in mission and ministry which runs through the Acts of the Apostles.

One of my richest experiences ever of reading and studying the Bible was a Masters module I helped develop in Durham on Mission and Ministry in Acts. The first time I taught the module, we gathered a group of 12 people from different continents and church backgrounds and read the whole text together as well as picking out different themes.

I became conscious that I approached the text as someone formed in the charismatic evangelical tradition through a dialogue with a Roman Catholic laywoman which had spent several years on South America. I read the text, I realised, in a major key: my eyes and my heart picked out all the good bits, all the miracles, all the references to growth and the progress of the gospel. This student had learned to read Acts in the minor key: her eye rested on the references to suffering, to sacrifice and martyrdom, to tears and difficulty.

Neither of us is right. Both have to be held together. But one of the central callings of ministry is to open our hearts to the suffering and pain of the world and hold that pain within the love of God and the promise of the kingdom.

If all of this sounds like an impossible mission then you are absolutely right, it is and you have come to the place from which Paul speaks and Gregory writes.

It took me a long time in ministry to realise this perspective. In 2004 I was Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham. I was invited to meet Rowan Williams who invited me to take on the role of Archbishops Missioner. My task was to take the ideas in a report called Mission Shaped Church, which had just been published and help them to become a normal part of the life of the Church of England. I could appoint my own team. I could set my own budget – though I then had to raise it. I was given five years for the task.

I pondered the invitation and the impossibility of the task. We were bound to fail. I set my mobile phone ringtone to the Mission Impossible theme. Then I discovered real joy in the task. I realised two things. We could not succeed without God’s grace. Every other job in ministry was actually impossible as well. I have tried since to accept this impossible calling with joy as well as sober judgement and look for God to be at work. And God is.

As you take this new step in ordained ministry keep your horizons of your ministry wide: don’t be drawn into a narrow view of your calling. Keep in view your call to be a deacon; your vocation to word and sacrament; your call to a leadership founded on watching over yourself. It will be privilege to serve with you in the coming years, and I look forward to getting to know you better as we serve together and learning from you. I hope you will return often to Acts 20.

This is the passage in the ordinal which follows the call to remember the greatness of the trust that is now to be committed to your Charge.

“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

+Steven Oxford
June 2019

Over four talks Bishop Steven explores God’s mission in Macedonia, in Greece and in the great city of Ephesus. In this final session, he sets out the sixth and seventh principles for deep water fishing. How might we become more like Christ on this journey, and how will we cope with the trials and tribulations that will surely come along the way?

If you would prefer to watch +Steven teach this session, scroll to the bottom of this page for the video. 

Session 4: Miletus

At the end of the central section of Acts, Luke sets the most remarkable and influential speech in the entire book. It stands as a retrospective. From Miletus, Paul sends for the elders, the presbyters, of the Ephesian Church.

This is the only speech in Acts addressed to Christian ministers. It is the place where the Paul of Acts sounds most like the Paul of the epistles. It is a retrospective not only on the mission to Ephesus but to the whole of Acts 13-19. Paul has distilled here the things which make a difference in his Christian mission and ministry: the things which really make a difference.

Acts 20 has shaped the Church’s understanding of ministry in every age and every generation. I have never found an ordinal which doesn’t reference it. The greatest texts on ministry in every age have been shaped especially by 20.28: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock”. That one verse sets the shape of Gregory the Great’s pastoral rule; of Richard Baxter’s book, The Reformed Pastor and of George Herbert’s manual, The Country Parson.

The early Church has not yet settled its language of ministry. In the Epistles we see the Church trying on of various sets of language and ideas: the concept of the church as a body; the diversity of gifts; the different ministries needed to build up the body of Christ.

Three terms begin to emerge which will carry what it means to minister in the Church of God in the later New Testament period and forward into Christian history. All three occur in or around this passage. Luke is very deliberate in his use of language. None of them is used in a technical sense. You might say that they represent ministry in three dimensions of all the people of God.

The first is diakonia (διακονίαν) in the sense of service and commission from which we take the concept of some people being ordained deacon (24).

The second is presbyteroi (πρεσβύτεροι): the elders who are invited to meet with Paul (17) from which the Church grows the idea of some being ordained priests to the ministry of word and sacrament;

The third are the episkopoi (ἐπίσκοποι), (28) from which the Church develops the idea of some being ordained as bishops to watch over the flock in the name of Christ. But it is the ministry of every believer which is being spoken of throughout this passage with some called to distinctive roles for the sake of the whole body.

So what is Paul’s first and most fundamental lesson in Christian mission and ministry? What is the first principle he passes on here for deep water fishing?

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews”.

These are the words I want to highlight and to contemplate: You yourselves know how I lived. The words literally mean: how I was among you. Paul does not refer back to his techniques for spreading the gospel or to his technical proposals for church growth in Asia. He doesn’t refer to his bold plan or strategy. He doesn’t refer either to his doctrine in first place.

Those things are not unimportant. But they are not in the first place.

In the first place is the way he lived, the way he was, his character and his identity in Christ. Paul especially commends his humility, his tears, his endurance of trials. It is not too much to read into this the words of Jesus in the beatitudes: humility – blessed are the meek; tears – blessed are those who mourn, trials – blessed are those who are persecuted.

It is not too much either to see here a lifting up of contemplation, compassion and courage in the life of God’s church and in the life of God’s ministers. You yourselves know how I lived. This is how the speech begins. There is a bracketing here: a rhetorical device known as inclusion. For right at the end of the speech, Paul returns to exactly the same theme: how I was among you.

“You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive”.

The pattern of Anglican ministry and mission is deeply incarnational: being like Jesus as a church and as minister. We live as an imperfect community of love in every place in this Diocese. We are scattered from Monday to Saturday to 50,000 different places like salt.

We come together week by week to be strengthened for this witness and to live consistently but imperfectly with the gospel we proclaim. Those communities are nurtured and sustained by those whom God has called as lay ministers of different kinds and by deacons, priests and bishops.

This has always been God’s strategy: to pour out the Holy Spirit on the disciples in every place, to help us together be a community of love, and to draw others by that love to the truth of the gospel.

This was the way in which the early Church grew in the first three centuries: because of love consistently displayed. This is the long way back for the Christian gospel in this land: by modelling patience, kindness and goodness to the communities we are called to serve.

This is the sixth principle of deep water fishing: mission and ministry is incarnational – primarily about being more like Christ, more loving.

6. Mission and ministry is primarily about being more like Christ: more loving

Paul’s speech affirms some of the other principles for deep water fishing we have explored. Paul affirms the lessons he has learned about the need for courage and perseverance both for himself and for the new communities these ministers will serve. He affirms over and over again the principle that social transformation is built on deep Christian formation:

“I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house”. That twofold division, publicly and in households is worth pondering. “Remember that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears”.

Paul affirms by his confidence the very first of our principles: the Holy Spirit directs and guides the mission of God, and one of the things the Spirit does is to remove the apostle Paul from the new churches so that others are encouraged to grow into the space Paul leaves behind. Our aim in mission and ministry is not to create dependence but interdependent communities of disciples, each called to use our gifts in Christian service.

Principles for Deep Water fishing

1. The Holy Spirit is guide and director
2. God works in unexpected ways and unexpected people
3. Different places respond in different ways to the gospel
4. We need to be courageous, to persevere and try, try, try again
5. Social transformation is founded on deep Christian formation
6. Mission and ministry is primarily about being more like Christ: more loving
7. Death and resurrection, joy and pain are woven finely together in God’s mission.

Principles for Deep Water fishing is one of four Christ-like Church Bible studies written by Bishop Steven. Browse the collection and order your copy here.

7. Death and resurrection, joy and pain are woven finely together in God’s mission.

But it is the final principle which comes over to me most clearly as I listen to this text on the one hand and am privileged to listen to stories of ministry across our diocese on the other. What do I hear in both places?…

It’s hard. It’s very hard. It’s almost impossible. It is much more difficult than you might think to make progress in the Kingdom.

Paul has learned that in every place there will be pain and difficulty and setbacks of all kind. They have been different in the different places we have visited in Macedonia, in Greece and in Ephesus. But the common feature is that the difficulties are always present.

One of the things we need most in our theology and understanding of ministry and mission is a theology of suffering and difficulty, of death and resurrection. This is not an easy way.

Paul is about to begin a long journey of arrest and trials which will culminate in house arrest in Rome and later to his own martyrdom. Luke chooses not to end Acts with the high point of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus but with Paul under house arrest in Rome.

I was formed in the charismatic evangelical tradition. I still love the songs of Graham Kendrick, which tells you as much about my taste as my abiding affection for Meatloaf. I was brought up to read Acts in the major key: to emphasise the joy and the glory and the triumph of the gospel.

I think my richest experience of teaching scripture ever was when I was Warden of Cranmer Hall. I developed a new Masters Module on Mission and Ministry in the Acts of the Apostles. There were 12 students in the class, and they were from different church backgrounds and different parts of the world. I learned so much from their perspective and particularly from a Roman Catholic lay student. The theme she developed in every chapter of Acts was the place of suffering in the Christian life and in Christian ministry. I had never seen it before. I have not been able to unsee it since.

This ministry and mission we are called to is the interweaving of joy and pain, of death and resurrection, of the major and the minor key. It is a warning against triumphalism or the expectation that this will be easy. Moving forward will be hard in all kinds of ways.

But it is the way we are called to go. It is the way of Christ.

Our discipleship and ministry is likely to be very hard as well as, God willing, very fruitful. That is what it means to put down into deep water and let down the nets.

That is why we need to support and hold one another. That is why we need a community which is larger than a single local church. That is why we need a culture of gentleness and love and respect and encouragement as we launch hundreds if not thousands of new mission projects.

Some will fail. All will be difficult. But many will be extraordinarily fruitful, by the grace of God, and the fruit will last for generations. We are called come out of the stands for the spectators and into the arena.

American President Theodore Roosevelt made a speech in 1910 on citizenship in a republic. I would like to end this study with a quotation from that speech, made famous by the American researcher and storyteller Brene Brown who writes on vulnerability and courage.

The quotation describes exactly I think the movement Paul is seeking in Acts 20 and the movement we are seeking across this Diocese:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Contemplative, compassionate, courageous for the sake of God’s World

We have a vision as a diocese to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world. We go from here to make that vision a reality.


Common Vision Conference
High Leigh, 10 May 2019

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.

Over four talks Bishop Steven is exploring God’s mission in Macedonia, in Greece and in the great city of Ephesus. In session three he invites us to imagine the effects of early Christianity in Ephesus… ‘it’s as if Bicester Village and the Westgate Centre in Oxford decided it was not worth opening on Sundays any more and signed petitions against the church and the effects on local business.’

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 3: Ephesus

One of the most moving and powerful scenes in the Acts of the Apostles is the picture of Paul walking alone into Ephesus: a major city of the Empire, larger than anywhere he has yet proclaimed the gospel. Ephesus is the stronghold of the cult of Artemis. It is a cultural crossroads between East and West and the gateway to Asia Minor and the Eastern Empire. Paul arrives alone. He is putting out now into very deep water indeed.

The mission to Ephesus is sometimes called the third missionary journey. In fact, it’s a two-year ministry in a single city which has an effect on the whole region. The story of mission to Ephesus is told over two chapters and draws to a close the middle section of Acts which began in Antioch in Acts 13 with the sending out of Paul and Barnabas.

This is the high point of Paul’s ministry. The third section of Acts, 21-28, is sometimes called the Passion of St Paul. Acts 21-28 describes Paul’s arrest and various trials and imprisonments on his way to Rome in chains.

The lessons of deep water fishing are here again, of course. The Holy Spirit is guide and director. Again at the beginning of a new ministry, Luke makes deliberate reference to the Holy Spirit. There is a sense that God is already at work. Paul finds 12 disciples who believe in Jesus. These Christians have not been taught the whole of the faith. Their catechesis is incomplete.

There is a question and answer session perhaps based around an early catechism:

Do you believe and trust in God the Father who made the world?
Yes, Paul, we believe and trust in him.

Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ who redeemed the world and rose again?
Yes, Paul. Apollos told us about Jesus and we have been baptised.

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?
No. We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.

In Macedonia, Luke emphasises the ways in which God is already at work in the lives of individuals and the many different ways people come to faith. In Greece, Luke stresses the different responses to the gospel in different places and the need to persevere through difficulties.

In Ephesus, the stress is on the cornerstone of ministry. Paul grounds his ministry on good catechesis. His first priority is to lay a sure and full foundation of Christian faith in the lives of the new believers. They are taught and baptised and into the name of the Lord Jesus. Paul lays his hands on them. There is a new Pentecost: they speak in tongues and prophesy. Luke says rather coyly, “There were about 12 of them”. He is making a theological point.

There is then courage and perseverance in the face of difficulty. When one opportunity ends, another begins. Obstacles become opportunities.

“He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord”.

This is careful, intentional, daily formation of enquirers in a safe and neutral space which extends over a long period of time. This is catechesis. This is one of the essential building blocks of making disciples and of forming new congregations. This is the ministry about which we have so much to learn. This is part of what it means to put out into deep water. There is nothing shallow or superficial about the faith Paul is teaching, and the Ephesians are learning.

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Janet writes: “I have spent my last day at Corinth and Cenchreae as we said farewell to Paul as he journeys to Ephesus. So we read Acts 18. One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision. ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.’ In our world were sometimes we are afraid, let us place our fears with God, let us open our hearts so that our Lord will strengthen them, let us be like Paul and speak of God’s love to all people in all places in our words and actions and use every opportunity courageously to bear witness.” – 20 May 2019

All the lessons Paul has learned are focussed here. The ministry is extraordinarily effective. All the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord. There are extraordinary miracles, signs and wonders as there have been in times of great revival. There are unorthodox methods not repeated in any other place: the blessing of handkerchiefs and aprons; healings and exorcisms. There are signs of spiritual battle and spiritual victory.

Most significantly, there are massive changes in the lifestyle and economy of the city. The hold of the practice of magic and the occult on the city is broken.

“A number of those who practised magic collected their books and burned them publicly, and when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins”.

If a silver coin is a year’s wages, we are talking millions of pounds in today’s values.

The economy of the region is changed so significantly that the livelihood of the silversmiths is threatened. The silversmiths make shrines of Artemis for the pilgrims who come to Ephesus. Demetrius, their leader, stirs up the city to rioting. It is a measure of Paul’s courage that he wants to address the assembly. Where we might have seen a dangerous mob, Paul sees only a potential congregation. Only with great difficulty is the riot stilled and calm returns.

It takes some doing to imagine the effects of early Christianity in Ephesus. It is as if the gospel was preached to such effect that every betting shop and bingo hall in Milton Keynes closed down for lack of business. It is as if Bicester Village and the Westgate Centre in Oxford decided it was not worth opening on Sundays any more and signed petitions against the church and the effects on local business. This is an enormous change. It provokes very significant opposition.

We will look a little more in session four at what happens in Ephesus as we read Acts 20. But what are the lessons for deep water fishing we might take from today?

Each of our first four lessons are here.

  1. The Holy Spirit is guide and director of God’s mission
  2. God works in unexpected ways and unexpected people
    No-one would build a strategy on handkerchiefs and aprons. We have to respond to events not simply roll out a predetermined strategy.
  3. Different places respond in different ways to the gospel
    Ephesus is clearly more fruitful than elsewhere for a range of reasons.
  4. We need to be courageous, to persevere, to try, try and try again.
    This is exactly what Paul is doing through every twist and turn.

There is I think a fifth lesson in Ephesus when we combine what is said in Acts 19 with the retrospective in Acts 20. In Acts 19, we read of the daily teaching in the Hall of Tyrannus. In Acts 20, Paul looks back at the ways in which his ministry in Ephesus is founded on this deep sustained ministry of Christian formation through teaching and encounter with Christ: on catechesis.

Paul will look back on his ministry with these words:

“I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus” (20.20-21). Later in the same speech, Paul will say: “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God”.

So my fifth lesson for deep water fishing is this:

Social transformation is founded on deep Christian formation.

In Ephesus, the whole economy of the region begins to be transformed. But the heart of that renewal is deep Christian formation: teaching and encounter with God.

We are at a really significant point in the life of our own nation. The tide of knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith has been going out for some time. People know less and less about Christian faith. They have fewer and fewer resources to cope with change and the demands of life and suffering and grief. The fragmentation in our society is clear.

There are many things we want to see changed, and it is very good to work in partnership where we can with other faiths and people of good will on the great issues of our day.

But deep change and transformation in society comes as children and young people, women and men encounter the living Christ in the power of the Spirit. This has happened in the life of our country many times in the past: in the time of Cuthbert and Augustine of Canterbury; at the Reformation; in the time of Richard Baxter of Kidderminster; in the time of the Wesleys.

We need again in the 21st century a deep investment in the whole of the Church of England such that every parish church becomes again what it is designed to be: a place of Christian formation and catechesis; a place for learning and teaching the faith and encountering Christ again. Social transformation is founded on deep Christian formation.

As children and young people and women and men encounter Christ and our lives are reshaped and re-ordered, and we are equipped in our discipleship then we live out our faith in every area of our lives. We gather as a church for worship, which renews and deepens our faith and understanding week by week and month by month. As we do that, then the world begins to be changed and transformed. Social transformation is founded on deep Christian foundation.

The centre of our renewal in mission and ministry, for me, is this renewal of every church and every new congregation as a place of Christian formation. This vision flows from our journey to be a more Christ-like Church: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. Our greatest gift to the world is the gift of a new generation of mature Christian disciples.

The renewal of catechesis may not feature in any single funding bid to our new mission fund. It may be as simple as following an annual cycle of sowing the seed of the gospel, nurturing faith, bringing people to baptism and confirmation, ongoing growth through personal discipleship plans and firepits. But this is the way the local church goes on to transform the world. This is what it means to put out into deep water wherever we are and to have confidence in the message we are called to bear.

This is the key transformation our whole Church of England needs: to have such confidence in the gospel that every parish church becomes again a place of deep Christian formation where the whole faith is taught which will lead again to deep social transformation across our nation.

That will happen first through a renewed confidence in God and in the Christian gospel which does not depend on numbers or visible results: which receives with thanksgiving the fruit we can see and trusts in God for the fruit we cannot.

It will happen second through the cherishing of individuals and families and doing all we can to teach the faith to small numbers of people in thousands of different places. It will happen third through sufficient depth in our formation to embrace pain and difficulty and suffering as well as the good and joyous elements in our lives.

May God give us grace to put out into deep water and let down our nets for the renewal of these ministries.

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, session 3, 9 May 2019


Go to session 4


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.

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.

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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.

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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…

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