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I’m beginning my fourth year as Bishop of Oxford by walking and praying across Berkshire. Please do join me if you can, in spirit or in person. The pilgrimage sets off on Sunday 1st September in Old Windsor in and ends on Sunday 8th September in Thatcham.

I’m spending a day in each deanery praying in each of the 38 churches I visit with those who can gather and mostly walking between them (with a bit of travel by boat and by bike). I will be praying in every church we visit for the renewal of our life and ministry and especially for the renewal of the ministry of teaching the faith to new Christians. I will be praying for the renewal of the life of our nation in these turbulent times. I will be listening to God as I walk and to ordinary (but extraordinary) church life across the six deaneries of Berkshire. I will be praying as we prepare to welcome Olivia as Bishop of Reading in November.

This time last year, I made a similar pilgrimage across the city of Oxford and it was immensely helpful to me in getting to know the place and its people. The most memorable part of the week was the sense of welcome and hope.

Full details of the trip and a chance to say if you’ll be joining me for part of the walk are online here, and the schedule of deaneries is below:

Sunday 1 September – Maidenhead & Windsor

Monday 2 September – Bracknell

Tuesday 3 September – Sonning

Wednesday 4 September – Reading

6 & 7 September – rest days

Sunday 8 September – Newbury

An invitation to dwell in the Word

Paul writes in Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3.16). One of the habits we are learning to share across the Diocese is dwelling in the word together: reflecting in all of our leadership gatherings and in many parishes and deaneries on the same biblical passages across a whole year. As we do this, we learn to listen to God and to one another for the kind of Church we are called to be: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous.

Two years ago, we took the beatitudes as our passage: Matthew 5.1-12. For the last year, we have been dwelling in two passages from Colossians: 1.15-20 and 3.12-17.

Our passage for this year will be Acts 20.17-38: Paul’s speech to the presbyters at Miletus. It is one of the key passages in Acts as Paul roots his ministry in the call to be like Christ and gives to the whole church timeless principles for Christian mission.

I’ve spoken twice on the passage recently: once as part of the series on Principles of Deep Water Fishing at our recent common vision conference and once as the basis of my charge to those being ordained deacon and priest. Principles of Deep Water Fishing is the fourth in our series of study guides and is available to order for delivery in early September.

The passage and the simple instructions for Dwelling in the Word are available to download and copy. Please do pick up this lifegiving practice in your churches if you haven’t already.

Common Vision

We continue this year our call to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world. That will mean different things in different parishes, chaplaincies and schools. This term we have launched the Development Fund, and we are launching our new Parish Planning Tool on 14 September. We’ll be introducing the Fund and the Parish Planning Tool at each of the four Area Days, full details here.

And finally…

A key part of the ordinary common life of our churches is to pray for Her Majesty the Queen, for our government and parliament. That call is honoured in many places, neglected in some.

May I ask that during the coming months, we all remember to pray daily and whenever the Church gathers for the life of our nation: for wise decisions and good government; for care for the poor and for the earth; for all those entrusted with the burdens of leadership; for fresh vision and the return of kindness to our politics. This regular intercession is a key part of our discipleship.

May God bless you and your family, your parish, chaplaincy, school and deanery in the coming months.

+Steven Oxford
August 2019

 

 

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

Here is a vital part of the Christian story, unknown now outside the Church and often neglected within it. The world preserves a memory of Jesus birth. The world preserves a memory of Jesus as a healer and teacher. The world remembers, when it tries, that Christ was crucified and on the third day rose again. The Church remembers that for forty days Jesus appeared to the disciples, teaching them many things and ascended to the Father.

But the world has forgotten this part of the story. It is fifty days after Easter, the Feast of Pentecost. People from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem, a bit like Windsor yesterday. Around 120 disciples are gathered together in an upper room. It is early in the morning.

There is a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind filling the entire house where they are gathered. Fire falls from heaven. A tongue of flame rests on each of them. The four ancient elements are all combined. These men and women made of earth have been baptised in water and their hearts made new. Now they are filled with wind and fire, symbols of creations power.

Straight away they begin to speak in other languages. The miracles which Jesus did are deepened and multiplied as Jesus said they would be. The Spirit gives wisdom and boldness. The Spirit pushes a timid church out into the streets to tell the gospel of salvation to all the earth. The Spirit breathes life into dry bones and the Church of Jesus Christ, his body, is born.

This is not the first appearance of the Spirit in the great drama of salvation. Not by any means. The Spirit of God is active on the first page of creation, breathing over the chaos which is before creation, brooding over the face of the waters. The Spirit of God has inspired Moses and the prophets. The Spirit of God has been given to artists and scholars, judges and kings. But there is a difference to the Spirit’s action now.

Before Jesus, through the long wait for the Messiah, the Spirit is given only to a handful of people at most in every generation. Sometimes whole generations go by and the Spirit is not given. The Spirit is given only to the Jewish people; only to those anointed by God; only in extraordinary moments.

One of those anointed by the Spirit, Joel, tells of a time when the Spirit of God will be poured out on everyone.

“In the last days it will be that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams”.

The Spirit of God is given to Jesus at his baptism and descends upon the Son of God in bodily form like a dove, that most gentle of birds, the sign of peace. God says through the gift of the Spirit: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.11). Remember those words. We will come back to them.

And now the Spirit descends on the Day of Pentecost, in the Upper Room and fills the Church.

Everyone:

Women and men.

Children and old people.

Members and leaders.

Peter preaches the sermon of his life.

Read on in the story. The Spirit descends and fills not just these 120 but all those who come forward and are baptised that day – all 3,000 of them. Every one of them is filled with God’s creative life and energy. Read further and you will find there is a chain reaction. Wherever the good news of Jesus is preached, the Holy Spirit comes and fills the life of the disciples. Whenever the Church gathers to pray, the Holy Spirit comes to renew and refresh and fill the Church with boldness.

The Church learns and relearns that the Spirit is not an impersonal power. The Spirit is God and God is Spirit, personal, creating, loving, warming, empowering: the fire that does not consume us, the wind which comforts and disturbs us, the life force of the universe, the third person of the Trinity, making God’s home within us.

Why does God give his Spirit to his people? There is no single answer. There are many good, rich, deep answers and we could spend all week exploring them. I hope you will.

Acts tells us that the Spirit is given to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things: to perform signs and wonders; to preach the good news clearly and with boldness; to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel and form churches. There are many examples of the Holy Spirit still enabling ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things today. We need the Spirit’s grace in this for we have a whole world to change. We cannot serve God’s mission without God’s Spirit and God’s strength.

John tells us that the Spirit is given to lead the Church into truth: to guide God’s people as we wrestle with the problems of the age and finding God’s way through them. Acts gives us the same message as the early church faces problem after problem and prays and finds a way through.

Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to transform us from within: to take the desert of our inner lives and water it and grow good things within us, flowing out into the world. Paul names the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Holy Spirit of Jesus makes us more like Jesus Christ. John and Acts say the same thing in different words.

But it is Mark in the very first chapter of the first of the gospels to be written down who gives us the most important reason. It is Mark who tells us the clearest and most important reason why God gives the Holy Spirit to the Church to every disciple and in every generation if we will welcome him.

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts to speak that same word to us, because in Christ we have become God’s children. God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us to help us to understand at the deepest level of our being that we are loved by God, that we are his children, that God is well pleased with us.

When God speaks his creative word in the story of creation, it is a word of great power. Seas part. Dry land appears. The glory of creation comes into being. This word of love has the same power within our dry and dusty hearts.

We do not always hear and receive words of love when they are spoken to us. Parts of us become twisted and damaged by what life does to us and by what we do to ourselves. God comes in to the very core of us, to the very depths of our being. God comes not for a moment but to live there for ever. God comes to speak this word of love not once but every day, continually, this word “Beloved”. “You are my child”. “In you I am well pleased”.

The whole world is asking the question “Who am I?”. The Spirit knows what it means to be human. The Spirit knows that we find out who we are only by understanding we are loved. We find our purpose only in knowing we are loved and that our calling is to love.

So come this Day of Pentecost in prayer and find life and renewal. Welcome the Spirit’s presence afresh into your life and the life of this part of God’s Church. Invite God to do a deep work of renewal in you.

Come seeking grace and strength and power for the great ministry and work of love to which God has called you.

Come seeking guidance into all truth from God’s Spirit where you are perplexed and struggling.

Come seeking God’s renewing grace as you walk in holiness and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.

But come most of all to hear again the life giving word which is the Spirit’s presence in your life and know that you are loved beyond measure, without limit, for ever, by your creator:

“You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

 

 

+Steven Oxford
Reading Minster
20 May 2018