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A compass is held up in front of mountains

“O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.”
(Psalm 100)

The words of Psalm 100 are familiar to all of us and set for Morning Prayer in Epiphany. I guess I’m not the only person who has found them more difficult to say than usual this year. They are words which are challenging and stretching me as I journey through this season – and I’m thankful for them. The call to joy is not always easy, for many different reasons.

Many thousands of families across the diocese have been affected by Covid in the last two years and particularly the last six weeks, my own among them. I had a positive test on 11 December. The following weekend my condition worsened. The NHS sent an ambulance and paramedics on the Saturday, and I spent the Sunday in hospital for observations and tests and then the following week being looked after by the home care team.

All in all it’s been a difficult experience but nowhere near as hard as many have found this journey. I’ve been taking things steadily since. So far there’s been a steady, uneven improvement in strength. I still have some way to go.

Where to start

So the call to joy has been more demanding than usual and is a daily challenge. My starting point is giving thanks for the good things: first and foremost for the care and skill of the NHS staff and my local surgery, for vaccines and boosters (mine was delayed but received this week), for the kindness of friends and colleagues and strangers.

Next, thankfulness for my family: for the miracle of being together with our children and grandchildren on Christmas day, for the fun of building Lego with my grandsons, for the immense joy in the wedding of our eldest son last Saturday.

The example and wisdom of others has become a second stepping-stone. Along with the whole world, I mourn the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu for many reasons: not least his concern for justice. Tutu seemed to radiate joy in the midst of conflict and struggle, a divine joy which was so clearly a source of his own strength and overflowed to give strength and a vital sense of proportion to others. None of us is the centre of the universe.

I’ve discovered a new podcast: Desperately Seeking Wisdom by Craig Oliver – a series of conversations with those who have learned hard lessons. Oliver quotes Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, and Frankl’s resolution in the midst of the concentration camp, in the most difficult circumstances, to choose life and joy each day:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This is the summons for joy I’ve begun to hear in the words of the Jubilate: as we say the words we say them to ourselves, we encourage one another but most of all we speak to the world.

Our calling as a Church remains to call the world to joy and love and hope and peace even in the midst of sorrow, sickness and suffering. We are all of us tired now; some of us more weary and stretched than we have ever felt in our lives. For some of us our faith, the centre of our vocation, is attenuated and thin: many of the things which sustain us have been stripped away. The outward demands continue, and it’s harder to find the inner resources to rebuild and grow stronger.

We will all navigate this journey in different ways. For me, in this part of the journey, reflecting on this summons to joy is life-giving and sets my compass for the year. For any Christian, this search for joy in the midst of suffering leads to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s passion and resurrection, to the new wine of the kingdom. In this season of Epiphany we celebrate Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee: the changing of water into wine. Never have we needed its message more.

Navigating well

All of us will need to find fresh sources of life in the Spirit in this season. As the demands continue, it is also helpful to hold onto strong disciplines of self-care, of gentleness and love in dealing with others and with ourselves, of wise pacing, of conserving energy for the unexpected, of leaning more readily on others. I can’t say often enough how different and distinctive the experience of every individual parish seems to be and therefore how different the experience of clergy is.

As a diocese we are concerned to support parishes, schools and chaplaincies as well as we can through this transition. We haven’t (and won’t) get everything right. That support is built on careful listening. The area teams are seeking to listen continually to what is happening. I greatly appreciated four deanery days in November and December. We’ve had to postpone two (so far) because of my illness but I hope to pick up the series in February.

We hope to gather, if we may, in person for the renewal of ordination vows on Maundy Thursday in Christ Church, and details will be circulated in the coming weeks

We are also looking forward to gathering for our clergy conference from 7-9 June, which will be structured as a conversation together around what we have experienced and how, together, we rebuild from here. (ed: the online booking form has been emailed to clergy)

As a diocese we will continue to offer pointers and resources to take forward our agreed priorities, which have become even more important during the pandemic. Not everything will be possible in every place. Please see these resources as help and support offered and make your own decisions about when is the right time to engage, otherwise what is offered as a support can quickly become a burden.

Come and See

One of these resources is Come and See, offered again in Lent this year as a part of this great call to joy. The aim is to help and support those who may be enquiring about faith, returning to faith after many years or moving to a new place in their faith after the disorientation of the pandemic.

Our theme this year is the Lord’s Prayer: the words Jesus gives us to help us find our place in the universe each day and to choose this path of joy. If you’ve not done so already, you can sign up to offer Come and See in your church. Leader’s packs will be sent out by email early next week.

Christ Church

The whole diocese will be aware of the need to pray regularly for Christ Church, our Cathedral, in this season and all those affected by the difficulties there. If you have questions or concerns about material you have seen, please do speak with one of the area bishops or archdeacons: not every perspective is accurately represented in the press.

And finally….

At the centre of our Christian faith is the call to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. In this love is our fulfilment and our joy as human persons in community, to be caught up into the very life of God. And so I end where I began;

“O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.”

In Christ our Lord,

 

The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft,
Bishop of Oxford

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets a child in the midst of his disciples and invites them to reshape their priorities. What would happen if we did that today in the public square?

It was good to be at St. Michael at the Northgate on Sunday for the Patronal Festival and to mark 50 years since St. Michael’s became the civic Church of the City of Oxford. The service was attended by the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor of Oxford and members of the Council. The Bible Readings for Michaelmas were Revelation 12.7-12 and Matthew 18.1-11.

A sermon given by the Bishop of Oxford on Sunday 26 September 2021:

It’s very good to mark today the 50 years in which St. Michael at the Northgate has been the civic Church of the city of Oxford. It is good to express thanks and appreciation to those who have served as City Rectors in that time, including Anthony, and to all those who have served and serve as Mayors, Councillors and officers. Thank you for your leadership and care and especially in the challenges of the last twenty months.

St Michael’s became the City Church in 1971. We are looking back today over fifty years. By coincidence the new ITV series of Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, is also set in 1971: a good reminder of some of the changes over the last two generations. The line that stays with me from last Sunday’s episode is the taxi driver charging 75 new pence for a ride from the station to Summertown.

There have been many changes over that time. Our first reading from Revelation uses the language of war in heaven and describes the conflict between good and evil as a battle.

As we look back we can see that battles have indeed been fought and won. Our city is more inclusive. Town and gown are better integrated, each more appreciative of the other.

Oxford is described by its poorest residents as a compassionate city; a place of safety for the most vulnerable. Women are better represented in our leadership. The church and faith communities work well together. The city has been able to welcome and to integrate into its life migrants from all over the world and to celebrate diverse cultures.

Year by year we welcome students, academics and scientists and help equip them for global leadership in the arts, the sciences and the social sciences. The influence of our city extends across the world.

St. Michael and all Angels is part of this social fabric in its role as a city church: as a place of prayer and worship; in the role of the City Rector as chaplain to the Mayor and Council; as a symbol of our City’s deep Christian heritage; as a witness to the Christian values of integrity, service, humility and safeguarding the vulnerable which flow through our gospel reading.

The Church, of course, makes no claim to perfection: we are often slow to change ourselves; we continually fall far short of our ideals; we are sometimes on the wrong side in these great battles. We are called continually to repentance and to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ ourselves as the only safe foundation of our message to those around us.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven does not lie, Jesus reminds us, with politicians or religious leaders but with little children. Both politicians and religious leaders will be judged by the ways in which the interests of those children have first place in our decision making and in our actions.

Anniversaries are a good moment to look back and measure the journey we have travelled together. But they are also a moment to look forward. What are our hopes for this city as we look ahead now to another fifty years: to the year 2071. What battles lie ahead in the great war being fought in heaven and on earth? What will the Church dare say to the City in this next, uncertain chapter of our life together?

To put the question a different way: if Jesus were to place a child in our midst this morning here in Oxford in 2021, what battles would be uppermost in our minds as we look to safeguard the well-being of that child through the next generation? What needs to change?

Three are uppermost in my mind. I will be interested to know if they match your own.

The first is undoubtedly the battle being fought over the earth’s climate. The world faces twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss. Science tells us clearly that the next ten years will be decisive in that battle and will determine the future of life on earth. Will the child Jesus sets in our midst inherit a world in which all can flourish?

For Christians, we are stewards of God’s good creation. How can our city make a significant, world changing contribution to this great challenge of our age through our policies and example and convening power and the priorities we set? How can this City Church lift up and support the green agenda as part of our God given mission to the city?

The second challenge faced by the child Jesus sets in our midst is one of health and safety and especially mental, emotional and spiritual health. A child or young person growing up today will face immense pressures, many arising from the misuse and exploitation of technology.

COVID has revealed a tidal wave of mental health pressures on the young which has been building for decades. How can our city increase resources directed to the mental, emotional and spiritual health of the young through harnessing the churches and faith communities, the third sector and the health and social services? There is a battle here for investment and of priorities. How can this City Church be an advocate for children and young people as we imagine the child Jesus sets in our midst?

My third challenge for the next generation is the challenge of rising inequality: the gap between rich and poor which again has been revealed and has increased through COVID. Oxford as a city is a tremendous generator of wealth and innovation. The City anchors and will help drive the Oxford-Cambridge arc which will be an engine of the UK economy in the coming decades.

But we are also in danger of becoming a segmented city in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider to the detriment of all. How is it possible for us to become a fairer city in terms of access, health, transport, work and housing? Is it time for a fairness commission which can look at the future of our city through the lens of inequality? How can this City Church continue to set out a vision for justice and fairness for all as a core part of its role as the civic church of Oxford?

There was a war in heaven, says Revelation. As we look back over fifty years we give thanks for battles fought and won and for the role this Church has played in the civic life of this great city. We give thanks for all those who contribute to that civic life today.

But as we look forward we know that there are battles still to come and great resources to meet them both seen and unseen. Christ sets in our midst a little child and challenges our priorities for the future. Together as a city we are called to have a vision for a greener, more sustainable world; for a healthier world; for a fairer world.

We commit ourselves, imperfect as we are, to these great challenges. In this Church dedicated to St. Michael, we too, every single one of us, are called to fight on the side of the angels.

We bear witness to the truth that Christmas has not been cancelled – to the profound truth that God became a human person for our sake.

Archdeacon Jonathan gave the following sermon during the Church at Home online service on Sunday 10 May.

75 years ago this weekend the western world was celebrating Victory in Europe. This was news that signified relief, release and recovery: relief at no more casualty notifications from the front-line; a release of exuberant emotion at the cessation of hostilities, and the hope of freedoms recovered. Bonfires, dancing and parties erupted spontaneously across the country. The war was won; we could dream again! Yet just below the exhilaration lay something more bitter-sweet, with many exhausted by the strain of six long years of war memories of loved ones lost in the conflict and rejoicing put on hold for those still caught up with the war in the Far-East. Celebration quickly turned to reflection, for we knew deep down that life was changed – so many questions: how would society be rebuilt and what would it look like for me and my family?

Such a jumble of emotions and questions are common in times of heightened awareness, at pivotal moments in our lives. I’ve observed this myself working alongside servicemen and women on operational duties, and in their loved ones back at home, when what is secure and familiar is no longer certain. You may sense this yourselves in the complex new world created by Covid-19. Jesus’ disciples are no different to us in this respect. In our Gospel story, the level of tension is high. The disciples are trying to get their heads and hearts around all that Jesus is saying and doing. Talk of Jesus being killed yet glorified, of betrayals and denials, and then experiencing this great servant leader stooping to wash their feet and calling them to love others as he has loved them. It all seems a bit overwhelming – to put it mildly.

So what a beautiful gift it is to know that Jesus understands us – completely – and is able to calm our hearts and inspire our minds: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house…I go and prepare a place for you.” Perhaps some of us are like the disciples, needing to hear that comfort and reassurance of Jesus in our own circumstances? Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, one with the Father, is uniquely able to bridge Heaven and Earth, Eternity and the Present Day: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, he says, “No-one comes to the Father except through me.” So, whatever our uncertainties about the way ahead, whatever the lies that we may have received or perhaps given, whatever the destructive patterns within or around us, Jesus offers a radical and lasting alternative in himself!

And with that relationship come two gifts come from this relationship: firstly, the promise of eternity that cannot be shaken by any unforeseen circumstances – this brings a whole new dimension to ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – and secondly, an invitation to work with Jesus in uniting heaven with earth today. “Anyone who has faith in me,” he says, “will do what I have been doing…so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”

It follows that we believe both in life after death – but also in life before death, as the strapline of Christian Aid puts it. Christian Aid was born into the social and economic vacuum that followed the Second World War, with western finances in disarray and a wave of refugees sweeping across Europe. In response to Jesus’ great commands, both to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, over 75 years its work has expanded to bring humanitarian relief and development across the globe. It has educated succeeding generations on the causes of poverty and advocated for countless victims of injustice, those without a voice. So the need to support this ministry has arguably never been greater, for those poorest are always most vulnerable to dwindling financial resources and changing climate.

It takes courage, of course, to represent Jesus in speaking and acting for truth. In our first reading it led to martyrdom for Stephen, as he encountered fiercely defended interests, even religious ones. But in standing up for those on the margins we fulfil the call of Jesus, a Kingdom call, living with the promise of life after death and sharing his invitation to life before death. It is humbling to see this lived out across the Diocese of Oxford, as online Alpha courses and school assemblies, for instance, go hand in hand with compassionate Christian service in neighbourhood food banks and key working environments.

75 years from the Second World War we again live in pretty strange times. Contemplating the gradual lifting of lockdown, whole societies, even the Church, are facing uncertainties about the future, concerning health and housing, employment and family life, patterns of church life. As disciples of Jesus, sharing his saving love and establishing his Kingdom on earth, let us take heart that he remains ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’.

 

The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey CB
10 May 2020

You can watch the full service here and donate to Christian Aid Week online here.

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Podcast

Over the course of the pandemic, many people have been asking questions about faith. In fact, one in five people in our online congregation were not regular worshippers before COVID.

So now we want to invite everyone who is searching for truth and meaning to go deeper. As a Church, and across the Diocese, we are sending out a big, warm, open invitation to everyone, whether or not you know anything about the Christian faith: Come and See.

So we come to the final chapter, Isaiah 55. This chapter is about comings and goings, and they set a profound rhythm for the life of God’s people which flows through the worship of the Church.

The first verses of Isaiah 55 offer the most gracious and powerful invitation for thirsty, weary souls: Come. But our prophet turns this into a fuller and deeper invitation still.

Music in this episode is taken from this recording available on YouTube. Photo: Steven Buckley

Three times now, the unknown prophet has sung to us of the servant of God. The fourth song is a reflection on the suffering of the nation and the way God will raise up his people again, no matter how difficult the circumstances or how far we have fallen.

How are we to hear these words afresh today as we walk through the pandemic, as we re-assess our lives and the life of the church and the life of the nation?

Music at the start of this episode is taken from this recording available on YouTube. ‘Take Me To The Alley’ by Gregory Porter is also available to listen to in full on YouTube. Photo: Shutterstock