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A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod, September 2020

It’s very good to regather virtually after the summer and to begin what I guess will be a season of regathering in a thousand different places as we begin to rebuild together after the lockdown. There will be great joy in this but also great challenge.

We will be rebuilding and regathering as local church communities and schools and chaplaincies and all their associated ministries and this will take time. We will be playing our part in sustaining villages and towns and cities across our Diocese as disciples as well as hospitals and universities and businesses and civic life. Thank you for all you continue to give in so many ways to this process. I’m deeply appreciative of the many signs of grace I have seen in so many different ways over the last six months. I thank God for you.

We are all aware that we begin this work of rebuilding in a season when we are still learning to live with COVID 19. In the coming months we will be dealing with the aftermath of the first wave of the pandemic: bereavement and ongoing sickness for many; emotional and mental illness for others; the economic effects of lockdown; difficulties in families; the effects on the education and well being of children and young people; and the disproportionate effects on some parts of our communities.

But we begin to regather also knowing that the storm is not yet over. There could well be still further serious disruption to the pattern of our lives, the risks of infection continue, especially for those who have been shielding, normal life cannot be restored in so many ways – and we do not yet know or see clearly whether this phase of living with the virus will last for six months or a year or even longer.

How then should we minister and serve our communities and God’s world in this next season, in a world in continuing crisis? How can we play our part as disciples and as citizens and play that part together as part of the Church of Jesus Christ?

We all have wisdom to bring to this process and we will need insight from one other. But my starting point for responding to that question is to draw inspiration and our pattern from the humility and gentleness of Christ. I think these are the qualities we will need as disciples and as the Church in this season.

I am drawn especially to two biblical passages on these themes. The first is the tender description of the servant of God in Isaiah 42. The servant is called to minister to God’s people in a time of great crisis yet also great hope for the future. Isaiah 42 describes the kind of leadership which is needed in such a time of jeopardy and danger.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”. (42.1-2)

But how will the servant do this?

“He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42.3)

This is the kind of leadership which draws alongside people, which gathers the fragments, which liberates the gifts of others, which does not overwhelm, which listens and waits patiently to see what is emerging. This is the leadership we will need to exercise in the coming months as Christian disciples and as the church: the leadership of gentleness and tenderness and patience.

The second passage is the one I hope we will read together as we dwell in the Word in this coming year from Philippians 1 and 2. Paul describes the heart of the way in which Almighty God ministers in coming to a world in chaos and crisis and hurt.

“…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.6-8)

The humility of Christ will be needed as we seek to rebuild together: the humility which is not only at the heart of the character of Christ but the humility which is at the heart of the pattern of the incarnation, of the substance of Almighty God taking flesh in Christ, of Christ by his Spirit creating the Church as his own Body, to continue his life-giving work in the world, a gentle, tender community of grace.

Humility will be key as we offer to support local communities and build up our neighbourhoods; as we draw alongside those in debt or financial difficulty; as we seek to support families in stress; as we reach out to the isolated and bereaved; as we share the purpose and the hope that we have found in Jesus Christ.

We do not offer what we offer of ourselves: we offer what is ours because of God’s grace to us. We do not offer what we offer from a sense of superiority or to create dependence. We are aware and conscious of our individual and corporate failings, how often we ourselves fall short. We know that as a church we stand in need of deep spiritual renewal. We will begin to find that renewal, I hope and pray, as we continue to centre ourselves on Jesus Christ, on his character, on the pattern of the incarnation and on serving the needs of the communities around us with the gentleness and tenderness of the servant.

The humility of Christ is not self-negation and the erosion of individual gifts, character or personality. Christian humility is the path to becoming our authentic selves, offering our whole lives to the purposes of God and the path of deep joy.

The humility of Christ is not surrender, withdrawal or submission as the world around us sees these qualities. Philippians 2 has sometimes been wrongly used to support a message from those who have power to those who have none, to suppress dissent and to resist change. This message in turn has supported the continued oppression of women or black people or the LGBTQI+ community. We can have no part in this either within the Church or in the engagement of the Church with the culture around us. Embracing the humility of Christ does not mean muzzling our prophetic voice or edge.

The humility of Christ is not weakness, finally, but strength, tenacity and determination to effect change for the sake of the kingdom of God, stepping into difficulties to seek to resolve them, not stepping away. But that strength, determination and power will need to be mediated through humility as we face the challenges ahead.

There will need to be a great deal of listening as we explore how best to re-open our churches for services of worship safely again and as we also continue with the online services which have sustained us during the lockdown. In many places this will take time. But I do want to offer encouragement to every benefice now to find ways to re-open for physical services of worship in the coming weeks and as we rebuild our sacramental life. I want to offer encouragement to every Christian disciple to reset their rule of life, giving priority to Sunday worship and to make their way back to Church physically as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.

We are flesh and blood and physical beings, not disembodied minds or spirits. God made us that way and God became a human person. That physical encounter is an essential part of our humanity. We may not yet be able to do everything we want to do when we gather as the Church on Sundays and on other occasions. We may need to regather in smaller numbers and in more restricted ways. But in those circumstances we should do what we can do safely to restore public and physical prayer and worship at the heart of every parish and community.

There will need to be a great deal of listening, especially, as we seek to rebuild our ministries with children and young people and families and offer support to our schools. As I have listened across the Diocese, this is probably the area among very many that has been hardest during lockdown. My own perspective will be that wherever possible it will be important to connect physically, to meet face to face, to begin community and young people’s groups and Sunday Clubs again, and to regather and reconnect families wherever it is safe to do so. Every school in every parish will need support and chaplaincy and care, not only our Church schools.

And there will need to be a great deal of listening to ourselves and to our own communities in a time when so many have been placed under stress and pressure. This is a season when all of us will need support and care. We will each need to watch over ourselves and one another and over the whole Church of God, with the same patience and tenderness and love which the servant of the Lord demonstrates in Isaiah.

Those who have sustained the church over this period, lay and ordained, will still be very tired. Those who have traditionally been load-bearing walls in the Church may find that they begin to give way under accumulated pressures.

So this is a season to be alert as shepherds and pastors to those who are struggling, to the sheep who have wandered away or become distracted or tired, to the injured, to those who need particular care. That will include ourselves. We will need to be patient and gentle, to not break the bruised reed nor quench the dimly burning wick. We must not be in too much of a hurry.

Over the last few months as I have listened across the Diocese, I have found myself returning again and again, surprisingly actually, to the things I learned during the early years of Fresh Expressions. In forming new congregations for those who are outside the Church, the Church emerges and has to be thought through from first principles, in different contexts and places. The heart of pioneer ministry is tending this continuous reflection and development as the new community emerges by the grace of God in a different culture and context.

As the whole Church emerges into a new normal, in which so much is fluid and continuously changing, every ministry is now a pioneer ministry: leading, supporting and forming church in a new cultural context. This takes time and energy and hope. There are many setbacks along the way – but Christ is with us in the journey.

Thank you for your partnership and your prayers in this next part of our journey together. I look forward to learning much with you as together we discover what God is doing and join in as best as we are able.

 

 

 

 

Bishop of Oxford
Presidential address to Diocesan Synod
5 September 2020

Diocesan Synod took place as a Zoom meeting, this is the audio recording of +Steven’s address to Synod.

 

We stand at a key moment in the life of our Diocese. For two years, we have been exploring God’s call to us and our common vision. What kind of Church are we called to be? A more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. We want to set that vision of Christ at the heart of who we are. This remains our central vision.

(If you would prefer to watch +Steven deliver this address, scroll to the bottom of this page for the video.)

What are we therefore called to do together next? We have listened with God to the big questions facing our world: the environment; questions of poverty and equality; mental health; the challenges and opportunities we have as a Diocese. We have begun to respond to those questions in seven different areas of focus.

The first two parts of our common vision process continue. But a third question has come into focus over the last few months and will be our focus for the remainder of this year. How do we all share in this common vision? How do we enable every local church, every deanery, every benefice, every parish, every Christian to share in this process and find our place?

That question was our focus as the Bishop’s Council gathered at High Leigh a few weeks ago with over a hundred representatives nominated by each Deanery. It is my focus this morning. It will be our focus at four Area Days in the autumn. We hope every parish will share in those.

The challenge is significant and vital. How do we help one another move forward together in good and appropriate ways? We are, as we know, a living growing network of more than a thousand churches, chaplaincies and schools across three counties, serving vastly different communities. Each local place has its own texture and story, and so does each church. We are large churches and small churches. We are churches of every different tradition. We are chaplaincies and schools as well as parishes. How do we all find our place and discern what we are called to do as we work together?

There is a powerful moment in the story of the call of the first disciples told in Luke 5. Jesus is teaching by the lakeside. He gets into the boat of Simon Peter. After he has finished teaching, he says to Simon: “Put 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 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”.

I hope that this is the moment when we want to say to each other as parishes and benefices and deaneries:

“Put 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; childrens and youth work renewed; good news for the poor; 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.

Two important principles

How do we help every parish and benefice and deanery engage with this big vision for mission as a more Christ-like Church? Before I talk about some very practical tools, let me first establish two important principles.

The first turns around that moment in the gospel story where Simon Peter responds to Jesus:

“If you say so I will let down the nets”.

If our common vision process is only about doing what the Bishop says or what the Diocese says then we will not bear fruit. The Church of Jesus is simply not that kind of organisation. I do not have the power or the authority to enable this vision to happen or to persuade PCC’s in distant corners of the Diocese to do any part of it. Nor do I want such authority.

The only person in the life of the Church who is able to call the Church to mission is Christ. It is when the local church hears the call of Christ that we will let down the nets: because you say so. That is why the process of renewal begins and continues and ends in encountering God in Jesus Christ and setting Christ again at the centre of our common life. As we focus on Christ then we begin to hear in different ways that call to be good news to the poor and set the captives free. We hear again the command to put out into deep water and let down the nets. We engage in mission in ways which are life-giving to the church do not drain away our energy.

Because you say so. Because Christ says so: Jesus who is fully God and fully human. Christ who shows us what God is like and Christ who shows us what it is to live an abundant life.

Many a parish vision statement flounders because God’s people do not first catch a fresh vision of Christ and all they hear is because the Vicar says, so I will let down the nets. Even more diocesan visions fail because God’s people do not first catch a fresh vision of Christ. All they hear is because the Bishop says so I will complete my mission action plan. But when we hear the call of Christ in the Scriptures and in the beauty and need of the world, then we are ready for the deep.

That is why it is vital to keep our call to be Christ-like right at the centre of everything we do in common vision. That’s why it is vital for local churches to engage with this process at the right pace. That is why tools and resources need to be full of hope and life and full of Christ’s call, not ours.

My second principle is that this common vision and call will unfold in very different ways in our very different deaneries and parishes.

We are not all the same. We are not all in the same place in our growth and development.

God’s Spirit is a Spirit of infinite variety and creativity. Right from the beginning, let’s give one another the opportunity to do things differently. That is essential because of our different contexts, but also it’s something to delight in for its own sake.

Another danger of parish and diocesan visions is that they value too much the virtues of standardisation, efficiency and control: a tendency that John Drane and others have called the McDonaldisation of the Church.

But those virtues are the opposite of the gifts the Spirit brings of creativity, diversity, new gifts and life. It is those gifts we need to cherish in our common vision process. Church is often renewed through what happens at the margins and on the edge. Church is rarely renewed from the centre and by the plans of bishops.

Our goal is not to encourage as many churches as possible to do the same thing in the same way. Our goal should be to encourage churches to engage in common vision in a thousand different ways according to local discernment and to learn from one another as we go.

New tools and resources

So what are the tools we are developing to help local churches and deaneries engage with the process? They are summarised in this leaflet.

Development fund documentationThe first is our development fund, which is formally launched today. All the documents about the fund are live on the website now. Applications are open for the first round of funding. We are making £1 million per year available for three years to support local mission. Not every response to common vision will need funding. Many will be resourced locally. But making funds available in these ways we hope will help and encourage local creativity and diversity and lead to the renewal of good local mission.

PIcture of some of the cards from the Parish Planning Tool

The second is our Parish Planning Tool, building on all we have learned through Mission Action Planning and appreciative enquiry tools and Partnership for Missional Church. We hope that parishes and deaneries will pick up and begin to engage with the tool as we move into the autumn as the time is right for you to renew your present plan.

The Parish Planning Tool is not something you have to use. It is a resource to help. It’s a tool which is designed to build hope and confidence and put the value of being a more Christ-like Church right at the heart of our planning for mission. The Parish Planning Tool is in its final stage of development. It will be published in August for use in September and can be pre-ordered here.

Cover image, principles for Deep Water FishingThe third is a new series of Bible Studies, Principles of Deep Water Fishing (available to pre-order), which I hope will resource this particular part of our common vision process. They are based on the talks I was able to give at the High Leigh conference on Acts 16-20, and I hope will help local churches catch the vision for what it means to put out into Deep Water.

The fourth is a series of four Area Days in the autumn. Invitations will go out to every parish in the next week or so and we will invite every place to send some people to catch the next stage of the vision and to work with the new planning tool.

Common vision in the life of the Diocese

Finally and briefly, what is happening to common vision in the life of the Diocese? There are new developments in each of the seven focus areas. These were reported at High Leigh, and the short films of those reports are on the diocesan website.

Our plans for chaplaincy in schools are moving forward well. Personal Discipleship Plans have gone well in the pilot stages and are beginning to be rolled out across the Diocese. We are preparing two major bids to the national Strategic Development Fund to support the development of new congregations, the first for the whole Diocese and the second focusing on Milton Keynes; environmental audits are being slowly taken up by parishes; our working group on children and young people is due to report in the autumn.

The Bishop’s Staff and Bishop’s Council have given very careful thought to the proposal to increase our capacity in the three large Episcopal Areas. As you know, three of our archdeaconries are twice the average size, and the archdeacons’ workload is increasing. We agreed in May to a proposal to appoint three full-time assistant archdeacons, one in each area, to build on the excellent work being done by our current assistant archdeacons. We propose funding that for the initial year from our common vision funds and then blended funding thereafter hopefully thereafter as part of our normal running budget with the proportion increasing by 20% per annum. However, we recognise that this decision needs to be fully owned and understood by this Synod and so we will bring this one back in November with a paper to give Synod a full opportunity to comment before we move ahead.

There is much more going on in the life of the Diocese than can be embraced by common vision. The 2018 Synod Reports give a fuller picture. I also want to draw Synod’s attention to the development of our voluntary chaplaincy to LGBTI people and their families that fulfils one of our commitments in the Pastoral Letter, Clothed with Love which we issued in November.

We are called together to put into deep water and let down the nets. We are called to do this not because of any human imperative or scheme. We are called to do this because of the call of Christ. May Christ continue to be at the centre of all we seek to be and do together.

Bishop of Oxford
Presidential address to Diocesan Synod
15 June 2019

Watch Bishop Steven deliver this address

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

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod

“The world has woken up to the dangers of single-use plastic,” said Sir David Attenborough interviewed by the Daily Mirror a few weeks ago. He was speaking of course about the public response to Blue Planet 2, the remarkable study of the oceans broadcast here in the autumn and then across the world. Viewers were shocked by footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and a sea turtle caught up in a plastic sack, among other gripping images.

The BBC itself has now banned single-use plastic across the corporation. Plastic-free aisles are appearing in supermarkets. Care for the environment and tending creation is back, it seems, on the national and popular agenda.

The first step in the responsible stewardship of creation in the 21st Century is to accept that the activity of humankind is shaping and changing the very ecosystem of the planet. The volume of discarded plastic in the oceans is choking marine life. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions is leading to a critical rise in global temperatures which leads in turn to dramatic shifts in climate and rising sea levels. Deforestation on a massive scale, caused by humankind, leads to soil erosion which leads to changed weather patterns, which leads to mass migration which is felt across Europe and shapes our political life. Christian Aid has reminded us this Lent that there are 40 million refugees in the world displaced within their own countries.

Humankind is no longer simply one of a number of species on the planet, our fragile and beautiful home. We are the dominant species. The global population stands at 7.6 billion and rising. Our collective need for water, energy, food and our waste are reshaping the planet we inhabit.

In the 21st Century, the Church of Jesus Christ should be at the forefront of tending creation and care for the beauty and life entrusted to us, ensuring that the world can sustain life for future generations. Such is the crisis facing our world, that in the 21st Century, the tending of creation should be at the forefront of the witness and mission of the Church.

In the story of Genesis, God places the man and the woman in the garden to till it and keep it, for the blessing of the earth, not its exploitation. Paul makes clear in Romans 8 that the mission of Christ is to the whole of creation, which groans in labour waiting for the freedom of the children of God. The best-known verse in Scripture, John 3.16 reminds us that God so loved the world, the cosmos, whole of creation that he sent his Son to save it.. The fifth mark of mission of the Anglican Communion goes beyond conservation to restoration and undoing the damage we have inflicted on God’s world. We are called “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

Rubbish accumulates, seas rise and people are displaced and global temperatures rise further year by year. Yet still, there is a lack of energy across the Church and society around this agenda. In 2016 Pope Francis published his great encyclical, Laudato Si’, a letter to every person on the earth pleading for a greater urgency in tending creation.

Pope Francis appeals to his namesake, Francis of Assisi. St. Francis reminds that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. He writes:

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth itself, burdened and laid waste is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor. She “groans in travail” (Romans 8.22).

Francis quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict: ““The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts are so vast”(LS217). Francis sets tending the earth at the front and centre of our discipleship and calls for an ecological conversion of individuals and of communities (LS216-221). It is this call to ecological conversion which I want to us to reflect on in this Synod and across our Diocese today. What would it mean?

We are exploring as a Church our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate, courageous. A sense of creation runs through the Sermon on the Mount. The meek will inherit the earth. We read of salt and light; of the earth as God’s very footstool; of sun rising and rain falling. We are asked to pray each day not for abundance but for just enough, for daily bread. Jesus calls us to open our eyes and look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He draws lessons from pigs and pearls and wolves, from grapes and thistles, from sand and storms and wind and rocks.

Tending the earth is rooted in contemplation of Scripture and of creation. In Psalm 8 we read: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them”. Creation stirs us to awe and wonder and mystery and wise stewardship of the earth.

How are we to care for the earth unless we have taken time to contemplate its beauty and reflect the beauty and order of creation in our worship?

As we look and listen and ponder, we are drawn then to compassion, to mourning and lament for the wounds of God’s creation. Our looking needs to go beyond gazing at the night sky to the science of our climate. Our gaze needs to pass beyond what can be filmed and shown on our screens to the invisible gases which are causing the rise in global temperature. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cannot be seen but we can measure and see their effect. Climate change caused by human intervention is a present reality. We feel it least in this temperate climate. For our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world, the effects of climate change are a daily reality. In South Africa, there is severe drought in the east of the country and extreme weather in the west. In Polynesia the oceans are rising. If the world does not take action the human suffering and environmental costs will be incalculable.

In 2015, the nations of the world made an historic agreement in Paris to work together to seek to limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. The Churches and other faith communities have been at the centre of raising awareness of these issues. Our influence across the world is hugely significant, much greater than we think it is. The Church is a global community of people facing common issue of climate change from the perspective of justice and compassion.

Ten years ago, long before the historic Paris agreement, the UK’s environment agency asked 25 leading environmentalists what most needed to happen to limit climate change.

There were 50 suggestions. Second on the list, behind improving energy efficiency was that religious leaders should make the environment a priority for their followers because of the enormous potential influence for change. Imagine the impact if we were truly to do that in this diocese.

Out of a global population of 7.6 billion just 1.1 billion people are secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The remainder belong in some way to one of the great world faiths. 31% of the global population is Christian. 22% belong to Islam. It is our responsibility to give a lead. Together we exert enormous influence as consumers, as shapers of opinion, in our lobbying and voting, in our investments. This is not an issue which will go away or which we can afford to leave to others.

For those reasons we need to move from the call to be contemplative and compassionate to be courageous. We need to deepen the action we are already taking to tend creation for the sake of the whole earth. The ecological conversion needs to be expressed as ecological discipleship.

What are we doing already and how might we deepen and our engagement with this dimension of God’s mission.

Roger Martin and Sally Osberg offer three ways churches, charities, businesses seek to change behaviour and culture: social service provision, social activism and social entrepreneurship. We need to be active in each of these three areas.

Social service provision is part of the life of every parish church. There are people who care passionately about the environment who are already part of our parishes and deaneries and who give freely of their expertise. Martin and Margot Hodson, who work in this area, argue that the parish church itself is an inherently green concept. The more people engage and do things in their own communities, the less energy they use, the more they encourage local skills and businesses. Our Department of Mission is working to connect those who are keen to be a resource in this area through the Earthing the Faith network and make them known to local churches.

As a Diocese together we consist of more than a thousand churches, schools and chaplaincies across our three counties. We are a major consumer of energy and a major source of influence in every community.

I am delighted that the Archdeacons are inviting every Church to switch or consider switching to green energy, to consider an energy audit and to register for the Eco-Church programme. We are putting in place a support programme to help parishes with all of this which will be made known in the next couple of months. This programme is being done in conjunction with the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment – though it will apply to the whole diocese – and through them we have already secured over £17,000, including funding from the Beatrice Laing Foundation, to subsidise these energy audits and to help churches implement their recommendations.

There are already several Eco-Church award winners in the diocese (including in Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, St John’s and St Stephen’s in Reading and St Andrew’s, Chinnor and some fantastic environmental projects in schools. St. George’s Washcommon is one of the first carbon neutral churches in the country.

Cafeplus in Haddenham is a fresh expression of Church with an environmental focus and holds clothing, book and plant swaps, bike services and MOT’s and apple pressing in the autumn. In Wargrave, the church has formed Friends of Mill Green to manage a community space in an environmentally sustainable and friendly way. In Owlswick close to Monks Risborough, the church gained grants to install a composting loo together with disabled access to the toilet and the chapel. St. James Finchampstead won a Church Times green award in 2017 for their biodiversity project. The churchyard project at St Mary and St John Cowley has had a positive impact on the local community. There are too many good stories to tell and to celebrate in one morning. Each is making a contribution. But we can do more.

Social advocacy is vital. I am the patron of a small charity, Hope for the Future, which trains and helps local people lobby their Member of Parliament and local councillors on climate change and environmental issues. We held a training day on advocacy with Hope in the diocese last year and more are planned for 2018. Christian Aid are asking people to ask their banks to disinvest in fossil fuels. We have a motion before us again this morning asking the Church Commissioners to set an example through their investment policy to phase out fossil fuels, to adopt renewable energy in line with the timetable set by the Paris climate change agreement. I’ve spoken to several people across the Diocese who have been inspired by Ruth Valerio’s campaign to give up single-use plastic for Lent. Already this is changing the way people shop and creating conversation both within and outside the church.

We are all aware of the number of new homes which will be built across the Diocese in the next decade. What are we doing to engage with the developers to ensure that they are built to the highest environmental standards for the sake of those who will live in them and for the sake of the earth?

Finally, we need in this area as in others to go beyond social service and social advocacy to social entrepreneurship: to encourage good sensible green businesses which keep jobs on the land locally and for the benefit of the local community. There are many green businesses in the Diocese also which develop green technology which is used very widely.

I shared in my first Plough Wednesday in January organised by our rural team. First stop was the Mapledurham Estate, just north of Reading: managed for a generation to create and keep jobs on the land and in the local economy.  Land which cannot be used for farming has been developed in other ways as a golf course, a centre for paintballing and other outdoor pursuits.  The impact has been significant.

We were introduced for the first time to an anaerobic digester.  Slurry from the cattle goes in, along with maize grown on the estate.  Electricity comes out along with dried residue which is ploughed back into the ground as fertiliser.  Back down the hill then to the working water mill using the energy of the Thames to generate clean electricity.  An essential part of the shift to renewable energy the world over is the move from a few large power plants to many different smaller sources.

As we will hear later in this Synod, there are many different ways in which we are called to work out what it means to be Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. One which has emerged consistently in our listening across the Diocese is the urgency of environmental care, the call to tend creation. An essential mark of God’s mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. May Almighty God give us grace and strength to give this mark of mission the priority it deserves and needs and a sense of urgency in our task as we live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this earth, our beautiful and fragile common home.

+Steven Oxford
17th March, 2018.

“Why are you so full of heaviness O my soul
And why are you so disquieted within me?”

The psalmist asks the same penetrating, painful and honest question three times in Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalms testify here and elsewhere that anguish and pain are more than physical. We suffer within: mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But the psalmist helps us put into words deep questions to our inner self. We do not know always know what is the matter. We do not understand the source of our dis-ease. We are in dialogue with our souls.

The two images in the refrain are very powerful. My soul is full of heaviness: oppressed, weighed down. My soul is disquieted within me: storm tossed. Elsewhere the Psalms deploy the images of darkness, of watery chaos, of parched deserts, of trembling and inner pain. All of us can relate a little to these pictures. For some they are a constant companion.

An escalation

Mental distress is experienced in many different ways. The names we have for some conditions may be recent but the symptoms are deep in our common story. Even so, in recent years there has been an escalation of mental health related issues with the trends all in the same direction.

The news stories and research findings are sobering:

  • Clinically severe levels of anxiety and depression affect at least one in five of the population at any one time
  • There is an epidemic of self-harm among young people.
  • Suicide is the most common cause of death in men aged 20 – 49
  • Almost 10 million British adults are diagnosed with at least one mental health problem each year
  • Around one in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem over a lifetime.

Most of us will know someone in our extended family or network, or colleagues who is suffering mental health problems now. Mental health difficulties are spread unevenly across the population.

Some groups are particularly vulnerable to psychological distress presenting as depression because of issues or privation or prejudice. These include:

  • Older people living in care homes
  • People from the LGBT community
  • People on low income
  • People detained in prisons or refugee centres

Access to mental health services is more difficult for certain groups in our society. Care is not evenly distributed.

The deeper causes

Mental health is harder to define than physical health. The World Health Organisation defines health as, ‘..a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities . Mental health is, ‘…the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and others’, dignity and worth’ , closely linked with what the Hebrew Bible calls Shalom. It is therefore not simply – or even primarily – the province of specialist mental health professionals but something that should concern us all.

It is a deep insight of the Christian faith that there can be no human flourishing without a sense of meaning and purpose. That insight is confirmed and underlined by the sciences. The psychologist Roy Baumeister proposes four basic needs for meaning that must be met if human beings are to flourish :

  • Firstly ‘purpose’ (the need to see that our lives have a plan and a goal)
  • Secondly ‘efficacy’ (the need to feel competent and to make a difference)
  • Thirdly ‘value’ (the need to know that we have done and are doing the right thing in our lives)
  • And finally, and perhaps , most importantly ‘self-worth’ (the need to feel worthy of the love and respect of others, to have a valued place in a community – to belong)

Without meaning our lives will be dominated by chaos, helplessness, shame, and alienation.

Meaning is at the heart of Christian faith. In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon suggests that the increasing prevalence of mental health problems in the developed world is closely tied to modernity: ‘The pace of life, the technological chaos of it, the alienation of people from one another, the breakdown of traditional family structures, the loneliness that is endemic, the failure of systems of belief (religious, moral, political, social – anything that seemed once to give meaning and direction to life) have been catastrophic.’

Good medical help is vital. Those who work in mental health services, often with scarce resources, deserve our respect and gratitude. It is good that we are finding courage to talk about mental health more without stigma. There are signs that the Government and NHS are increasing the resources available. I will be spending time on Wednesday this week at the Warneford Hospital with the Chair and Chief Executive of the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and look forward to learning more.

But the challenge is not simply to service providers but to our whole society. Mental health and wellbeing, should be seen not as the result of ‘cure’ but of the incremental building of networks of relationships and human connection, ‘knit together in love’, that support a sense of purpose, moral value, self-belief and self-worth. This must be undertaken corporately, as well as individually.

A Christ-like Church

There is considerable overlap between the promotion of wellbeing and our call to be a Christ-like church. As a Church we need to take the gospel more seriously: not the repetition of creeds or formulas but the truth that we are carry a message which is the power of God for salvation – for well being and shalom. This gospel we bear brings purpose and hope, value and self-worth. On the basis of the gospel we bear, we call people back from the cliff edge of modernity to the wells of meaning and community and truth.

We are far from perfect as a Church. But our calling is to create communities of kindness and reconciliation, of welcome and trust which serve the common good and are channels of peace and grace in the world.

As we develop our vision to become a more contemplative, compassionate and courageous church, what might we able to offer to a world which is so full of heaviness, so disquieted and ill at ease?

A courageous counternarrative

The Christian vision for mental health and wellbeing is profoundly counter-cultural. In a competitive and capitalist society, people are valued primarily as consumers and valued differently according to wealth and age. Those who are no longer economically productive (the old) and those who are not yet (the very young), are seen as less valuable. Those in mid-life who are at the peak of their productivity often struggle with the stress and pressure that this brings, and feelings of inadequacy that they are not doing well enough. And against this backdrop, people are invited to invest in an impossible dream– that sickness can always be cured, and that old age and death need never happen to us.

The Christian perspective invites us to face facts, and gives us the courage to gaze into the darkness because we know that in the end it cannot overcome the light of Christ. A Christian vision of wellbeing is centred on the image of an interdependent body with Christ as its head, a body in which grows to completeness in part through the transfiguration of suffering, a body which finds its strength in weakness, and a body in which the more marginal voices often turn out to be speaking the most fundamental truths.

Whenever we declare “Blessed are those who mourn” we are encouraging a way of life which embraces rather than denies inner pain and grief and loss. We are affirming those who find life very difficult, including many clergy and lay ministers, but seek grace in the midst of distress.

As churches grow more into the likeness of Christ we need to embrace a culture of interdependence, to value those who are vulnerable, ‘different’, or in pain or distress, and to be prepared to learn from them and not simply to minister to them. On the other hand, they should not be places that make people more vulnerable or cause pain by mimicking or intensifying pressures already there in society. Churches should be places where mental health issues are well understood, for knowledge alongside perfect love, casts out fear.

A contemplative approach to life

Purpose, efficacy, value and worth are essential to mental health. Contemplation, stillness and reflection are in turn key to developing both meaning and resilience.

The psalmist is able to forge distress and emotion into a clear inner question: “Why are you so full of heaviness O my soul and why so disquieted within me”. The ability to ask that inner question is formed through contemplation.

Mental health chaplain, Mary Ellen Coyte , who has experienced mental distress, says, ‘For me, various form of contemplative prayer – in particular the examen – have been deeply transformative and healing. The Ignatian model of spiritual experience (as cycles of spiritual movements between consolation and desolation) within another cyclical framework, that of spiritual growth, has been very containing and supportive.’

Mindfulness is recognised as preventative for mental distress. It is practised in businesses, the NHS, schools, and government. Mary Ellen asks, ‘Why does the church have so little faith in contemplative practices including from its own tradition? There are few churches in the diocese with regular mindfulness or contemplative prayer groups. Mindfulness is very valuable but, for Christians, it can be even more helpful to have the congruence of our own contemplative tradition.’ Her conclusion is, ‘There is a craving in society for meaning and spiritual nourishment and this is a wake up call to the Church to foster safe, deeper, more explicit engagement with spirituality.’

Compassionate spaces of acceptance

Churches offer a structure that has real meaning and power to enable people to deal with the crises which come in every life: death, heartbreak, despair and illness.

Churches are not audiences which gather at the same time each Sunday for an act of worship. Churches are living communities with story and history and opportunities for mutual help and delight. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Honesty is key.

Churches are discovering the importance of the vision set out in the beatitudes of ‘being alongside’.

For example:

  • The strategies advocated by the Spiritual Crisis Network and the May Tree project for those experiencing suicidal feelings advocate safe space, empathic company as well as grounding activity such as painting and gardening.
  • Community cafes such as More Plus in Aylesbury promote mental health and wellbeing by providing a safe space for people for make friends and break down social isolation
  • Alice’s Tea Party (SS Mary and John, Cowley Road, Oxford) is a monthly event for mental health service users to come together purely for social contact and mutual support.

Remembering World Mental Health Day annually on the Sunday nearest to October 10th brings mental health issues to the fore and enables people to be more open about what they have to deal with, and so overcome stigma.

Ensuring that someone in each congregation knows about the available statutory and voluntary services in their area as well as useful national organisations. In Oxfordshire, for instance, there is the 2017 MIND Guide. Or perhaps parishes might invest in sending one or two people on a Mental Health First Aid course, which the government will be investing £15 million in over the next year.

Schools, including church schools, can play an enormously supportive role to children and young people, through PSHE, combatting bullying of all kinds and giving opportunities to develop skills in emotional literacy. And Papyrus have some excellent resources to help young people.

The Psalmist’s cry echoes across the communities of our diocese as the people whom God loves cry out in pain and ask deep questions of their inner lives.

“Hope in God for I shall again praise him; my help and my God”.

+Steven Oxford

A Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod
18th November, 2017

This address was prepared jointly with my colleagues Alison Webster, Joanna Collicut and the Health and Social Care Group of the Diocese of Oxford. For an excellent introduction to the theme see this short film by Dr. Pat Deegan, speaking of her own diagnosis as a teenager with Schizophrenia.

The Oxfordshire MIND info line is 01865 247788

The Director of MIND has said that if people ring this line for help/advice, every effort will be made to signpost them to the service they need, eg for advocacy or benefits advice. There are branches of MIND in Bucks and Berks also.

A prayer for Mental Health Day by Alison Webster:

God of compassion,
You meant us to be both fragile and ordinary.
Silence the voices that say we are not good enough,
Haven’t achieved enough,
Haven’t enough to show for our lives,
That we are not enough.
Help us to know that we are treasure,
We are prized,
We are cherished,
We are loved.
Infinitely.
By you.
So be with us in our corrugations of feeling:
When our hearts are in downward freefall, be with us
When our minds race with anxiety, be with us
When our throats close in fear, be with us
When sleep will not come, be with us
When waking hurts, be with us.
In the name of Jesus,
Who knew trauma, abuse, despair and abandonment
And has nothing but love for us,
Amen.

References

‘Around one in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem over a lifetime’

  • McManus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R (eds) (2009) Adult Psychiatric Mobidity in England 2007 results of a household survey quoted in the Theos paper, The Bible and Mental Health

‘Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities’

‘It is a sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and others’, dignity and worth’