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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 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’