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

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

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

What are the names of your fish?

Which is your favourite football team?

What colours do you wear in church?

How old are you?

How much do you earn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can shift that?

Well, we could become non-relational.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


14 March 2020

Bishop Steven is currently on sabbatical. 

Over thirty years ago, I became Vicar of Ovenden in Halifax.  For all of that thirty years, I have been exploring the ancient-future discipline of helping to form adult Christians in the faith.  The Christian tradition has a name for this discipline: catechesis.

It has long been my conviction that the renewal and reform most needed in the life of the Church of England and the Church in the United Kingdom is the renewal of catechesis: laying the good foundations of faith in the lives of enquirers and new Christians.

Today sees the publication of a new catechism, The Pilgrim Way, as part of the Pilgrim course.  This short article gives the deeper biblical and historical background to catechesis and to the new catechism.

The New Testament

The term catechesis is used from the New Testament onwards as a term for Christian formation and preparation for baptism and lifelong discipleship.  The term is used for the period of formation beginning from first enquiry through to and beyond baptism and being established in the faith.

The gospels were written as tools for catechesis.  Luke is explicitly written to Theophilus “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been catechized”.

John’s gospel begins with the journey of enquirers to Jesus and ends with an appeal to faith.  The very heart of catechesis is introducing people to Jesus.

Catechesis is concerned with the whole of Christian formation not simply the learning of facts or doctrine.

One way of reading the story of the Emmaus road is as a paradigm story of catechesis: Jesus walks with those who are going in the wrong direction away from Jerusalem.  The four means Jesus deploys in Christian formation are the building of community through listening; attending to the scriptures; prayer and the sacraments; and engaging in witness and mission.  These are four means the Church has used in every age to grow disciples.  Together they form the ways in which we discern the risen Christ.

There are four great metaphors for this process in Scripture.  The first is the journey seen in Exodus and Exile; in the story of the two sons; in the Emmaus and Damascus Road and the earliest description of the Christian faith as the Way.

The other three metaphors are all found in 1 Corinthians 3: Christian formation is a labour of love, like parenting, giving a special diet to those not yet mature; it is a work of partnership with God and with others, like farming, sowing, watering and waiting; it is a work of development, like building, first laying a foundation and then teaching the new disciples how to build well in their own lives.

The word catechesis has at its centre the term “echo”.  Good Christian formation is founded on repetition of certain texts and phrases which become embedded in the heart and a means of transformation (Carol Harrison, Listening in the Early Church, Oxford, 2013). The aim of Christian formation is to create a resounding inner echo of God’s living Word, an image of Christ at the centre of each disciple’s life through learning very simple core texts by heart.

The Early Church

Catechesis in the early centuries of the church was the work of several years of formation and instruction.  To be baptised into a Christian minority was a serious decision.

Catechesis was important and continuous.  It shaped much of the ordinary life of the Church, including its worship.  The early Church deployed an annual cycle of formation leading up to baptism at Easter.  Those who were catechumens and receiving instruction would enrol for baptism in January or February often in response to preaching on particular Sundays.

They would then receive further instruction during the forty days before Easter: the origin of Lent.  The rest of the Church would keep Lent with them as a reminder of their own baptism (see William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechemenate, Pueblo, 1995)

Formation would include community, listening to the scriptures, prayer leading to the sacrament of baptism and the eucharist at Easter and sharing in God’s mission.

The core texts for instruction were the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer although a wide variety of scriptures were used.  There is some evidence that the commandments and the beatitudes were also used in this way.

This pattern of formation was normally led by the bishop and was given priority in his ministry.  He was assisted in this by the presbyters and deacons.

The pattern of formation was remarkably effective and led to the sustained growth of the Church, by the grace of God, as a minority community across the Roman empire.

Augustine has left us a small but powerful essay on catechesis: On instructing beginners in the faith.  Augustine stresses above all the importance of joy in Christian formation:

“Our greatest concern is much more about how to make it possible for those who offer instruction in the faith to do so with joy.  For the more they succeed in this, the more appealing they will be”

The Monastic Movements and the Mediaeval Church

From the conversion of Constantine onwards, the Church grew rapidly and became the majority religion of the Empire.  Baptism as an infant became the norm, decreasing the focus on adult catechesis as the means of entering the Church.

Much of the wisdom on Christian formation was nurtured and developed by the monastic movements.  The monastery was the place to be supported in living a countercultural Christian life in a rhythm of prayer, rest and work.  Benedict seeks to establish in his rule “a school for the Lord’s service in which there is nothing sharp and nothing heavy” – an excellent guide in Christian formation.

The deep Christian formation found in the monastery then inspires the work of preaching, teaching and catechesis in parish churches.  Europe was evangelised by religious communities establishing deep places of formation and prayer from which women and men were sent to love and teach the faith.

This pattern is evident in the evangelisation of Britain from Ireland from the north and by Augustine of Canterbury from the south.  It is evident in the sending of missionaries from Britain into Scandinavia and Germany and in the revival of the great monasteries of France which led eventually to the founding of the great universities.

England from 1287-1530

In 1281 the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English bishops agreed a Lambeth declaration.  The clergy were to expound the Christian faith no less than four times each year.  The content of the faith they were to expound was as follows:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Commandments
  • The 7 works of mercy (based on Matthew 25)
  • The 7 vices
  • The 7 virtues
  • The 7 sacraments

These elements formed the basis for the teaching of Christian faith in a largely non-literate and non-book culture before the Reformation (see Eamonn Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992, Chapter 1, How Piers the Plowman learned his Paternoster).

England from 1530-1740

The English Reformers faced a new challenge: the teaching of the recast and reshaped Anglican faith and identity to a population learning to read in the midst of a technological and political revolution.

The key was the development of a simple catechism issued with the Book of Common Prayer in 1548 and revised in 1604 and again in 1662.

The catechism is based on Martin Luther’s shorter catechism.  It is in a simple question and answer format making it easy to learn and remember.  It is based around:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Ten Commandments

The familiar sentences about the sacraments were added at the 1604 revision.

The catechism was printed as a primer to help people learn to read.  People would learn their letters first and then the be introduced to their first text: the catechism.  This primer became the bestselling book of the 16th Century in Britain (by far).

The same texts were used in Morning and Evening Prayer and the service of Holy Communion.  They were often written on large boards at the front of Churches.

All clergy were expected to give instruction in the catechism every Sunday by law.  The pattern after ordination was first to pay attention to writing and giving your catechetical sermons which were continually revised and renewed.

This investment in catechesis was pursued with great energy.  Between 1530 and 1740 there is evidence of over 1,000 different printed catechisms in English.  All or part of over 600 still survive (see Ian Green, The Christians ABC, Catechisms and Catechizing in England, 1530-1740).

This focus on catechetical work also results in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646  and the powerful series of addresses on catechesis by Richard Baxter, Vicar of Kidderminster, The Reformed Pastor, published in 1657 and hugely influential.

Catechisms become in this period a way of more closely defining doctrine as this became contested rather than simply means of teaching and communicating faith.  For this reason they became longer and, paradoxically, less useful for teaching enquirers.

From 1740 to the present day

John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement make a very substantial contribution to the English tradition of catechesis through the creation of special provision for adults who are seeking to learn the faith through bands and classes.  They return to the principles of the early Church in setting catechesis at the heart of the life of the local church with remarkable effect.

There is some evidence that these were imitated in home meetings in Anglican churches through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which also saw the rise of the Sunday School movement and an immense investment in the teaching of the faith to children and young people.

Through the twentieth century, the disciplined practice of catechesis was in decline and neglected for much of the century.  There are many reasons for the decline of the Church of England in the twentieth century but one of the most significant is the neglect of the regular, systematic teaching of the Christian faith to enquirers and new Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church invested significantly in catechesis in the period following the Second Vatican Council, publishing the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults in 1974 and the Catechism in 1994.

In the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s the discipline saw something of a revival of catechesis in the Church of England through the development of nurture groups and process evangelism courses (Alpha, Emmaus and Christianity Explored).  This revival of catechesis remains the principal factor behind the growth in some parts of the Church of England over the last 30 years.

This rediscovery of catechesis was practice led: parishes discovered through trial and error what was effective in nurturing new Christians and then spread that good practice.  This was supported by research (particularly by John Finney and Robert Warren).  Theological connections began to be made with the catechetical practice of the early Church and with the Roman Catholic renewal of catechesis.

The Church of England sought to draw its parishes back to the principles of catechesis in the 1995 report, On the Way and to draw together liturgical practice and Christian formation.  On The Way argues for a return to the four texts of the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments and the Beatitudes.  The report was not widely taken up but remains a key text for the study of the discipline.  On the Way had significant influence on the development of the Common Worship initiation services.

In 2012, the House of Bishops of the Church of England commissioned further work on catechesis in what became the Pilgrim course.  The four Pilgrim authors (Robert Atwell, Stephen Cottrell, Paula Gooder and myself) sought to work within this long tradition of catechesis in developing the Pilgrim materials in focussing on the four texts and also returning to the Emmaus road disciplines of listening to create community, attending to scripture, prayer and the sacraments and engaging in mission.  Many other bishops and teachers contributed to the development of Pilgrim.

Pilgrim has been widely used across the Church since publication. Over 150,000 books and other resources have been sold.

The Pilgrim Way – a new catechism

The Pilgrim authors printed the (largely forgotten) Revised Catechism of the Church of England as part of the Pilgrim Leader’s Guide, partly to show we were working in this ancient and modern tradition of catechesis (

A couple of years ago we began work on a new catechism for Pilgrim, to support new Christians in their journey of faith.  The Pilgrim Way was published as part of the faith section of the new Church of England website a couple of weeks ago.  It is published this week as a short booklet, The Pilgrim Way, a guide to the Christian faith.  We have consciously worked in the great tradition of Christian formation to develop a simple, accessible tool for a deeply spiritual and vital task of ministry.

A further renewal and revival of catechesis is needed in the contemporary Church of England, working within this great tradition but taking advantage of new digital technology to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation.

+Steven Oxford

Order The Pilgrim Way from Church House Publishing

Over three hundred young people aged 11-18 gathered together on a cold Saturday in January for our third annual Breathe Deep day. They came to St Thomas Philadelphia, with their leaders, from all across the Diocese.  Together we were exploring faith and the rhythm of life with God.  The number of young people involved has more than doubled since our first day in 2014.  People love the day together and are keen to bring their friends.

spinWe worshipped together.  We explored Scripture.  This year I spoke about living our whole lives in the rhythm of the two great commandments Jesus gives: loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.  There were workshops on prayer, on going deeper with God, on service, on transforming God’s world.  All through the morning the young people text in questions on anything to do with life and faith and, just before lunch, I try and answer them.  We eat together (Subway – a big highlight).  Each year this part looks a little more like the feeding of the 5,000 as small groups of teenagers gather across the conference room (there are no chairs so everyone sits on the floor).

Over lunch the huge inflatables arrive and the first part of the afternoon is given over to some serious fun and games.  Then it’s worship again, the results of various competitions, some filming for the music video of the day and the chance to be still, to reflect and to collect a holding cross to take away to remind us of the theme of the day.

You can catch a flavour of what happened here in the various videos made on the day and the photographs we took.

When people ask me what’s happening in the parishes of the diocese at the moment, I’m never short of things to say.  There are so many stories of life and growth.  But one of my favourite things, if I’m honest, has to be the new work we are beginning to do with children and young people and families.  Together we are helping the next generation discover faith in Jesus Christ.

When I was 12 years old, I was on the very edge of the life of my small, local parish church and set to drift away from faith.  If I had, my life would have been very different.  One person in that parish was determined to do something.  She had no qualifications but she started a small youth group for me and just two other teenagers.  Over time she went on training courses and involved others.  Through that group (and at a Diocesan event), I found faith and God found me.  Jean still prays for me and for the others involved in that youth group more than forty years later.

There is no greater gift that we can pass on to children and young people in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our wider society than the gift of faith.  The whole course of a young person’s life will be affected by developing faith in childhood.  It is an immense gift to know that you are loved by God, the maker of the universe; to know that you are called to a lifelong friendship with your creator; to know you can begin again through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross; to know that you are part of a worldwide family; to understand the great gift of prayer; to receive God’s guidance at life’s great crossroads; to develop Christian character; to become all that you are meant to be.  All of these gifts and more are given through the development of faith in children and young people.  Lives are saved, deepened and enriched, families are transformed and the world is changed.

The bible tells us many stories of those who learnt their faith as children and young people.  The prophet Samuel is nurtured in faith as a child through his mother, Hannah, who prays for him and prays with him.  He is nurtured in faith as a child through Eli who instructs him in prayer and in listening to God’s voice.  Samuel will go on to lead Israel and change his nation.  But the foundations of his life and his friendship with God are laid in childhood.

Encouraging faith within and through the family is vital.  Last Saturday I commissioned Pauline Reynolds as President of the Mothers’ Union in this Diocese.  The second of the Mothers’ Union’s five objectives is to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.  As children grow into young people, the role of the local church is vital in nurturing and encouraging faith into adult life.  You can read the sermon here

Last week the Church of England General Synod strongly encouraged parishes and dioceses to prioritise evangelism and witness with younger people.  What are we doing here?

  • We now have funding and support available for churches to grow families and children’s and youth work again.  You can read about the Centenary Project here.  Our first four workers are now in post and their work is bearing fruit.
  • We have excellent training courses to help people who want to take the first steps.  If you want to do something for the young people in your Church take a look at Aurora.
  • We’ve already booked the date for our fourth Breathe Deep day on 28th January next year.
  • If there is nothing happening in your parish for young people, the place to begin is prayer.  If you can’t help yourself then email a link to this post to someone who might be able to make a new beginning.  Let’s do what we can to help young people in every community to rediscover faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the most interesting conversations I had at Breathe Deep was with an adult who had come on her own to the day precisely because there were no young people in her church.  It was a small beginning.  I’m hoping for great things.



“The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….” Ephesians 4.11

Whenever I stand before a congregation, I try and remember two things.  The first is that it is a wonderful privilege to preach the word of God.  The second is that the people I am about to address are people of enormous influence.  Each one of them is a leader.

Often they don’t think of themselves that way, of course.  But that man over there by the pillar is a primary school teacher.  He has 25 children in his class.  Over the next ten years he will profoundly shape 250 lives and families for good.  This elderly lady has eight grandchildren.  She prays for them, she teaches them their prayers, every time she sees them she builds up their sense of worth.  That man who is giving out the books this morning is a police sergeant.  He is befriending the Muslim community in the place where he works.  The person who leads the intercessions works in a large office.  She is the person younger staff turn to whenever they need a listening ear.  The lady in the overcoat is a Macmillan nurse.  She will spend this evening with someone who is dying.  This teenager who is assisting at the altar might be in a senior role in a major company in ten years time.  In the meantime she will be the most remarkable ambassador for Christ in her own peer group: the only Christian these young people know.

These people in front of me this morning, whether it is fifty or five hundred, are not simply members of the Church.  They are people of influence in their families, in their places of work, in their communities, in the whole world.  My task, when I stand up to preach on Sunday, is to equip them for their task on Monday, whatever that may be.

Don’t just take my word for this.  Listen again to the words of Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount he says this: “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world”.  You are people of influence, spread across the world to prevent decay, to establish peace and justice (salt is both a preservative and a fertilizer).  You are people of influence, showing the way and helping people to see in very dark places.

The calling of every local church is to form and build, sustain and support these men and women of influence whose task is nothing less than reshaping and transforming the world.

I don’t mean, of course, that the Church is only for important people.  The Church is here for everyone.  As in the Church in Corinth so in the Church in Hatfield and Wickersley and Millhouses: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”.

We are ordinary people, but called by an extraordinary God and entrusted with a unique and extraordinary message, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Through that call and through that message, in the strength which God supplies, Christians become salt and light, people of remarkable influence whose calling is to change the world.

“The Diocese of Sheffield is called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world”.

You may have heard me say that on previous occasions.  We seek as a Diocese for every church to be a place where men and women of influence, ordinary yet extraordinary Christian disciples, are formed and sustained and equipped week by week, month by month, year by year.  God has not called us simply to increase the membership of the Church to make it easier to pay our bills.  God has called us to make and grow and sustain disciples who will together make a difference through the way we live our lives, through the example we set, in many thousands of places throughout this region.

We are setting before this Synod today a revised strategy for discipleship, mission and ministry for the next part of our life together.  It is called “Forming and Equipping the People of God”.  It’s not a new strategy but an important revision of one of our four key documents.

The most important change is a greater focus on discipleship and on the whole people of God.  We want to grow a culture of discipleship right across the Diocese, in every tradition and every kind of Church.

The Church is called to be a community of missionary disciples.  We are called into discipleship through grace.  In our baptism, the sign of that grace, we dedicate and consecrate the whole of our lives to God.  We are called together to be with the risen Christ in the Eucharist and as we gather around God’s Word.  As the people of God, we are sent out to live to the glory of God in every part of our lives.

In our recent Mission Action Planning exercise, 8 out of 10 churches said they needed help with making, forming and sustaining disciples.  Over the next ten years we want to offer that help and encouragement and build that culture of discipleship in everything we do.

Every local church is called to be a place where new Christians are coming to faith and prepared for a lifetime of discipleship and service.  Every local church is called to be a place where Christians are deepened and sustained in worship, fellowship, witness and service to the whole of society, through every part of our lives.

Much of this growth and development will take place in the life of the local church.  Every parish and fresh expression will need to pay attention to its worship and community, teaching and learning, mission action planning, welcome and the nurture of new believers.

But as a Diocese we believe we need to support this in four key ways:

  1. By offering frameworks of support and patterns of life which help every church grow its own culture of discipleship.
  2. By offering training and support in discipleship to complement what the local church can offer.
  3. By identifying obstacles to growth in discipleship in our life and culture and developing strategies to address them.
  4. By helping to form lay and ordained ministers who are equipped to grow the church in this way.

If we are to grow the Church across this Diocese in numbers and depth and quality of life then we need to pay careful attention to growing our lay and ordained ministers to support that growth: the ligaments and sinews of the body of Christ.

To help us to do all of those things we are proposing to draw together all of our existing learning and teaching as a Diocese into a new learning community: St Peter’s College.

The purpose of St Peter’s will be to nurture and sustain the whole variety of ministry the Diocese needs to fulfill our shared vision.

The focus will be on equipping the whole people of God and on equipping apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who will themselves equip all the saints for their work of ministry: the services offered in many different ways in many different places in the workplace, the home and wider society.

We want to go on equipping people to be pioneers to plant fresh expressions of church, children’s and youth ministers, Readers, worship leaders, spiritual accompaniers, lay evangelists and pastors.  We want to offer the whole people of God help and support in discovering their call and vocation before God and how to best use their gifts.  We want to offer some initial training for those preparing for ordination, though the majority of our ordinands will continue to do their initial training in colleges and courses as now.

We want to invest much more in the ongoing training we offer for our clergy and lay ministers so that we become truly a learning community.  For that reason our second appointment to St Peter’s in the new year will be for a continuing ministerial development officer to focus on that ongoing equipping of lay and ordained ministers which is so vital for our future.

But all of those ministers who are called and served and equipped and sustained have one central purpose: they are themselves to equip the saints, the whole people of God for the ministry and service all of us are called to offer in the whole of our lives.

The draft of our revised strategy for ministry and details of St Peter’s College will be found here.

Our present strategy for ministry and our other three strategies are here.

The new General Synod meets for the first time next week.   A central part of our agenda over the next five years will be the ongoing Reform and Renewal process.

Here is an unofficial Noddy and Big Ears Guide to Reform and Renewal.  It’s a Noddy guide because I’ve tried to make it simple.  It’s a Big Ears guide because the whole Reform and Renewal process is about listening to what’s happening across the country and developing a response.

This is also something of a personal perspective.  I’ve been closely involved in the story so far.  To use a Star Trek analogy, let me take you on a guided tour: first to the Captain’s Log to explore the deeper story; then to the Engine Room to understand what’s being proposed; and finally to the Bridge to look ahead into the future.

Captain’s Log: looking back…..

The roots of Reform and Renewal lie in the immense change taking place in the society we serve.  The Church of England has lived through a century of change.

We lived for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, through the end of Christendom: the idea that society is uniform and that people are Christian unless they opt out, that church going is the norm.  We have had to adjust our ways of being the Church to that new reality.  We have needed to recover, especially, the central idea that God calls us to be a church in mission to our own society, the call to make disciples and the call to set God’s mission at the heart of our common life.

We then lived for fifty years and more with a mistaken understanding of secularisation.  Secularisation began in the 18th century.  It’s the process by which science, democracy, technology and economics became separate from any particular religion (and in that sense it’s closely related to the end of Christendom).  This process has brought immense benefits.

But from the 1960’s until very recently, secularisation has been linked with another powerful idea.  The notion that the more advanced a society, the less place it has for religion of any kinds.  In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, many people predicted and believed that the role of faith in society would shrink away to nothing as our society “advanced”.

We have adjusted our ways of being the Church to this reality as well.  For many years, many in the Church have accepted our decline as inevitable.  Many have even planned for that decline to continue as if this was God’s purpose for the Church.  The loss of confidence has been profound.  We have needed to recover the central Christian virtue of hope: the sure hope that God has a purpose for his church and for this Church of England for many generations still to come.

The sociologists now tell us what we have known for some time.  The role of faith in the modern world is not shrinking but growing and also changing.  Britain is not becoming more secular.  Religion and religious affiliation are changing all the time, but the role of faith in public life and private life is not less but more significant.

The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has recently published a powerful study of violence and religion, Not in God’s Name.  Lord Sacks begins with a study of secularization and the gaping hole it leaves in human understanding.

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.  They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Sacks puts forward the view that the coming century will be more not less religious, less not more secular.  How should we respond?

A hundred years of change.  The end of Christendom.  The beginning and end of secularization.  How are we as the Church of England to respond to God’s call in our day?  How are we to join in God’s mission and to make that response in faith and hope and love?

Reform and Renewal is part of an answer to these vital questions.

The Engine Room: what are the proposals?

Five years ago, the General Synod of our Church agreed three core priorities.

The three goals are these: to serve the common good of our society, to grow the life of the church in the numbers and the quality of our discipleship; and to re-imagine the ministry we offer to the nation.  The first two are inextricably linked.  We see growth and life in many places but in too many the combined effects of declining and ageing congregations mean that in ten years time, we may no longer be a church in every place.  To serve the common good and the whole people of England we must pay close attention to growth in the life of the Church.

Those goals are widely and deeply owned across the Church of England.  You will find something like them in the vision statements of many dioceses and parish churches.  They have been at the heart of the work of our national Church for the last five years.

But it takes time in a Church of the size and complexity of the Church of England to listen, to reflect, to begin to shape answers to those key questions.  How should be respond to God’s mission in hope?  How do we better serve the common good, grow the life of the church and re-imagine the ministry we offer.  What can we do nationally to support dioceses and parishes?

Little by little, through a process of listening, conversation and research some answers and some initiatives began to emerge.  There are six or seven different streams of work.  They began at slightly different times and different places.  They are also in different stages of discussion or implementation.

One is looking at how we use our historic assets to support growth rather than reward decline; another is exploring ministerial education, another at simplification, another senior leadership and still another what we need to do nationally and so on.  They are all linked together in some way.  For that reason, it’s helpful to see them as one process under the single heading of Reform and Renewal: helping us to be a Church of hope, a Church engaging in God’s mission, a Church of compassion and a Church preparing for a harvest.

If you really want to spend more time with Scottie in the engine room trying to get us to warp speed, then read this summary paper for Synod.

The Bridge: scanning the horizon

That’s the big picture.  I want to zoom in now, if I may, and ask the question what difference the Reform and Renewal programme might make to the life of the Church of England over the next fifteen years, if it bears the fruit we hope it will, by the grace and power of God.  It’s not a programme designed to tackle everything.  The core ministry of the local church remains at the heart of the Church of England: worship, witness, service to the local community.

But here are some of the things which I hope will change over the next fifteen years as Reform and Renewal bears fruit in the life of the local parish church.

A culture of discipleship

First I hope and pray that every church will become better at making and sustaining and equipping disciples: that Christians will understand their faith better, share it more confidently, live it out more fully.  We need to grow again a culture of discipleship across the Church of England.

The Christian faith is not a hobby or a leisure activity.  The Christian faith is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ with the whole of our lives, for the whole of our lives, offering lives which have been made whole.

Every local church, every diocese needs a plan for taking forward that culture of discipleship, for growing new Christians, for sustaining established Christians.

Reform and Renewal is helping to make resources available for that task.  There are key proposals to change and increase the Church Commissioners distribution of funds to support poorer parishes and to support growth in numbers and in the depth of discipleship.  There is a major emphasis on how we teach the faith, how we encourage discipleship in every place.

Energy for mission

Second, I hope and pray that every church will focus greater energy and resources on God’s mission and worship, service and witness.  That means less time on bureaucracy, form filling, administration and the like.

A major strand in Reform and Renewal is about simplification: on how we make the task of vicars, of churchwardens, of PCC treasurers and others simpler and easier in the future.

Ministry and leadership

Third, I hope and pray that every local church will have the ministry and leadership it needs to support God’s mission.  Lay leadership and ministry is key and the next two years will see significant developments here.  The voices of lay people need to be heard more clearly in the life of our Church.  We need to invest more in training, equipping and sustaining lay ministers.

We need urgently to see more vocations to ordained ministry.  40% of our current clergy are approaching retirement.  On present projections half of our clergy who retire cannot be replaced.  We need as clergy to be better equipped as leaders in God’s mission.  We need our clergy to be more diverse as a group.  We need more younger clergy who are able to offer a lifetime to ordained ministry.  We need to ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers.

There will be a major national initiative to raise the number of vocations, significantly, by as much as 50% by 2020. That will involve every parish in prayer, in communication, in encouragement, in support.  We are looking carefully at the ways in which we train clergy before and after ordination and how we fund that training.  Dioceses are clear what is needed:  the Church needs ordained and lay ministers who are flexible, collaborative leaders in God’s mission.

Senior leaders

Fourth I hope and pray the senior leadership of the Church of England in 10 years time will be better equipped for their task and more representative of the church we are called to lead: male and female, black and white, from a wider range of backgrounds, well prepared and committed to ongoing learning.  Again we are investing intentionally in that process.

Communication in a digital age

Finally, I hope and pray we will be much more effective at communicating our faith in a digital age.  This is the most important investment the Church of England needs to make nationally.

We are living through the greatest time of change in the way we communicate since the invention of the printing press.  Parishes and Dioceses are moving far too slowly to keep up with those changes in the way we communicate.  We need to invest much more in our digital communications in order to keep pace and contribute to Christian engagement with the contemporary world.

So what is Reform and Renewal about?

  1. Resources for discipleship and growth
  2. Focusing energy on our core tasks
  3. Every local church having the ministry it needs
  4. Equipping senior leaders
  5. Better digital communication

These are not the whole agenda by any means.  There are other issues the Church needs to address.  The world keeps changing around us.

God has called us in our generation to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have compassion on a lost and bewildered generation.  This is a time of turmoil.  But it is also a time of hope.

Pray for our Church as we move forward and most of all, as Christ commands us, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send labourers to his harvest field.

And finally….

This post is based on a sermon preached on 15th November in St Mary’s and All Saints, Chesterfield.  I’m grateful to Father Patrick Coleman for the invitation and for the very helpful “Conversation under the Spire”.

I’m grateful to Premier Digital for an award for this blog in the category “Most Inspiring Leadership Blog”.  Like everything else I do it’s a team effort.  Warm thanks to Jane Perry and LJ Buxton for their research and ideas and to Kate Hill and Jason Smedley for managing posts and comments.

+Steven Sheffield

Launch of the Crossroads Mission

Welcome to the Archbishop, to all of our visiting bishops and their teams on behalf of the whole Diocese of Sheffield.

We are delighted you are here.  We look forward so much to working with you and to your encouragement and friendship in God’s mission across this Diocese.

I want to invite all of the home team to express the warmth and appreciation we feel to those who have come to join us.

This Crossroads mission was born in prayer as the bishops met on Holy Island and prayed together for the north of England.  God willing it is the first of many, a symbolic new evangelization of the north.

Our hope for these four days is that we will together sow the good seed of the gospel, the word of God, in many different ways and many different places.  Through what we say, through listening, through the love we show, through being there.  In the scriptures we offer, through the text messages we will send.

We want to sow that living word with compassion, with gentleness, with courage, with imagination to many thousands of people across this Diocese.

This world God loves is indeed standing at the crossroads and so are many hundreds of thousands of people across this region.  Our task is to point them to the ancient paths, the forgotten wisdom of the Christian faith which lies deep in the rock and soil and history of this land.  Our task is to uncover the good way again and encourage people to walk in it and find rest for their souls.

We do well to remember as we go that the word of God which we sow is living and active.  God created the heavens and the earth through his word.  The promise of scripture is that God’s word moves heaven and earth still, especially when that word is proclaimed in the public square.

This seed we bear holds immense potential for life.  It will seem a small thing to hand someone a beermat, or offer them a gospel, or speak to them after an assembly or listen at the Show.  But that one text or conversation may be the turning point for the whole of their life and the life of their family.

As Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is like mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade”.  Who can know what will happen because of our work together over these next few days.

All of us, the home team and the away team, are bearers of the gospel.  Paul writes these words to the Church in Rome and to the Church down all the ages.  Let his words echo round this cathedral today as we go out in faith:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel.  It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith”.

In this mission we are saying together, Amen.  We are not ashamed of the gospel we bear.  We will carry this message to all whom we meet.  It is the message that the word of God, God’s very self, took flesh and became a man, Jesus Christ.  It is a message of his life and ministry, a message of love.  It is the message of his death on the cross for our sins.  It is the message of resurrection and new life and Easter joy.  It is the message of the gift of the Spirit, the transformation of human lives and the birth of God’s new people, the Church of Jesus Christ.

Thus says the Lord:

“Stand at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls”.

May God bless each of us as we go and carry this good seed, the gospel of God, to many, many different places.  May God bless these communities which we love and serve.  May God by his Spirit cause this seed to grow in many different lives in the months and years to come.


+ Steven


In early June, 2015 I was invited to give an address to the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Stuttgart.  The address was part of a workshop stream exploring Fresh Expressions of Church.  There is a growing interest in the German Church in new forms of church for a changing culture and many in Germany are keen to learn lessons from the experience of the Church of England.

1. A story from Acts

It is an honour to take part in the Kirchentag and thank you for your welcome.  It is good to be with you both to teach and to learn today.  I pray that all of us may gain a wiser heart in every way as a result of this conference.

There is a key moment in the Acts of the Apostles I would like to share with you.  It occurs in Acts 11 and arises from a time of great difficulty, a period of persecution which followed the martyrdom of Stephen.

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution….travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch and they spoke the word to no-one except Jews.  But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.  The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”

We are reading here of a spontaneous movement of mission, inspired by the Spirit.

“News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem….”  I wonder if you can imagine yourself present at that meeting as the apostles debate this development.  They ask the question: “Whom shall we send to explore what is happening?”  They looked round the room and, in a moment of inspiration, they chose to send Barnabas, the son of encouragement.

“…..and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”

Barnabas is here exercising discernment – seeing that what is happening is of God.  Goodness, the Holy Spirit and faith are needed.  These are rare qualities among those called to senior church leadership (according to Acts).  Luke singles Barnabas out as exceptional even among the apostles.

“Then Barnabas went to Tarsus and looked for Saul and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch.  So it was that for an entire year they associated with…..”  With what?  What do you think is the next word in the text?

“…with the Church” – ecclesia with the definite article.  Ponder for a moment what that means.  A new church has been created by the Word and by the Spirit and has been discerned, recognized and connected to the rest of the Body of Christ.

“…they associated with the Church and taught a great many people and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”” (Acts 11.19-29).

2. What has happened in the Church of England?

Please hold that story in your mind as we explore together some of the lessons derived from the experience of the Church of England.

Through most of the twentieth century, the predominant culture in England has been a secularizing culture.  The reasons for that are complex and will be familiar.  But, if anything, secularization was as rapid in England as in much of Northern Europe.  Overall, the Church in England remains in significant decline.

As the water table of faith dropped in the population at large, the Church of England set itself to become a missionary church once again.  For three generations we have been a church emerging from Christendom into a different kind of community.  To be an emerging church has meant relearning many lessons from the past: about mission and evangelism and catechesis as core disciplines.

In the 1990’s we began to learn new lessons about forming new ecclesial communities through contextual mission.  At first our learning was informal and accidental, the gathering of fragments of stories as different pioneers were inspired to go to parts of the community which knew nothing of Christ not to draw people back to the existing church but to create new churches.

That gathering of stories led to an attempt to understand what was happening and to develop a vocabulary to describe it.  We called the new ecclesial communities “fresh expressions of church”.  As a Church we took a decision in 2004 actively to support the formation of new communities through contextual mission and to encourage a mixed economy of church for the new millennium.  Our mission context calls us to be more diverse.  We have encouraged the formation of fresh expressions in every diocese; we have identified a recognized focus of training for ordained ministry called ordained pioneer ministry; we have rolled out a training programme for lay pioneers and clergy; we have seen this movement expand internationally and ecumenically, for which thanks to be to God.  We have seen the movement challenged theologically and those challenges refuted[1].

Over the last 12 years this movement has grown and multiplied and has been resourced in different ways and different places.  There are now thousands of fresh expressions of church across every part of the Church of England. 10 dioceses (out of 42) were surveyed for a major study published in 2014.  In those dioceses:

  • Fresh expressions account for 15% of churches and 10% of attendance
  • In 7/10 dioceses growth of fresh expressions cancels out decline
  • In terms of numbers, these fresh expressions add a further diocese to the Church of England
  • 52% of fresh expressions are lay led
  • Most are small and growing and part of an existing parish

In the words of the report, “Nothing else in the Church of England has this level of missional impact and adding further ecclesial communities”[2]

I was for five years from 2004 to 2009 the first Team Leader of the national ecumenical fresh expressions team.  Since 2009, I have been Bishop of Sheffield and also since 2012 the Chair of the Ministry Council of the Church of England overseeing all selection and training for ministry.  From that perspective, I would like to offer you 9 short lessons for a church which wants to move in this direction.  The first three are grouped around mission, the second around ecclesiology, the third around encouragement and the ways it is given.

3. What lessons have we learned about mission?

i.          Mission is God’s Mission

This whole movement is undergirded, supported, held by a theological understanding of the mission of God: that God is a God of mission; that mission is the outworking of God’s love and God’s very nature; that God is deeply and profoundly at work in the whole world; that God is working already outside the Church; that mission is centred on discovering what God is already doing and joining in; that God is concerned most with those who are furthest from God’s love and light; that mission follows the pattern of Christ in both his incarnation and his character; that mission is about being sent by Christ in the power of the Spirit; that mission is about proclaiming the kingdom, teaching and baptizing new believers, service to the wider community; seeking to transform unjust structures, care for God’s earth and working for reconciliation.

This theological understanding of God’s mission has been rebirthed in the Church of England over several generations, inspired by the Anglican Communion, by theologians returning from mission elsewhere in the world, by the worldwide renewal of a theological understanding of mission, by discernment arising from study of the scriptures at the core of the Anglican tradition.

The changes we have experienced have arisen from this theological renewal.  They are not simply about pragmatism or what is effective; still less about what is fashionable for its own sake.  Much of the theological wrestling we have done are the core theological questions of mission – especially contextualization.  Do not attempt to encourage fresh expressions of Church without this serious theological undergirding.

ii.         The whole Church and every church needs to be mission-shaped

Once that work is done it is possible to see instantly that we are not talking about fresh expressions of church which do mission and parish churches which do not.  We are talking about every church engaging in God’s mission, whatever that means.  In developing fresh expressions we are not talking about questions of personal preference or taste, what some have characterized as boutique church – but about what is helpful and effective and essential for those who are coming to faith and growing in faith.

This is the vision statement of the Diocese of Sheffield which undergirds all we do in the Diocese and the reshaping of every parish church, every deanery, every fresh expression and every appointment:

“The Diocese of Sheffield is called to grow a diverse network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world”

iii         The whole Church needs to invest in evangelism

To be fit for purpose every Church needs to invest in evangelism: communicating the good news to men, women and children.  Local churches which do invest in evangelism will grow, whether they are fresh expressions or not.  Local churches which do not invest in evangelism will not grow, whether they are fresh expressions or not.

Evangelism is a complex series of disciplines, often subject to caricature.  I was asked to be the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops on Evangelisation in Rome in 2013.  In a paper for the General Synod in 2014, I attempted to describe 7 Disciplines of Evangelisation all of which need intentional investment and development across the local Church, by Dioceses and by the Church nationally.  The 7 disciplines are:

  1. Prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)
  2. Apologetics (defending and commending the faith)
  3. Evangelism (initial proclamation)
  4. Catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)
  5. Ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)
  6. Planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)
  7. Incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)[3]

As part of that investment in evangelism, the House of Bishops have developed Pilgrim to encourage catechesis across the Church of England, in all kinds of expressions of church[4].

4. What lessons have we learned about ecclesiology?

iv.        We need to think and talk about the Church

Developing new forms of church shifts ecclesiology to the centre of the theological agenda.  We need to reflect over and over again on what it means to be the church in different ways and different places.  Our experience was that our ecclesiological muscles were flabby and underdeveloped.  We had left ecclesiology to ecumenists.  It needs to become once again the province of missiologists.  The forms for Church need to be shaped by the mission of God.  Our understanding of the mission of God needs to be shaped by Christ and by our Christology.

The best resources here are short summaries of what is essential about the Church not long, dense studies.  What are the essential marks of the Church?  What does something have to be or to have before it can be called the Church?

v.         We need language to describe different forms of church working together

It is vital to develop a both-and approach to parish churches and to fresh expressions.  We must never set them in competition.  Each must use respectful language when speaking about the other.

The biggest challenge to the fresh expressions movement in the UK has come from not using language carefully.  Where fresh expressions have communicated that they are not a new thing to sit alongside the old but the new thing to supplant the old there has been resistance to change and a turning back to old ways.  The language which has worked best for us has been the language of mixed economy of church or mixed ecology of church.  Both forms of church are missional, both need each other, both serve different purposes in an increasingly diverse society and mission field.

vi         We need to enable and encourage fresh expressions of church

Within the context of the mixed economy, fresh expressions need positive encouragement and endorsement by senior church leaders and by the wider church if they are to flourish.  These are tender, delicate plants.  We have moved as a church in twenty years from hostility and suspicion, to tolerance, to permission giving, to active blessing, and in some cases to resourcing and integration of the new with the old.  This has not always been an easy journey.  It has not been the same journey in every diocese.  Some are very much ahead of the others.  But the greater the encouragement, the greater the fruit.

5. What lessons have we learned about encouragement?

Finally and briefly what lessons have we learned about how to encourage fresh expressions of church within a mixed economy.  How can we be Barnabas in this contemporary Antioch?

vii.       Encourage fresh expressions as you do fresh expressions

We have learned to encourage fresh expressions in the same way as we do fresh expressions.  We have learned to be light touch, responsive to what God is doing, courageous and risk taking, listening and finding out what works.

It was tempting in the beginning to set out a great denominational structure, a programme of activity, a demanding syllabus, great files of policy.  Wherever we developed them, they were like David trying on the armour of Saul.  What was needed was blessing, simplicity, eyes open, listening ears, time, prayer, an openness to the Holy Spirit.

This movement is of God and is still in its infancy.  We need to be sensitive, flexible, humble and discern what God is doing.  We are not rolling out a programme.

viii.      A principled and careful loosening of the structures

The best policy we have developed has been about removing obstacles rather than creating templates or strategies.  Rowan Williams, the last Archbishop of Canterbury, did a huge amount to encourage fresh expressions.  One of his many helpful phrases was a call for this principled and careful loosening of structures to give the new ecclesial communities space and time to grow.  We need possibility and creativity more than we need regulation and adversity to risk.

ix.        Relationships are vital

Finally and very briefly, relationships are vital and particularly relationships between denominational leaders and pioneers, the loyal radicals of the Church who want to see change but to remain part of the denomination.  These relationships are vital in both directions.  The pioneers need the denominational leaders to remain connected and also to provide support in brokering new opportunities. The denominational leaders need the loyal radicals so that we continue to be challenged and refreshed by the very edges of the life of the Church.

This is exactly what is happening when Barnabas goes to Antioch.  The centre is going to meet the edge.  The edge is meeting the centre.  In the dialogue between the two there is creativity and life and the recognition of a new form of church.

[1] For a developed account of this see “Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church”, Report of an Anglican Methodist Working Party, Church House Publishing, 2012

The Bishop’s charge to those about to be ordained deacon and priest

3rd July, 2015

Every year those to be ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese share in a retreat together immediately before the ordinations.  As part of the retreat, the bishop offers an address, called a charge.  This is my bishop’s charge for this year, on the theme of courage in ministry. 

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands”

2 Timothy 1.6

“Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known amongst all whom you serve”

Two years into my curacy, I was asked to give the opening speech at the annual summer fair at the local Church school.  The Vicar was unable to be there.  It was an opportunity, he said, to say something Christian to those who gathered, to communicate the gospel.

It was a fine summers afternoon.  There were scores of people milling around.  I asked the headteacher when and where I should speak.  I expected that there would be a stage, a microphone, a clear introduction.  “That’s up to you” she said and handed me a megaphone.

I wandered round the stalls for a while in my clerical collar with this megaphone dangling by my side.  There didn’t seem anywhere obvious to stand or anything obvious to say.  After about half an hour, without any ceremony, I put the megaphone back in the school office and slipped away.

Basically, I funked it.  Here was a chance to say something to a group of parents and children on the edge of the life of the church I’d been given.  Permission, encouragement, opportunity and means were all there.  But my nerves got the better of me.  I let the moment pass and hoped no-one would notice.  My courage failed me.

The theme of my charge to you this evening is the place of courage in ministry.  My hope and prayer is that through the years of ordained ministry ahead, as deacons and priests, your lives and ministries will be marked by courage and, particularly courage in proclaiming the gospel.

It’s my practice when preparing this annual charge to read through the ordinal to reference the theme.  I found surprisingly few references to courage in ministry.  I suspect this reflects the settled mentality of Christendom which lies beneath much of our liturgy.  The reality is that we live in a post Christian, pluralist world in which the Christian faith we represent is deeply contested.  Courage is a key component in the ministries to which we are called.

However, I did find three references which I want to explore.  In the ordination of bishops, the candidates are urged to proclaim the gospel with all boldness, referencing Acts 4.32 and elsewhere.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world”.

I take this to apply no less to deacons and priests than to bishops.

As you know, the Bishop will ask the candidates a series of questions before the ordination.  The final question in all three services for bishops, priests and deacons references to 2 Timothy 1.6.  The bishop asks:

“Will you then in the strength of the Holy Spirit continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve”

In its biblical context, this is clearly a call to courageous ministry.

The third reference is in the questions to the congregation.  After the ordinands publicly answer the great questions, the bishop asks the congregation three questions.  The third question asks this:

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry”

I want to argue that this too is a reference to courage.  It’s not as clearly rooted in a single biblical passage but the story the verse brings to mind more than any other is Joshua 1, where the people urge their new leader at his commissioning, above everything else to be bold.

These three references in the ordinal stand in contrast to the many references to courage in ministry and leadership in the scriptures.  We might think of the courage of Joshua, of Hannah, of Sarah, of Elijah and Elishah, of David and of Mary the mother of Jesus.  We might reflect on the courage of Jesus himself in confronting the scribes and the Pharisees, in setting his face towards Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the cross.  We might reflect on the many acts of courage in the Acts of the Apostles or the great list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.  That list is provided for us “so that we may not lose heart” (Hebrews 12.3).  It is for our en-courage-ment.

Before we explore these three passages and themes in more detail, let me explore for a few moments the reasons why I want to encourage you to reflect on this theme of courage in ministry.

A few weeks ago the Diocese of Sheffield held its first residential conference for twelve years.  Those of you about to be ordained priest were there together, most of the clergy from across the Diocese and about seventy lay people.  The conference was, I think, a really significant moment in the life of the Diocese.

The overall theme of the conference was discipleship in a Christ-like Church.  But the theme which emerged most strongly over the three days was the need for courage and confidence in our discipleship and ministry at this particular moment in this particular Diocese.  Our agenda was discipleship but I think part of the Lord’s agenda was courage.

My own address to the conference was focussed on the low self-esteem which is a deep part of the culture of South Yorkshire and of this Diocese and of many local churches.  I talked about the battles ministers and disciples face with fear, anxiety and self doubt and the need to overcome these things, to be a Church confident in the love and grace of God and able to minister to the communities we are called to serve.

Paula Gooder expounded the theme of discipleship in Mark 4, 5 and 6.  One of the major themes of Paula’s exposition was the timidity of the disciples and Jesus call to them to be people of faith and courage.  Martyn Atkins addressed the theme of discipleship and the church.  One of his central points was that we know all that we need to know about making and sustaining disciples.  What the Church lacks is courage and confidence in the gospel to act on this information.  Bishop Peter led a session in which three business people spoke about their faith and their work.  Again the theme was courage.  David Ison and Alison Morgan again referenced the need to be bold and courageous in our discipleship.  For those not able to be there, all of these addresses are available on the website.

Through all of these references to courage, I believe that there is a word from the Lord for the Diocese at this time to recover our courage, not least as we prepare for the Crossroads mission with the Northern Bishops in September but also as we prepare for the next chapter in our life together: living and communicating Christian faith in the communities we serve with clarity, compassion and confidence.

I also believe that courage is an important theme for you to ponder in these final days before your ordination as deacon or priest.  It would not be unusual if at some point in these days or the next few weeks you come face to face with anxiety and fear.

So let’s attend to these three passages, brought to our attention by the ordinal.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles they are to proclaim the gospel boldly….”

The specific reference here is to Acts 4.29-31.  Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released following the healing of the lame man at the beautiful gate.  The believers gather for prayer.  It is remarkable that according to Acts, they don’t pray for safety or deliverance.  They pray for boldness.

“And now, Lord, look at their threats and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hands to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through name of your holy servant Jesus”.  When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4.29-31).

The word translated boldly or with boldness is a recurring word in Acts: parresia.  It’s used about ten times either as a noun or an adverb.  Parresia is especially linked with preaching and public testimony.  It is important not only for its frequency but because Luke makes it the penultimate word in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the final scene of Acts, Paul has at last come to Rome.  The gospel has travelled from Jerusalem to the heart of the known world.  What is Paul doing as we leave him in Rome?

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28.30-31).

What does this word translated boldness actually mean?  Parresia does carry the meaning of courage in the normal sense.  But it also has a wider range of meanings drawn from the world of Greek rhetoric: the art of public speaking.

The apostles are praying for courage as we mean it, certainly.  We need the normal kind of courage in ministry. But they are asking for more than this.  They are also praying for certain qualities to be evident in their service of the word.  I’d like to pull out four strands of meaning.  I don’t normally do alliteration but these all begin with “p”.

They are praying for grace so that they may speak plainly first of all.  That is the meaning of parresia in John 15.29 where the disciples say to Jesus “Now you are speaking plainly not in any figure of speech”.  It is vital in our preaching and teaching to speak in ways and language that people can hear and understand.

The word originated in Greek political life with the fundamental meaning of declaring the whole truth without fear or favour.  Telling it like it is.

The author Henri Nouwen, I am told, labored and labored over his books with one aim, to make them shorter, sharper and clearer: more plainly understood.

It’s a serious thing to preach in such a way that people cannot understand you.  Sermons like that leave people feeling that the Christian faith is complicated and impenetrable.  It can leave them feeling ignorant and stupid if you use words which are hard to understand.  Speak plainly.

Second, the disciples are praying for the grace to speak persuasively.  They are praying that their arguments will be clear and persuasive and logical and winsome.  They are praying that their preaching will win hearts and minds as they present Christ on every opportunity.

As the words from the ordinal make clear, we need the boldness of the prophets and the apostles. The boldness of the prophets is the courage to speak truth to power in difficult circumstances.  But the parresia, the courage of the apostles in teaching is learned in the schools of the philosophers as much as the prophets: a clear and open argument to convince our hearers.

Too often we become lazy in our service of the word.  We repeat stock formulas and old arguments instead of working to craft words which will persuade and convince through reason that Jesus is the Son of God.

Third speak publicly.  It’s an obvious but constant theme in Acts that the message of the gospel is carried beyond the Church both in conversation and in proclamation.  “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”.  But we do more than tell that message over and over again to each other.

Where does public proclamation feature in your lifetime calling to speak the word?  Where will you look to make your contribution, speaking to the wider culture we are part of?  In the whole history of the Church, particularly in the great Methodist revivals, the power of the gospel is released in new ways when we proclaim our faith in public.  John Wesley’s ministry took a new and powerful turn when he went outside the Church to preach to the miners in Bristol and elsewhere.   As you enter the Cathedral tomorrow and on Sunday, you might recall that Wesley was famously banned from speaking in Sheffield Parish Church, by the then Vicar and instead spoke in the open air, to greater effect than if he had been locked up inside the Church.

How will you proclaim the gospel publicly in the coming year, with courage.

Finally, the apostles are praying for the grace to preach the gospel persistently, in season and out of season as Paul himself charges Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4.1-2).

Here is the first part of the charge to ponder about courage which applies especially to your service of the word. Preach the word of God with boldness.  Labour for the gift of plain speaking so that everyone can understand what you are trying to say.  Work hard at your preaching and teaching so that what you say is persuasive, well constructed, within the community and outside it.  And resolve to be persistent in what you say, in season and out of season.

Make no mistake.  You are being ordained to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to preach the word of God.  Pray for boldness in that calling all the days of your life.

I’m going to ask you to reflect, in second place, on the courage envisaged by that final question in the ordination service.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you to make Christ known amongst all whom you will serve”

To understand the question, it’s important to reflect on the context of these distinctive words in 2 Timothy 1.

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self control” (1.6-7).

My own understanding of the context of 2 Timothy is this.  I don’t believe 2 Timothy is general instruction from an older to a younger minister (although 1 Timothy and Titus can be seen in that way).  I believe 2 Timothy is a genuine Pauline letter written at a particular time of crisis in Timothy’s life and ministry.  Timothy has been somehow caught up in one of the sporadic waves of persecution which are a feature of first century Christian life. In that wave of persecution, Timothy had the opportunity to make the good confession, to stand up for his faith in Jesus Christ. For whatever reason, his courage deserted him and he failed the test.  He is in a place not unlike Peter the apostle after the denial.  2 Timothy is written in this moment of great crisis to restore Timothy to his vocation, to help him find his courage again in these moments of despair and failure.

We are talking about prophetic courage here: the willingness to pick yourself up after a bad fall when you messed things up personally or professionally and get back on the horse.  The courage to get back into the pulpit after the family service went drastically wrong; the courage to go back a second time into the unruly classroom or assembly; the courage to say the really difficult thing at the PCC meeting or in the pastoral encounter; the courage to step up to the plate of costly, difficult, demanding ministry situations again and again and again and again.

Christian ministry would probably be very easy if we were perfect, balanced, gifted people. The reality is that we are imperfect, disordered, temperamental so and so’s trying to do the best we can.  For most of us most of the time, our ministry will be punctuated by those moments when we didn’t speak or act, when we let the opportunity go, when we try and fail, when we are on the batting plate but ball after ball sails past us.

How does Paul respond to Timothy, his child in the Lord in this moment of crisis.  He responds first with love and affection.  This is the most passionate letter in the New Testament I think. “To Timothy my beloved child” (1.2).

He responds with prayer: “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (1.4). There is urgency and desperation here.

He reminds Timothy of God’s grace in verse 6.  Through the rest of the letter Paul gently restores Timothy’s vision for ministry and sets before Timothy both his own example and that of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is trying to encourage Timothy, to put courage into him, to enable him to engage again with the task to which Timothy has been called.

One of the themes I would encourage you to reflect on in these days is how you believe God responds to you when you lose your courage, when you have those moments like the one I described and many more much worse than that.

Will God respond in any less a way than Paul does to Timothy: with love, with prayer, with grace, with gentle rebuilding, with vision and example.

The rhythm of lifelong ministry is one of failure and restoration.  If that’s not the whole rhythm it will be part of it.  The long term fruitfulness of your ministry and mine depend in how you deal with those situations of failure and remaking.

That is why this final question is at the heart of it all.  It presupposes moments of failure.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you…..”

Why does the gift need stirring up?  Because the flame has burned low.  The gift is dormant.  The Greek word at the centre of 2 Timothy 1.6 is anapourizein.  It means to catch fire again.  To burn again with the love and passion of God.  Will you rekindle courage and hope in your ministry again and again and again and again through all the years ahead?

This request to stir up the gift of God that is in you is not a once and for all request to speak sternly to yourself on the day of ordination.  It is a commitment, like the other commitments you are making in these questions, to habits of life.  And one of them is the habit of continually stirring up the gift of God that is in you: catching fire morning by morning.

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands….

Finally and very briefly the third passage from the ordinal: the third of the questions the bishop asks the congregation.

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry?”

We are not called to serve alone.  We serve as part of the Body of Christ, the people of God.  As the Body of Christ, the people of God, we uphold, encourage and support one another in every part of what we do.  I hope that will be true of your relationships within this group, within the deanery in which you serve and within the congregation.  We receive as much as we give in ministering to others.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a deacon and priest I pass on to you.  When you are feeling sad or depressed or down in your ministry, no matter what it’s about, go and pay someone a pastoral visit. You will almost always come back with a changed perspective, upheld and encouraged by the grace of God.

At the end of our diocesan conference, it happened to be the Feast of St Barnabas and I named Barnabas as an additional patron saint of this diocese in the coming years.  I enrolled everyone there into a new Society, the Fellowship of St Barnabas and enrol you all in it as well today.  It has one purposes, to build each other up in courage and boldness in our discipleship and ministry now and in the years to come.

Preach the gospel with boldness: plainly, persuasively, publicly, persistently.

Continually stir up the gift of God that is in you.

Be a son of encouragement to others and allow them to encourage you.

May God bless you richly in these final hours of preparation before your ordination as priest and deacon and in all the years ahead.  I look forward to serving with you.


+Steven Sheffield



Liverpool Cathedral hosts an Urban Lecture each year for clergy working in inner city or outer estate areas.  I was the guest lecturer in June and chose to speak on developing disciples in the city.  The lecture incorporates some recent reading and reflection on the theme of catechesis and how best to scope new work on the catechism, part of the national Reform and Renewal programme of the Church of England. 

1.  Faith in the City: the missing chapter

It is an honour to be invited to give this third Liverpool Cathedral Urban Lecture.  I come with some credentials and experience in urban and outer estate ministry.  From 1987 until 1996, I was Vicar of Ovenden in Halifax, a parish which consisted of large council estates built between the wars.  The parish was in the 20 most deprived in the then Diocese of Wakefield and was classified as an urban priority area.  It was then a white working class community.  The health of the population was poor.  I went from taking the funerals of people in their eighties in my curacy parish to taking funerals of people in their fifties and sixties in my first years as Vicar.  The two largest employers in Ovenden were Crossley’s Carpets at the bottom of the parish in the Dean Clough Estates and United Biscuits at the top in their Illingworth factory.  Dean Clough had closed a few years before I arrived and United Biscuits closed in 1988.  Patterns of family life were chaotic.  Depression and suicide were relatively common.  Educational achievement was low.  Just as we left the parish in 1996, the Ridings School achieved national notoriety and was closed because of violence breaking out in the classroom.

I arrived in Ovenden two years after Faith in the City had been published, to considerable acclaim within the Church and opprobrium beyond it[1].  David Sheppard, then Bishop of this Diocese was vice-chair of the commission which produced the report.  Several people now in Sheffield were very connected with the report.  I recently read a fresh account of its genesis and reception in Eliza Filby’s excellent book, God and Mrs Thatcher, which I commend[2].

By 1987, Faith in the City had begun to shape urban and outer estate ministry, and rightly so.  Every parish was encouraged to undertake a mission audit, to engage with the needs of its community, to serve the whole parish and especially the poor.  The Church Urban Fund was established to provide resources, on which we drew over the coming nine years.  In Ovenden, as in many parishes, we developed initiatives with the elderly, with the unemployed and for young families.  We grew a network of playgroups and toddler groups.  I was a governor of the two local schools, networked regularly with social workers and police working on the estates, developed after school and school holiday care and so on.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Faith in the City, an event which does not seem to have been marked.  It remains in my view, one of the most impressive and far reaching Church of England reports in my lifetime and I think will continue to be visible in history a hundred years after its publication.  As someone who has been involved in producing some more modest national Church of England reports, I pay tribute to all those involved.  Their work has stood the test of time.  I wouldn’t take a single chapter out of Faith in the City today.  I would also pay tribute to the Church Urban Fund, past and present and all the initiatives developed under its aegis.

However, I do believe now, with hindsight, that Faith in the City has a missing chapter.  I would call that chapter something like: “Developing Disciples in the City”.  It would cover the intentional building up of the Christian community at the heart of the church and the parish: prayer, evangelism, apologetics, catechesis; the making and sustaining of disciples; intentionally developing the faith of children and young people; growing the community of the church so that, in the words of Bishop Paul Bayes, a bigger church can make a greater difference to the communities we serve.  All Christian communities decline naturally unless there is intentional engagement with teaching the faith to enquirers and to the young.  As our communities decline so the impact of those communities in all kinds of ways grows less.

Faith in the City was developed in a season when there was something of a dichotomy between evangelism on the one hand and social action on the other.  It played its part in helping younger evangelicals, including me, to embrace fully an agenda of serving the whole of society and seeking its transformation.  But the report does nothing to highlight the critical tasks of evangelism and catechesis to draw children and young people, women and men to Christ and to be Christian disciples as of equal importance in the building of the church and the blessing of the city.

There are those who see that dichotomy and tension as continuing in the life of the Church of England.  Some read the story of the last thirty years in this way.  Faith in the City and the 1980’s represented a high point of a certain kind of Anglican witness and public engagement.  From the 1990’s onwards, the pendulum has swung back towards what is sometimes described as the growth agenda with the Decade of Evangelism, Mission Shaped Church and other, later initiatives.  This focus on numerical growth has moved attention away from social and political engagement, the service of the poor and the transformation of society.

I want to resist that reading both of the historical narrative and the present priorities of the Church of England. My alternative narrative is that Faith in the City was developed in a short period when there was a dichotomy between evangelism and social action in the Church of England.  That dichotomy was not evident in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It is not evident from 2000 onwards.  But in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s there is a short window of division in the models of Anglican mission which did affect this otherwise great report and its reception.

The authentic Anglican understanding of mission embraces both evangelism and the growth of the church in numbers and depth of discipleship and community service and social action.  That is our DNA caught so beautifully in the marks of mission and in the ministry of figures such as William Temple.  The embracing of evangelism and catechesis does not mean the forsaking of community service and transformation and investment in the growth of the church does not mean and should not mean the abandonment of community service and social action.  We witness in the pattern of the incarnation.  Jesus says to the disciples on Easter Day: “As the Father has sent me so I send you”[3].  The pattern of Christ’s mission is the pattern for our own.  It will involve loving service, generous self giving, seeking the well being of the city.

The best vision statements in the life of the Church of England at the present time seek to capture that comprehensive vision for mission.  The goals we have worked with in the present quinquennium nationally are about spiritual and numerical growth; serving the common good and re-imagining ministry.  The vision statement for the Diocese of Sheffield is intentionally framed to capture this comprehensive vision for mission:

“The Diocese of Sheffield is called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world.”[4]

We need a both-and mission.  But that both and will include evangelism and catechesis and all the other disciplines of evangelization as a key part of urban ministry.  We need to develop disciples in the city.

2.  Lessons from the past

I made many mistakes as Vicar of Ovenden and I continue to make them now as Bishop of Sheffield.  But with a perspective of more than 25 years, some things stand out as good decisions.  One of the best was the decision to set aside an evening a week every week to teach the faith to enquirers and new Christians.  I didn’t have a vocabulary to describe what I was doing but I would now say I was beginning to rediscover catechesis.  Over nine years, hardly a week went by when I was not involved in teaching the faith in that way.  When one group ended, another began.  The smallest group was half a dozen people. The largest was around thirty.

That medium sized urban congregation grew steadily largely through adults and children and young people coming to faith and becoming established in faith and continuing in their discipleship.  Most had very little or no church background.  The material we developed in those groups eventually became part of a set of materials published as Emmaus[5].  I wrote about what we were doing in a couple of small handbooks[6].  The growth of the church meant that we were able to grow and expand the good work we were doing on the estates of Ovenden.  The good work we were doing meant a steady stream of new contacts, some of whom wanted to discover more about Christian faith.  Catechesis, teaching the faith well, was the missing key to developing disciples in urban ministry.

Part of my inspiration in rediscovering catechesis came from an earlier and deeper tradition in Anglican life.  On my retreat prior to my ordination as deacon, someone encouraged me to read Richard Baxter’s book, The Reformed Pastor[7].  I’ve read it many times since.  Baxter was Curate in Kidderminster from 1641 to 1660.  He focussed his ministry on catechesis and in particular teaching the faith from house to house, with remarkable effect.  His work inspired many subsequent generations of Anglican clergy in all kinds of situations.  The Church of England commemorates Richard Baxter in our calendar on 14th June, yesterday.

I have since discovered that Baxter’s work forms part of a long tradition of the practice and reflection on catechesis in England in the first two hundred years in the Church of England following the Reformation.  Last year I was invited to write a paper for the General Synod on the subject of Developing Discipleship.  One of the recommendations of that paper was that the House of Bishops commission work on a revised catechism.  I am currently involved with others in scoping that work and as part of that, I am exploring the history of the present catechism, a revised version of the form found in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

The key text is a weighty book of Church history called The Christians ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c.1530-1740 by Ian Green[8].  It was published in 1996 and is sadly now quite rare.  It is fascinating in all kinds of ways.  The ordinary parish clergy of the Church of England invested a huge amount of time and energy in catechesis in the first two hundred years after the Reformation.  They were after all seeking to teach the Christian faith with a renewed and Protestant interpretation in the English language for the first time in the history of these islands.  They took seriously the call to make disciples.

Between 1530 and 1740, how many published catechisms, aids to teaching the faith, do you think might have been printed in England?  Bear in mind that printing was in its infancy and publishing was closely regulated.  The answer, according to Ian Green, is over 1,000.  We still have all or part of over 600 of them.  Many were bestsellers.  Some were so successful that they were pirated.

Catechesis was a new discipline in 1530. It took two generations to become widespread and universal but by 1600, according to the returns from the Dioceses of Lincoln and Newcastle, 80% of parish clergy were practicing what was prescribed in the canons and prayer book – they were setting aside time each Sunday for the catechesis of children.

This was a period of slowly rising literacy.  The catechism was most commonly printed with a short primer setting out the alphabet, used to teach people to read.  Once you had learned your letters, you then went on to learn the catechism, based around the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

Catechisms were produced at three different levels according to Green: beginners, for children and the unlearned; intermediate for slightly older children and those who wanted to go deeper; and advanced, full theological texts and expositions of the catechisms.  The focus on catechesis (normally in the half hour before Evening Prayer on Sundays) encouraged the development of catechetical preaching: expository series of sermons on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the sacraments.  These were part of the essential task of all of the ordained.  Leading theologians of the day would publish their catechetical sermons as a means of teaching the faith.

Most catechisms followed the fourfold shape of teaching though the order varies.  Doctrine is taught through the Apostles Creed; prayer is taught through the Lord’s Prayer; conduct and behavior are taught through the Commandments and worship and participation in the life of the church taught through the sacraments.  The 1549 catechism lacks a section on the sacraments. This was added in 1604.  But apart from that alteration, the 1549 catechism was the common factor through these 200 years.  The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments were the heart of the new English Christianity which people learned as children and inhabited for the rest of their lives.  These lessons were often reinforced through these key texts being reproduced in the fabric of the churches built in this period.  A key part, perhaps the key part, of the role of the minister was to teach this faith, publicly and privately, in every parish in the land.

There was agreement between Anglican and dissenting churches on the benefits of catechesis and broad agreement on doctrine.  The key catechism for the Church of England remained the 1549 catechism.  The key catechism for the dissenters became the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648.

Catechism took place in church, in the home and in the schools across the land.  Catechizing was required of the clergy in the canons and there is evidence of complaints being brought by church wardens when this duty of teaching the faith was not fulfilled.

3.  The benefits of catechesis

Ian Green draws out from all of these 1,000 printed catechisms, the benefits of catechesis.  These are described often in the preface to the published works as the bishops and clergy encourage one another to teach the faith.  I believe each of them is relevant today[9].

  1. Catechesis laid the necessary basis of religious knowledge without which an individual could not hope for salvation.  Clearly this is the most fundamental of reasons.  If the Church desires to see children, men and women brought to a saving faith in Christ then we must teach that faith courageously, persistently, skillfully, in ways which people can understand and ways which are comprehensive.
  1. Catechesis enabled members of the church to achieve a deeper understanding of the scriptures and of what took place during church services.   To grow in discipleship, to participate meaningfully in worship, to understand and follow preaching, all these presume an understanding of the fundamentals of Christianity.  These must be laid down through patient, careful introductory teaching.
  1. Third, catechesis prepared people for a fuller part in church life by helping them to frame a profession of faith and to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Catechesis becomes linked at an early stage in the English tradition with preparation for the rite of confirmation, which fulfills both functions: making your own profession of faith and admission to Holy Communion.  It was vital of course in post Reformation England that this admission was on the basis of an understanding of what was happening in the rite.  This needed to be clearly taught.
  1. Fourth, catechesis helped those being instructed to distinguish true doctrine from false.  England in this period was a pluralistic society in the sense of competing understandings of the Christian faith.  It was vital that church members were equipped to navigate through this with discernment.
  1. And finally, catechesis promoted Christian virtue and dissuaded from vice, particularly through learning by heart and understanding the Ten Commandments and all which flows from them.

It seems to me that each of these benefits of catechesis is as relevant today as we teach the faith as it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The Church is faced today with the challenge of teaching and communicating faith to a population of adults, children and young people which understands very little of Christianity.  We need once again to make a massive investment and to master these basic skills of disciple making.  There is a need to teach people the way of salvation; to help them understand and navigate the scriptures; to induct people into the life of the Church and the sacraments; to distinguish true doctrine from false and to promote virtue and dissuade from vice.

If we were reframing these purposes of catechesis today, I would want to add a sixth.  The Protestant Reformation, as we understand it now, was not strong on mission to and within our own communities.  The Christendom mentality carried over from the Catholic to the Protestant countries for the whole of this period.  I would want to add therefore a missional dimension to catechesis and frame that in this way.

  1. The purpose of catechesis is to equip God’s people in mission and ministry; to enable every disciple to discern their vocation and play their part in God’s mission in family, workplace and society.

Our calling is to induct people into the Christian way of life not only in the Church but in the world.

In addition to these benefits for those who are catechized, there are clear benefits for the Church which invests in and reflects on how it teaches the Christian faith from generation to generation.  These are some of the reasons behind my hope that the Church of England is about to blow the dust off its catechism, currently stored near the back of the cupboard in the vestry, hidden behind the old hymn books and sadly neglected.

The benefits of catechesis for the Church which practices it begin with two gains of inestimable value.  They are the whole ball game.  The first is the benefit that children are more likely to grow up within the family of the Christian faith for the whole of their lives.  The second is a steady stream of adults joining every parish church and Christian congregation year by year such that these communities grow.

However there are further, deeper benefits.  These include clarity about and confidence in our doctrine, the syllabus of catechesis.  This is probably the generation of Anglicans which is most careless of doctrine than any since the Reformation.  They include developing a common understanding and resources in education, though that will be very different from the sixteenth century.  They include benefits in the development and growth of clergy and lay ministers: the surest way to understanding something is of course to teach it to others, over and over again.

4.  Contemporary catechesis?

So what might contemporary catechesis look like and how might it be applied in the present day Church of England and especially in urban areas?  How do we and should we develop disciples in the city?

Here are two decisions I have made as a contemporary bishop in an urban setting which I hope will stand the test of time.

The first is to hold before the Diocese of Sheffield the importance of catechesis as the key to our renewal and growth (although I seldom use the word in public).   For six years now I have urged every parish to recover the lost disciplines of catechesis and become skilled in them.  These lost disciplines are very simple.  Learn to sow the good seed of the gospel to those outside the church.  Teach the faith to enquirers and new Christians.  Deepen the faith of every disciple.  We need to become once again a teaching church.  These disciplines should be a call on the time of every priest and deacon, modeled by the bishops, and a call on the time of many lay ministers.

It is difficult to do all of this at the same time particularly in a smaller parish with stretched resources.

For that reason, in Sheffield, we encourage all our parishes to follow a simple annual cycle.  We set aside ten days of prayer from Ascension to Pentecost to pray for the growth of the church and for the gift of new disciples.  We ask every parish and fresh expression to focus on sowing the good seed of the gospel in August, September and October.  We ask every parish and fresh expression to offer some kind of course for enquirers and new Christians between October and Easter to teach the faith simply, engagingly and well to those who want to learn more.  We ask every parish and fresh expression to deepen the faith of every Christian disciple between Easter and the summer.


We have taught the virtues of this cycle many times in deaneries and parishes and at diocesan events.

Since we first articulated this cycle we have been round it some five times. This year we moved all of our confirmations into the period from Easter to Pentecost.  My normal expectation from next year is that most parishes will bring candidates most years even if only a handful of people.  There is a sense that the cycle gets deeper year by year and we become a little better at recovering these skills.  We still have a long way to go.  There are many parishes where these disciplines were simply not being practiced and had not been for many years.  Last week at our first Diocesan conference for twelve years, I asked people to put their hands up if they had run a nurture course in the last year or were planning to put run one in the next year.  Every hand went up.  It was a moving moment.

Catechesis is unspectacular, faithful, unglamorous work but is right at the heart of what it means to be a priest or a lay minister in the Church of England.  It is also one of the most rewarding of disciplines according to every survey and the single factor most likely to make a difference to the growth of the church.  If we are serious about developing disciples then every local church, every parish, every fresh expressions needs to become a place of Christian formation, the making of disciples.  That will mean many things but the most essential is good, loving, catechesis: careful and regular teaching made available about the heart and core of the Christian faith and setting aside time in the clerical week to invest in that patient and regular teaching.

The second decision I made, with others, was this: to invest time and energy in the development of new catechetical resources for the whole Church.  The House of Bishops in this quinquenium has produced a major new resource for teaching and learning the faith: Pilgrim[10].  Pilgrim is based on clear, solid catechetical principles.  The annual cycle from the Diocese of Sheffield is part of the way we suggest parishes use the materials.  I am one of four core authors but we have drawn on the gifts of many bishops and theologians in the Church of England and beyond.

As authors we have worked with the three core texts of the 1549 catechism: the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.  We have added in the Beatitudes, the fourth key text often used in catechesis in the patristic period and commended in recent Anglican resources.[11]  There are resources in Pilgrim for initial nurture for enquirers in which nothing is assumed.  There are resources of encouraging mature discipleship.  We hope that Pilgrim will encourage other forms of catechetical preaching and teaching, taking the whole community back to these fundamental texts.

Publication was completed in February of this year.  The reception of Pilgrim has been extremely positive.  Parishes of different persuasions and traditions are using the material.  People are encountering Christ afresh.  The sales of the books have been remarkable.  There is interest already from other parts of the world.

The educational method used in Pilgrim is, of course, different from the catechetical work of the sixteenth century.  Fundamental to the Pilgrim material is the careful reading of short passages of scripture and the reflection on these passages by the whole group in the pattern known as lectio divina[12].

5.  Catechesis in the City: striving for simplicity

Are there particular themes and emphases in making disciples in the city and in urban ministry?  Cities are varied places and one of the keys to effective catechesis is that the style and manner of teaching should be adapted to the audience.  In our day we need our beginners material, our intermediate material and our advanced material.

But there is no doubt whatsoever that the place where we struggle the most is the material for beginners.  Simplicity is elusive for Anglicans when it comes to teaching the faith.

The same was true of our forebears.  From 1530-1740 there was a constant tension between simplicity to enable the faith to be taught to those who knew nothing and complexity adequate to the subject matter.  Catechisms had a tendency to grow longer which made them both hard to memorise and difficult to understand and, of course, to teach.

The model which shines out through this period is the Prayer Book catechism of 1549 which is short, simple and to the point: the Apostles Creed, the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.  It was amended only once, in 1604, with five new questions on the sacraments.  Otherwise it stood the test of time rather well.

The production of the Revised Catechism of 1958, still authorized for teaching, succeeded in adding a great deal to this material and almost doubling the length of what was to be taught and learned.

The Pilgrim material works well in many different contexts.  Users tell us that they adapt it for use in non book cultures or non literate contexts, which is vital.  I think that if there are any future developments of Pilgrim they should be towards developing even simpler resources for use with children and young people and with those in urban areas.

There is much more to making disciples in the city than the teaching material and style.  It has to do with going to where people are, with practical expressions of love, with walking with people who have chaotic lives, with striving to build community, with prayfulness and holiness of life.  But simple, careful teaching and learning is at the heart of this task of developing disciples in the city.

[1] Faith in the City, A Call for Action by Church and Nation, Church House Publishing, 1985

[2] Eliza Filby, God and Mrs Thatcher, The Battle for Britain’s Soul, Biteback Publishing, 2015 especially pp. 172ff

[3] John 20.21.


[5] Stephen Cottrell, Steven Croft, John Finney, Felicity Lawson, Robert Warren, Emmaus the Way of Faith, eight volumes, CHP, 1996-1998.

[6] Steven Croft, Growing New Christians, CPAS, 1993, Making New Disciples, CPAS, 1994

[7] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 1656

[8] OUP, 1996.

[9] Ian Green, op cit. pp.26-44

[10] Robert Atwell, Stephen Cottrell, Steven Croft, Paula Gooder, Pilgrim: a course for the Christian journey, 9 volumes, CHP, 2013-2015

[11] On the Way, Towards an Integrated Approach to Christian Initiation, CHP, 1995, p.45 and Common Worship, Christian Initiation, 2006, pp. 40ff: “In order to give shape to their discipleship, all baptized Christians should be encouraged to explore these four texts and make them their own: the Summary of the Law, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and the Beatitudes”.

[12] For a simple explanation see the Pilgrim leader’s guide pp. 46-48 or


I spent 3 days last week in Stuttgart in Germany as a guest of the something called the Kirchentag. It’s a great gathering of Protestant Christians from all across Germany.  There were 30,000 active participants and over 100,000 visitors to different events all across the city.  The programme is half an inch thick and includes conversations on every possible subject.

I was there to meet with German pioneers and to take part in a seminar on the English experience of forming fresh expressions of church. But the whole event got me thinking….  Why can’t we do something on this scale in Sheffield?

So how about an annual Sheffield Christian Festival?  One which tries to draw together every stream of the Christian church in the city and region and celebrates our common faith?  A blend of Greenbelt and Taizé and New Wine and Soul Survivor and Spring Harvest and Walsingham only right here in this city and region.  Can you imagine it?

Sheffield is already a city renowned for its festivals.  We have DocFest and a live music festival and a comedy festival annually. We have strong local festivals in many parts of the city.  Why not a celebration of Christian faith right here where we are?

I’ve been reflecting for some time on the absence of strong Christian festivals in the north of England, especially since the demise of New Wine North a couple of years ago.  I’ve been trying to imagine how we could start slowly and build something here: perhaps camping out on Doncaster racecourse or Beauchief Abbey.

But camping is not really that appealing.  And it would be hard to offer something for everyone in a single event or style.  So how about something stretching over a long weekend which draws people into the city and celebrates all the different churches have to offer?  Isn’t it the kind of thing a humble, confident church should be doing?

Almost 25 years ago the churches of this city and region combined in a remarkable way for Mission England.  Many still remember that as a high point of collaboration.  There was much fruit.  Over the last couple of months there has been a new beginning with church leaders from different streams coming together to pray.  Perhaps the idea of a City Festival is part of the answer.

I’m the kind of person who sometime has ten ideas before breakfast.  Not all of them are good ones.  Those who work with me sometimes bear the scars and have learned to sit on me from time to time.

But every so often, there’s one which is worth pursuing.  How about it?  An ecumenical, regional, annual Festival of Christian Faith in Sheffield to build up the churches, to strengthen faith and discipleship, to witness to our common faith, to celebrate God’s love and make an impact across our region.  First one in 2017?

Let me know what you think either by posting a comment or by email.

+Steven Sheffield


The Revd Tina Molyneux is spearheading a scheme that is transforming people’s faith journeys across the Diocese of  Oxford. She tells Bishop Steven about her own life and her work as our new discipleship enabler.