Bishop Steven addressing Area Deans and Lay Chairs. January 2023

This article offers some biblical and theological reflection on where we are and where we are going, based around the Beatitudes. But my way into that reflection are two sets of statistics.

The first are the Census results published 30 November. The banner headline in the i newspaper: ‘UK Christians in minority for first time since the Dark Ages’. According to the Census, less that half the UK population identify as Christian for the first time in 1,500 years. The Express led with the same story: less than half of population is Christian. We were expecting the outcome of the Census. We know that we are becoming more diverse as a society. We know that those of no religion are the fastest growing group. But the figure is significant, a timely reminder of the challenges we face and something of a call to action.

The second statistics are the first analysis of church attendance across the diocese from October 2022. These are not yet complete. The full report will be published in the next few weeks and the full statistics for mission later in the year. But thanks to Dr Bev Botting’s analysis we have a first take on what is happening as a whole across the diocese in terms of church attendance at this point in the journey through and beyond COVID.

The statistics confirm what you will know from your own deanery. Thanks to the prayers and love and sheer hard work of clergy and lay ministers and volunteers we are 80% there in terms of this long regathering. That’s an amazing achievement after the disruption of COVID and all of the ongoing demands.

We know the overall picture is still quite fragile. Recovery is taking longer than anticipated. I was in Slough in mid-December listening to the clergy chapter. Once again I found their commitment and dedication hugely impressive. They were experiencing increased pastoral demands higher needs and lower resources. Energy is slow to return to the body of Christ. But there were also here, as elsewhere, many signs of life and hope.

The trend is still upward in terms of attendance: if we take October 19 as our baseline then we were back to 73% of attendance in October 21; a dip again to 67% at Easter 22 (during another COVID wave); and then up to 81% by October.

Those figures increase where churches are still streaming to more than 100% of the October 2019 figure. Fewer churches were streaming in October than at Easter for understandable reasons, but streaming is still worthwhile for those who cannot come to church.

The biggest learning from the October count seems to be that many individual congregations generally are back to their pre-COVID size, but benefices for various reasons have reduced the number of services in the week either on Sundays or midweek – often for understandable reasons of low resources and low energy. Where this happens, by and large, people have not transferred to other worship services.

As God’s life flows back into the vine from this long winter, we need to be putting creativity and resources into re-opening when we can those midweek and Sunday services and beginning new congregations – especially those focussed on children, young people and families. Where that happens – and we see it happening – there are signs of hope and life.

The two sets of statistics give us an indication of what is happening in our wider society and also what is happening in the life of the Church in this season. Both of these snapshots lead us back to our central calling to witness to the love of God in word and in action: to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.

They lead us, I hope into a deeper encounter with God in Christ and they encourage us to place a greater emphasis on sharing our faith in different ways in the coming years with love and with confidence. All too often in my experience, a focus on statistics tips the Church into endless conversations about scarcity and spirals of decline instead of leading to a focus on Christ and on the good news.

Seven disciplines of evangelism

In every generation the Church has developed ways of communicating the gospel. [Papers shared with my senior staff, area deans and lay chairs] unfold what I’ve called the seven disciplines of evangelism: seven colours of a rainbow which make up our common witness.

Our evangelism is rooted in prayer and encounter with God, in contemplation. Our evangelism flows from being a more Christ-like Church: living like Jesus and serving our communities. Our evangelism locally and as a diocese embraces apologetics – presenting a rationale for the faith we hold and seeking to remove obstacles to belief. Our evangelism is concerned with witness to our friends and neighbours and every congregation offering ways for beginners to explore faith and come to baptism as we will do this Lent through Come and See.

Our understanding of evangelism will embrace forming disciples who are mature in faith and learning to grow and regrow the Church in the image of Christ. Our evangelism will include forming and growing new congregations to meet the needs of those outside the churches.

New resources to support lay formation and discipleship

We will be launching later this year a whole suite of resources to support lay formation and discipleship in every day faith – including these disciplines. These will include a new one year foundation course for lay ministry to begin in September as a way of exploring and discovering vocation. It will be delivered partly online and partly in person. I hope to be teaching the first term’s programme each year on these seven disciplines of evangelism, so that all of our ministers are equipped and formed in these habits and disciplines.

But as we know, techniques and methods and training courses are not the whole answer. We need as a Church deep spiritual and theological renewal: to come deeper into Christ. We need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our work. We need continually a fresh vision of what it means to be human and in Christ.

As we look back in Church history we see clearly that the Church has emphasised different facets of the jewel of the gospel in different times and seasons. In one period of the Church there has been an emphasis on freedom in Christ; in another on assurance of salvation; in another on the experience of God’s Spirit. Each period, each season will take us back to Scripture and the tradition to draw out good news for our own generation. What is that message for this moment, for now, for those who are longing for new life in our own communities?

My own reflection is that this generation, this moment, now, is that this generation is hungry and thirst for significance: to know that they matter and that individual lives matter. That each is deeply precious and loved. I find myself preaching more and more at confirmation services on the words prior to the laying on of hands: Steven, God has called you by name and made you his own. We need to know that we are significant.

Why is this important?

Why is this important now? In part because of what science tells us about the size of the universe. We see more and more clearly if we dare to think about it how vast and ancient the universe is, how marginal the earth is, how tiny and insignificant we are in the physical world. In part because of what technology has done to bring the world together. The global population reached 8 billion on 15th November. Technology connects us together. We are aware of one another. We feel compassion for floods in Pakistan; drone attacks in Kiev and wildfires in California 24 hours a day. Yet many people testify to never feeling more alone. We have knowledge at our fingertips but have never been more in need of wisdom: the ability to live well. That living well begins with a sense of significance: of being someone in the vastness of creation.

This generation in particular lives with a vast and existential fear of the danger to the planet from environmental disaster and climate change which will shape our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. In order to combat this disaster we need confidence in our own significance: to know that we can make a difference.

That longing for significance underlies much of what is happening in Church and society. For example, we are working hard on racial justice. The movement which began after the death of George Floyd was called Black Lives Matter. We see this theme of significance in many of the current debates within the Church – including around human sexuality and gender.

We need to know that we are loved, that we matter. The primary place that sense of significance can come from is our maker. The second place that significance comes from is our closest relationships. The way we know that we are loved is to listen to Jesus, to place our trust in Jesus and in the great and transformative truths of the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection.

The Sermon on the Mount is the place that Jesus addresses the question of human significance. Consider the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. Are you not worth more than these? You are so significant that the very words that come from your mouth will be accounted for. Your Father in heaven knows you and loves you. Your Father in heaven sees even and especially what you do in secret, behind closed doors. Your Father in heaven knows and understands even your secret jealousies and hatreds and desires.

Every human life is significant but the Church, the people of God, even more significant. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. There is a responsibility placed on you because of the grace you have received. In this generation above all we are bearers of meaning for the world.

Eight qualities: the Beatitudes

And this significance is not measured as the world measures it – and here we come at last to the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon on the Mount. In the upside down kingdom of God, this significance and meaning does not belong to the wealthy or powerful, the proud or the educated, the technocrats or the pleasure seekers.

Jesus says blessed – significant – are the poor in spirit – those who know their need of God. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The significant ones are those who mourn in compassion for the needs of the world and share its griefs. They shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek – the really significant ones are the ones who are overlooked. They will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who long to change the world. They will be satisfied.

The ones to notice are the merciful, the gentle, the kind. They will receive mercy. Integrity is significant and, as we know, the rarest of qualities in public life.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Significant are the peacemakers. In fact they are so significant for they will be called children of God. Take notice of those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Our calling is to be more and more the Church of the Beatitudes: our significance does not rest in the number of people in our congregations or the cleverness of our ministers or the size of our PCC reserves or the beauty of our buildings. Our significance will rest in the way we reflect the character of Christ and witness to God’s love in all we seek to do.

As energy returns to our churches and as the process of spiritual renewal continues, it is vital that we rebalance our common life towards these seven disciplines of evangelism. We have a responsibility to our society and culture to pass on this good news.

But it is even more vital that we remain centred ourselves on these eight beautiful qualities, the best description there has ever been of what it means to be human and the most profound portrait of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Come and see.

The above text is an edited version of Bishop Steven’s address to the Area Deans and Lay Chairs of the diocese, given at St Paul’s, Slough, on Saturday 28 January 2023

Come and See takes place each Lent in the Diocese of Oxford. It’s our big, warm open invitation to everyone, for everyone for an adventure in faith and trust. It’s something for the local church and the whole community… including children and young people, families and schools. It’s completely free and all are welcome. Find out more at




An (unauthorised) background paper for the General Synod. Read more

crossroadsTwenty-one bishops from across the north of England are visiting the Diocese of Sheffield in September for four days of mission together, led by the Archbishop of York.  We’ve called the mission “Crossroads”.

As far as I know, it’s the first time so many bishops have worked together in mission in this way in a single Diocese in the long history of the Church of England.  Many are bringing teams of young adults to work with them.  The Bishops are from every Diocese in the Province of York and from every tradition.  They include the most recent Bishops to be consecrated for the north: Bishop Libby Lane of Stockport and Bishop Philip North of Burnley.

After an initial service of commissioning in the Cathedral on Thursday 10th September, the Bishops will be assigned to different deaneries.  They and their teams will stay with clergy and parishioners.  The Bishops and their teams will lead hundreds of different community visits and events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  They will join in services in local parishes on Sunday morning (13th).  We will end the Crossroads mission with a single, large scale event on Sunday afternoon (details to be announced).

Born in prayer and carried forward in prayer

This four day mission to the Diocese of Sheffield was born in prayer.  In May 2014, the Archbishop of York invited all the bishops of the north to join him for 36 hours of prayer on Holy Island, one of the cradles of Christian faith in northern Britain.

One of the convictions born in the bishops as we prayed together was that God was calling us to engage in evangelism together to the North of England.  The idea was born of bishop’s visiting one Diocese each year in sequence, if possible with teams of young adults.  The dates are already booked for similar missions to Blackburn next year and Durham in 2017.

This means that Bishops across the Province will be praying for us and later this week, Bishops will be linked with the Deaneries they will be visiting in September.

However the four days of mission also needs to be rooted in prayer in this Diocese and I would ask that it is the focus of regular prayers and that we pray together for many people to hear the good news of Jesus through that four days in September.

What’s the aim of the mission?

Our aim is to sow the good seed of the gospel in many different places in September.   We want to go to people who are currently outside or on the edge of the Church.  Our hope is that through Crossroads, many people will join enquirers courses in the autumn and come to a living and lifelong faith.

We work together and in partnership with God’s grace in an annual cycle of sowing the seed of the gospel in the summer and early autumn; offering groups for enquirers and new believers from October to Easter and deepening the discipleship of every Christian from Easter to the summer.  The Crossroads mission exactly fits this pattern.

What can we do now?

Area Deans will begin to plan what will happen in your deanery from Easter onwards.  Please begin to think how your own parish could engage with Crossroads.  We’ll be producing some special materials to help with this in due course.

In the meantime please pray for the whole mission for God’s grace and blessing on all that we do.

Here is a bible verse and a prayer to help you begin your preparation:

“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”
Jeremiah 6.16

Loving God,
This world you love
stands at the crossroads.
Help us help others
to discover your Way
to know your Truth
and to share your Life
in your dear Son, Jesus Christ.
Inspire us by your Spirit
to sow the good seed of the gospel
throughout this Diocese
with imagination and compassion,
that many will come to know you
and many will be strengthened in their faith,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord

Ann and I returned yesterday from a very enjoyable two week trip to Barbados. I was invited some months ago to speak at the Congress for the Anglican Province of the West Indies and a separate pre-Congress day conference and we were able to combine the visit with a week’s holiday before the Congress began.  There were lots of offers from various colleagues to come with me and help with the trip in some way (which were much appreciated).

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Barbados is a beautiful and fascinating island with a rich and complex history.  It was a rich privilege to spend time there not only as on holiday but to gain the life of the Anglican church both there and across the West Indies. Our visit coincided with the visit of the Archbishop Justin and Mrs Caroline Welby and we were able to attend the special service to welcome him in Christ Church Oistins on 9th August.  It was very, very clear how much the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presence and ministry is appreciated.  The Archbishop preached on the joy of getting know members of the family we didn’t know we had – which was part of the joy of the whole visit.  He was very well received.

A day conference on Mission

The whole of Saturday 10th was given over to a pre-Congress day conference on Mission, Evangelism and Technology organised by the Revd. Michael Clarke who chairs the Mission and Evangelism group in the Diocese of Barbados.  I first met Michael two years ago when speaking at Church Planting conferences in Toronto.  He has been working hard to encourage the development of fresh expressions of church in Barbados and is developing Mission Shaped Ministry there to train pioneers across the West Indies (1).

Around a hundred lay people and clergy attended the day.  Two thirds were from Barbados with another third from the Bahamas, Belise, Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago.  My talk was on the Church of England’s engagement with evangelism and fresh expressions of church over the last couple of decades.  It was very striking that the questions and level of engagement was very similar to an English diocese five or six years ago (before the ideas around fresh expressions were well known).  There was a great deal of interest and excitement and a desire to see new things grow.

Sunday Worship

On Sunday morning the Congress delegates were all hosted by different parishes in Barbados.  Ann and I were warmly welcomed by St. Augustine’s in a rural community the centre of the island together with Mrs Deborah Domingo from Belize.  The parish even put up a special sign to make us feel at home.

The main Sunday services in Barbados happen very early in the morning so we began at 8.00 am for a full parish Eucharist with a robed choir, incense, a full team of servers, a baptism and a large group of visitors from the Barbados association for the blind marking the recent death of one of their much loved members.  It was very good for me to be able to preside at the Eucharist (the first time I’ve done so outside England) and to preach and for us to meet the PCC briefly afterwards.  It was good to begin to get to know the parish priest, the Revd. Suzanne Ellis, who also headed up the Barbados delegation to the Congress.  The churches in Barbados look and feel very much like parish churches in England as buildings except that the windows are normally open and there are fans rather than radiators!

The Congress itself began on Sunday evening with a full celebratory sung Eucharist in St. Peter’s, Speightstown, another of the older churches on the island.  The Church was packed.  The service was full of joy: much singing with contemporary as well as traditional hymnody.  There has only been one previous Congress for the Province of the West Indies in the year 2000 so this is not a gathering which happens very often. There were between 10 and 20 or so clergy and lay delegates from each of the eight dioceses together with the bishop.  Young people were well represented. Archbishop John Holder preached on mission and the importance of making disciples and the challenges facing Caribbean families (the main theme of the Congress).

The Prime Minister’s address

From Monday to Friday the Congress met on the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies: an impressive site and home to 4,000 or so students during the University terms.  The Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, gave the opening address (and for me one of the highlights of the week).  He spoke for 40 minutes without notes, cogently, concisely and with great erudition.  His opening words quoted Archbishop Rowan Williams at the service in Westminster Abbey in March 2007 to mark the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade.

We who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse (2)

Prime Minister Stuart spoke clearly as an heir of a community ravaged by the slave trade for two hundred years (before it was abolished) and a further hundred years of its immediate aftermath.  Families in Barbados have been completely free of the effects of slavery for just 75 years.  The effects on families of this deep scarring remain widespread and serious.  I was listening as the heir of one of the slave trading nations of the past, conscious that a few days previously we had visited the Museum of Barbados which vividly tells the story of that terrible trade and its cost.

The Prime Minister was clear that the role of the Church in this situation was not so much come up with legislative solutions and proposals to the many problems facing Carribbean families but to speak clearly and with relevance about the message of the Christian gospel to those experiencing deep frustration, insecurity, powerlessness and hopelessness.  “People need to know”, he said, “that Christ lives and faith works”.  He closed his address by quoting the English poet Arthur Clough, “Say not the struggle naught availath” and urged the Anglican Church in the West Indies to be characterised by hope (3).

Vision and Strategy for the future

Alongside a deep engagement with the challenges facing families which ran through the week, the Province was also wrestling with the questions of vision and strategy for the future.  The Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt. Revd. Howard Gregory gave two addresses and set out in the second some of the problems the Dioceses of the Province are facing including declining and ageing congregations, diminishing influence, especially with the young, clergy retirements outstripping vocations to the ordained ministry, a shift in the relationship between church and society and consequent financial challenges.  This is not a time for business as usual, he argued, but for radical change and strategic leadership.

This was reasonably familiar territory both from the Church in Great Britain and the major narrative stories I heard at the Synod of Bishops in Rome last October about the difficulty of the transmission of faith throughout the world (although there are clearly major differences between the eight dioceses in the Province).

My own contribution to the Congress in a session with the Bishops and then in a plenary was again to describe the need for the Church worldwide to engage creatively and intentionally with evangelism.  The Church of England has been wrestling with questions of secularisation for longer than the Church in the Province of the West Indies.  I spoke in detail about our journey of engagement with teaching and learning the faith in catechesis and our engagement with the creation of fresh expressions of church within and alongside parish churches.  Although the ideas about fresh expressions were very new, there was significant interest and engagement both in the session itself and subsequently.  The Church of England remains an important model for the Anglican Church in this Province for all kinds of reasons and, I hope, the way in which the Church of England has embraced change in mission might continue to be a helpful model.

The Churches role in promoting health

There were several other addresses through the week on the challenges facing Caribbean families and the Church’s response. The Congress looked at the impact of crime and violence, caring for the elderly, and the economic crisis.  There was worship, bible study, workshop sessions to process the material and reporting back to the plenary gathering.

Among the many other addresses, the highlight was the final plenary on promoting healthy lifestyle in Caribbean families by a passionate Professor of Medicine, Trevor Hassell.  He made a simple and direct appeal to the churches in the Province to be agents and promoters of good health with the emphasis on promoting good diet, an active lifestyle, campaigning against exposure to tobacco and for moderate consumption of alcohol. I realised part way through his presentation that what Professor Hassell was saying was every bit as relevant to churches in the Diocese of Sheffield which have a similar potential to be promote public health (and in an area which needs good models).  Sometimes we have to travel a long way to learn the simplest things.

And finally….

The Provincial Congress finished just yesterday.  We weren’t able to stay for the final few days of processing the information and reaching conclusions.  I look forward very much to hearing what came from the Congress in terms of ways forward.

However it was enriching, enjoyable and a great privilege to be part of the process of the Congress and to share in such a way in the life of another Province.  Particular thanks to Archbishop John Holder and to Michael Clarke and Suzanne Ellis.  I learned, as ever, at least as much as I was able to share both in substance and perspective.  My prayers will be better informed now not only for this Province but for the rest of the Anglican Communion.  There is a rich and connected family throughout the world still to be discovered.  We have much to teach each other.  Thanks be to God for the richness of the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.

(1)  For more on MSM, which is a one year part time course for teams of pioneers see:

(2) For the full text of Rowan Williams’ sermon see Rowan Williams sermon on abolition of slave trade
(3) The full text is here: Say not the struggle naught availath