A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod, September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how will the servant do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Bishop of Oxford
Presidential address to Diocesan Synod
5 September 2020

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


I’ve been to London today for a Celebration and Consultation on self supporting ministry.  The Celebration was in Southwark Cathedral and marked the 50th anniversary of the first ordinations from the Southwark Ordination Course in 1963.  The consultation was with around 80 people from most of the Dioceses in the Church of England about the nature and the future of self supporting ordained ministry.

All the material from the consultations will be on the Ministry Division website in due course but here is my sermon from the Cathedral this morning

Generosity, humility, liminality A Sermon at “A New Pattern of Priesthood” Celebration and Consultation Southwark Cathedral 17th May, 2013

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?”[1]

All of us here will have reflected many times on this encounter between Simon Peter and the Lord.  St. John tells the story as a lesson in grace, restoration and love.  But it is especially a story about vocation and the vocation to feed Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross.

For many it is a story which recurs in the account of our own vocation to be priests in the Church of God, a story to which we return again and again as we understand more deeply what it is to offer our lives to this ministry.  A few months ago, I stood beside the excavated tombs underneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome reputed to be the tomb of Peter himself and listened again to these familiar words and once again was deeply moved.  In this encounter Jesus calls Simon the son of John to become once again Peter, the living rock from which the church will be fashioned.

A key moment in the story is the phrasing of the first question and Simon Peter’s reply.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Here is a question which invites an extravagant, passionate, declaration of love and faithfulness.  Here is a question which tests our hearts in a number of different ways. Simon Peter reply reveals he knows himself only too well.  His love has been tested and is deep and real yet so is his knowledge of himself.  He declines the invitation to compare himself with others and replies, simply: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you”. “Feed my lambs”.

We celebrate today a very significant development in ordained ministry in the Church of England.  Fifty years ago the first candidates were ordained from the Southwark Ordination Course heralding the development of new forms of training and new patterns of ordained ministry.  These new patterns of priesthood have been and are an immense blessing to the kingdom of God and to the Church.  With the hindsight of fifty years, those ordinations stand out as a landmark in the development of the life of the Church of England.  Like the Great Wall of China they are visible from space. The new patterns of priesthood which flowed from them continue to develop. We continue to explore and understand the gift we have been given.  These new patterns are likely to be more not less significant in the fifty years to come.

So it is right that we should celebrate today the generosity and grace of God in these ministries. It is right that we should celebrate the gifts and foresight of those who led this development in the life of Southwark Diocese and the wider church: the prophets, like Roland Allen, the bishops, especially Mervyn Stockwood and John Robinson, the staff of the Southwark Ordination Course and its cousins and successors.

Stockwood writes eloquently about the Course in his autobiography.  In his enthronement sermon in this Cathedral he said “I should like to see cautious experiments with a new type of priesthood and a new type of organization”[2].  The ideas, like all new ideas were resisted.  Stockwood wrote twenty years later:  “I put my plans to the meeting of bishops.  They were not enthusiastically received, least of all by those who had been principals of theological colleges and who found it difficult to believe that there could be an alternative method of training”.  The words may sound familiar.  I couldn’t possibly comment.

It is right that we should celebrate, above all, the gifts and skills of those who have offered their lives as deacons and priests in these ministries and have been a blessing to God’s people and to the world.

What are the benefits of this kind of training?  What is it that characterizes this new pattern of priesthood which we have called by so many different acronyms?

Twenty years after the Southwark Ordination Course was founded, Mervyn Stockwood was very down to earth in his reflections.  He lists four benefits of the course.  “1. It accepted men of different persuasions and trained them together where most colleges cater for a single point of view.” A revolutionary effect.  “2. The men did not learn their theology in a vacuum.” Contextual theology was established. “3. It taught men to work hard.” I quote: “There are too many clergy in the Church of England who are acquainted with only one verse in the Holy Scripture namely how “to be at ease in Sion”.  “4. It was sound economics.”  That remains true today.[3]

But fifty years on, let me offer you three words for reflection.

These different forms of self-supporting ministry are characterized first of all, it seems to me, by generosity.  They are by definition a gift.  A gift of time given to vocational exploration and to training which is costly to the candidate and to their family.  A gift of time and of self given to ministry without financial reward or gain.  A gift of service sustained in similar ways over many years. Self supporting ministry and stability seem to go together.  A gift of love for the Lord and for his church.  As John Chrysostom says, Jesus calls Peter to demonstrate his love for the Lord by care for his flock. This new pattern of priesthood is characterized first by generosity.

Second, this new pattern of priesthood is characterized, it seems to me, by humility.  Humility is present as we have seen in Peter’s answer.  It is enough to say: “Yes Lord you know I love you”.  There is no need to compete with the love offered by others.  It is enough to offer what we can.  Self supporting ministries offer servant leadership in a particular way.  Those who serve in this way have to offer what they can, constrained by time and circumstances, and offer what is needed. They are not caught up in temptations to ambition or influence which afflict those called to stipendiary ministry. This is a liberating gift to the priests themselves and to the wider church though it has its cost.  It is a pattern of priesthood shaped by humility.

Third, I suggest, this new form of priesthood is shaped by liminality: by living permanently on the edge and between two or more worlds. This can be a blessing.  It can also be complex and demanding as many here will know.  But it is a precious gift to the wider church and has many lessons for a church in mission.

A new pattern of priesthood.  A pattern which is still unfolding.  A pattern of priesthood characterized by generosity, humility and liminality.  How is the wider church called to respond to such a pattern?

The generosity at the heart of self supporting ministry calls for appreciation to be shown by the wider church.  We should be saying thank you often and loudly and registering that appreciation in a range of different ways.  All too often we have not done that. Those who trained on courses or offer self supporting ministries have felt undervalued.  Fifty years on we need to turn a page and grow up.  The Church needs to do better.

The humility at the heart of self-supporting ministry calls for recognition on the part of the wider church.  We need to recognize especially the immense wisdom which those called to ministry in these way have to offer the wider body of Christ. Self-supporting ministers seldom exercise power and authority within the Church for all kinds of reasons.  But space needs to be created for them to exercise influence and speak more into our counsels.

And the liminality at the heart of self-supporting ministry calls for anchoring and security on the part of the wider church. It is always difficult to live between two worlds.  One of the things you need are secure lines of connexion and accountability which are both personal and institutional.  As all the research indicates, self supporting ministers are not self supporting in this sense: they need support from their bishops and dioceses in order to sustain this edgy and liminal pattern of priesthood which is so vital for God’s mission.

Generosity calls for appreciation.  Humility calls for recognition.  Liminality calls for security.  For here’s the mystery.  The new patterns of priesthood in the economy of God have simply revealed more clearly what it means to be a priest in the Church of God.  For every priest, of course, is called to be generous, to be humble, to live between two worlds.

We will see the patterns continue to change and evolve in the next fifty years, I am sure.  I hope that more and more we will lose the distinction between priests who are stipendiary and priests who are self supporting.  I hope that all of us will learn to be generous, to be humble, to be liminal.  I hope that we will grow a single ministerial priesthood in which some of us, for some of our lives, receive financial support.  I hope that as a church we will be offer greater appreciation, stronger recognition and more sure footed mutual support.

And I hope that each of us here this day will be inspired by what God has done through the Southwark Ordination Course and it’s students. I pray we may be inspired in our own day to think outside the traditional structures and see new patterns of ministry and training develop.  And I pray that each of us would hear once more the question which lies at the heart of our vocation:

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. “Feed my lambs”.

[1] John 21.15

[2] Mervyn Stockwood, Chactonbury Ring, Sheldon Press, 1982 p.102

[3] ibid p. 107

This morning the Synod began to listen to the contributions of the Synod Fathers.  Each speaks for five minutes only on any aspect of the topic or agenda and each is allowed only one contribution during the main plenary sessions.

The contribution which spoke most powerfully to me this morning began with a question which the Bishop speaking had been asked by a young person: are the youth lost or has the Church lost us?  The Bishop went on to make an appeal for the Church to cultivate three qualities above all others which will create the conditions for the new evangelisation.

The Church must learn humility and learn humility from Jesus Christ who came not to serve but to be served.  We must become a humble church not pre-occupied with itself.

Second, the Church must learn respect for every human person as Christ was a respecter of persons.

Third the Church must discover again the power of silence: that there are no easy solutions in the face of the great suffering in the world.

There were many other contributions but this is the one which I will reflect on most from today in the coming days.  It speaks of a Church which is learning to be Christ-like again: a church of the beatitudes.

As I tune into the Synod I am beginning to hear two different kinds of contributions from the Synod Fathers.  There are contributions which argue that to go forward the Church must return to fundamentals and do them better (enliven the liturgy; preach the word better; deepen observance of the sacrament of reconciliation).  And there are contributions which argue that to go forward the Church must listen more deeply to the culture, understand it better and be prepared to communicate the gospel in new ways.

Just occasionally there is the glimpse of a contribution which suggests that both are essential and it will be interesting to see which of these voices predominates as we move through the different contributions.

But humility, respect and silence are the themes of the day for me.

It was very good to make my first visit to the Anglican Centre in Rome today and preach at the Tuesday Eucharist there.  Excellent also to see Ken Howcroft again (now Methodist minister in Rome) and to learn that there is a fresh expression of church attached to All Saints Anglican Church here led by a newly ordained deacon.