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In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets a child in the midst of his disciples and invites them to reshape their priorities. What would happen if we did that today in the public square?

It was good to be at St. Michael at the Northgate on Sunday for the Patronal Festival and to mark 50 years since St. Michael’s became the civic Church of the City of Oxford. The service was attended by the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor of Oxford and members of the Council. The Bible Readings for Michaelmas were Revelation 12.7-12 and Matthew 18.1-11.

A sermon given by the Bishop of Oxford on Sunday 26 September 2021:

It’s very good to mark today the 50 years in which St. Michael at the Northgate has been the civic Church of the city of Oxford. It is good to express thanks and appreciation to those who have served as City Rectors in that time, including Anthony, and to all those who have served and serve as Mayors, Councillors and officers. Thank you for your leadership and care and especially in the challenges of the last twenty months.

St Michael’s became the City Church in 1971. We are looking back today over fifty years. By coincidence the new ITV series of Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, is also set in 1971: a good reminder of some of the changes over the last two generations. The line that stays with me from last Sunday’s episode is the taxi driver charging 75 new pence for a ride from the station to Summertown.

There have been many changes over that time. Our first reading from Revelation uses the language of war in heaven and describes the conflict between good and evil as a battle.

As we look back we can see that battles have indeed been fought and won. Our city is more inclusive. Town and gown are better integrated, each more appreciative of the other.

Oxford is described by its poorest residents as a compassionate city; a place of safety for the most vulnerable. Women are better represented in our leadership. The church and faith communities work well together. The city has been able to welcome and to integrate into its life migrants from all over the world and to celebrate diverse cultures.

Year by year we welcome students, academics and scientists and help equip them for global leadership in the arts, the sciences and the social sciences. The influence of our city extends across the world.

St. Michael and all Angels is part of this social fabric in its role as a city church: as a place of prayer and worship; in the role of the City Rector as chaplain to the Mayor and Council; as a symbol of our City’s deep Christian heritage; as a witness to the Christian values of integrity, service, humility and safeguarding the vulnerable which flow through our gospel reading.

The Church, of course, makes no claim to perfection: we are often slow to change ourselves; we continually fall far short of our ideals; we are sometimes on the wrong side in these great battles. We are called continually to repentance and to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ ourselves as the only safe foundation of our message to those around us.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven does not lie, Jesus reminds us, with politicians or religious leaders but with little children. Both politicians and religious leaders will be judged by the ways in which the interests of those children have first place in our decision making and in our actions.

Anniversaries are a good moment to look back and measure the journey we have travelled together. But they are also a moment to look forward. What are our hopes for this city as we look ahead now to another fifty years: to the year 2071. What battles lie ahead in the great war being fought in heaven and on earth? What will the Church dare say to the City in this next, uncertain chapter of our life together?

To put the question a different way: if Jesus were to place a child in our midst this morning here in Oxford in 2021, what battles would be uppermost in our minds as we look to safeguard the well-being of that child through the next generation? What needs to change?

Three are uppermost in my mind. I will be interested to know if they match your own.

The first is undoubtedly the battle being fought over the earth’s climate. The world faces twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss. Science tells us clearly that the next ten years will be decisive in that battle and will determine the future of life on earth. Will the child Jesus sets in our midst inherit a world in which all can flourish?

For Christians, we are stewards of God’s good creation. How can our city make a significant, world changing contribution to this great challenge of our age through our policies and example and convening power and the priorities we set? How can this City Church lift up and support the green agenda as part of our God given mission to the city?

The second challenge faced by the child Jesus sets in our midst is one of health and safety and especially mental, emotional and spiritual health. A child or young person growing up today will face immense pressures, many arising from the misuse and exploitation of technology.

COVID has revealed a tidal wave of mental health pressures on the young which has been building for decades. How can our city increase resources directed to the mental, emotional and spiritual health of the young through harnessing the churches and faith communities, the third sector and the health and social services? There is a battle here for investment and of priorities. How can this City Church be an advocate for children and young people as we imagine the child Jesus sets in our midst?

My third challenge for the next generation is the challenge of rising inequality: the gap between rich and poor which again has been revealed and has increased through COVID. Oxford as a city is a tremendous generator of wealth and innovation. The City anchors and will help drive the Oxford-Cambridge arc which will be an engine of the UK economy in the coming decades.

But we are also in danger of becoming a segmented city in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider to the detriment of all. How is it possible for us to become a fairer city in terms of access, health, transport, work and housing? Is it time for a fairness commission which can look at the future of our city through the lens of inequality? How can this City Church continue to set out a vision for justice and fairness for all as a core part of its role as the civic church of Oxford?

There was a war in heaven, says Revelation. As we look back over fifty years we give thanks for battles fought and won and for the role this Church has played in the civic life of this great city. We give thanks for all those who contribute to that civic life today.

But as we look forward we know that there are battles still to come and great resources to meet them both seen and unseen. Christ sets in our midst a little child and challenges our priorities for the future. Together as a city we are called to have a vision for a greener, more sustainable world; for a healthier world; for a fairer world.

We commit ourselves, imperfect as we are, to these great challenges. In this Church dedicated to St. Michael, we too, every single one of us, are called to fight on the side of the angels.

A person sits on a bench in an empty field, looking over the mountains
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”
Mark 6.31
The disciples are exhausted after a demanding and fruitful season. They come to meet with Jesus but the need around them is growing all the time: “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat”. In this moment, Jesus sets the care of the exhausted disciples even above the needs of the crowds.
I hope you are able to do the same in the coming weeks and step back from the demands of work and ministry for a short time, even if you are not able to be away on holiday physically. This has been a demanding season for all of our schools and churches and chaplaincies. Rest is needed to allow mind and body and soul to recover and to allow space for re-orientation and recreation.
Thank you again for all you continue to give, and I hope and pray the summer brings space and renewal for all that lies ahead.
In Christ,
+Steven

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in a debate in the House of Lords this afternoon about protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policy making. Bishop Steven spoke on climate chaos, the rise of artificial intelligence and the impact of both on young people’s mental health.

Join Bishop Steven at the Mass Lobby of MPs on 26 June. Full details here: https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/thetimeisnow

“My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate and want to express my appreciation to Lord Bird for his intiative and his proposals. Lord Bird has set out very well the case for a Select Committee and for a Future Generations Commissioner.

The moral case has shifted in recent years. In the Anthropocene era, humanity’s effect on the environment means that that the interests not just of the next generation but every generation beyond that need to be protected in our policy making.

The world is living through deepening environmental catastrophe. The impact of climate change is already severe. It will become worse with each decade and each generation. The world is currently heading for average global warming of 2 degrees and more by 2050. Global net carbon emissions continue to rise. The risks of unforeseen and catastrophic compound effects on the environment increase with every year.

My Lords the two biblical images of hell are a burning planet too hot to sustain life and a rubbish dump. We are in danger of bequeathing both to our children and grandchildren. It is hugely irresponsible – to take short term decisions in the interests of only of the current generation.

I warmly welcome the government’s historic commitment to a net zero carbon economy by 2050 and I congratulate the Prime Minister on naming this goal as a vital part of her legacy. I warmly welcome the government’s international leadership and the bid to host the vital 2020 Climate Summit. These goals need support across Parliament. The voice of those future generations needs to be strengthened in that debate.

Future generations also need to be protected in the rapid pace of technological change. Here I speak as a Board Member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The pace of change and the effects of technology on the mental health of the young are significant.

I warmly commend the Information Commissioner’s Office recent guidelines on Age Appropriate Design, which aim to protect the most vulnerable from the predatory big tech companies. I warmly commend the government for bringing forward the Online Harms White Paper. I hope both will be turning points in the development of new technologies which protect rather than exploit the most vulnerable.

We will need in the coming years agility and public leadership in responding to new technologies and data in the areas of health, education, the labour market, smart cities, algorithmic decision making, facial recognition and the regulation of the mining of personal information for commercial gain. The interests of future generations need a voice.

Finally these proposals are so helpful in that they address a decrease in social cohesion across the generations. The APPG on Social Cohesion recently published a comprehensive study on intergenerational connection.

The generations have become increasingly segregated. We can allow that process of drift to continue with serious social consequences. Or we can exercise leadership to build social capital between the generations. Families and faith communities have a vital role to play and are part of the glue which binds generations together. Local government has a role as does business and the third sector. But national government must play its part.

The proposals to give a structured voice to the interests of future generations is warmly to be welcomed. I warmly support Lord Bird’s proposals and hope they will attract the support of the whole House.”

Steven Croft

Most of us learn the Lord’s Prayer as children. But then we forget what it means. Over the last few weeks I have found myself teaching the Lord’s Prayer to several different congregations – over 2000 people in all, including many young people.

We live in a world and a country with poor mental health.  Yesterday the government announced £300 million new funding for children with mental health measures. It’s welcome but already people are saying it won’t be enough.

There is increasing evidence that our consumer culture actually undermines mental health, especially in the young, and creates a deeply demoralised society prone to depression and other mental health conditions[1].

Jesus gives his disciples a prayer not to teach them to be pious but to help people everywhere to live well and flourish.

Here are seven reasons why the Lord’s Prayer is good for mental health – seven reasons to say the Lord’s Prayer, as Jesus intends, every day.

  1. To remember who you are

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name

To say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer is to answer the deep question of identity at the heart of our culture. We no longer know who we are.

The first line of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are not random specks of matter floating through an infinite universe: we are created and called into relationship with our creator who loves us as a parent loves their child.  We are called into relationship with our fellow men and women as sisters and brothers.  You are loved and your life has meaning.

  1. To find courage to live well in an imperfect world

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven

The world is not yet as it was intended to be.  God is at work within it, bringing justice and peace.  That work was begun in Jesus Christ but is not yet complete.

We are aware of the suffering in the world like no other generation before us because of 24-hour news and instant reporting from anywhere in the world.  We need a framework to understand that immense suffering and the evil in the world in order to know how to live.

  1. To find the only way to be content

 Give us this day our daily bread

All year we are bombarded by advertising: every time we look at a screen or listen to the radio or open a magazine.  The single aim of advertising is to steal our joy and create discontent and longing for more stuff or different experiences.

Jesus teaches his followers to pray each day not for more but for just enough.  This is the open secret of what it means to be content and find joy in this life: to realise and appreciate what we have.  This line alone is the antidote to the misery created by consumer culture (especially at this time of year).

  1. To learn to live with our imperfections

Forgive us our sins….

Sins are the ways in which we fall short of the ideal.  All of us do that.  But our culture creates expectations of perfection.  We think we are supposed to look good, perform well, make a great impression in every moment of our lives.

Jesus gives us a prayer to say every day which simply acknowledges that we fall short – we are not perfect people. Each day we can come to God and ask forgiveness and seek help and strength for the day.

  1. To learn to live with the imperfections of others

….as we forgive those who sin against us

The Lord’s Prayer reminds me that other people are imperfect as well.  I need a way to deal with my own rubbish and with theirs. Otherwise all my relationships will be spoiled and clogged up and I will increasingly be alone (which is actually what happens to people who are unable to forgive).  Somewhere near the root of many mental health conditions is isolation.

Jesus offers us this prayer to say each day in which I let go of and forgive the things others have done to me: the small slights, the neglect, the careless words, and begin again.

  1. To be resilient in a challenging world

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Consumer culture eats away at our resilience by persuading us that life should really be comfortable and easy all the time. That is one of the deepest lies ever told.

Human life is difficult. Over the course of your life you will face many challenges: illness, adversity, relationships which go wrong, failure and, in the end, mortality.

To live well is to have an understanding that life is challenging and hard, because of the imperfections in the world, in yourself and in others.  But strength and help are available in God in all circumstances.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer each day is to prepare yourself for whatever difficulties lie ahead.

  1. To understand the end of the story

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.

This part of the prayer was added by the Church.  It’s not there in the two places in the Bible where Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer (in Matthew 6 and Luke 11).  It takes us back to the beginning.  It reminds us that a life lived well is a life lived with purpose to the glory of God.

It reminds us that in the end, God holds the end of the story.  God will bring all things to completion.  God will watch over us through this life and welcome us, beyond death, into the life to come.  That God is over all and in everything and all manner of things shall be well.

Most of us learn the Lord’s Prayer as children but never fully understand what it means.  It’s impossible to exhaust all the meaning in the prayer.

But say it, if you can, every day of your life to remember your identity, to find courage, to learn contentment, to live with your imperfections and those of other people, to build resilience and to understand the end of the story.

+Steven Oxford

[1] See John F Schumaker, The Demoralised Mind, New Internationalist, April, 2016 https://newint.org/columns/essays/2016/04/01/psycho-spiritual-crisis

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

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

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

An escalation

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

The news stories and research findings are sobering:

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

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

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

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

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

The deeper causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christ-like Church

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

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

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

A courageous counternarrative

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

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

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

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

A contemplative approach to life

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

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

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

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

Compassionate spaces of acceptance

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

+Steven Oxford

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

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

The Oxfordshire MIND info line is 01865 247788

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

A prayer for Mental Health Day by Alison Webster:

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

References

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

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

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

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

 

 

Podcast

Nail technician turned pioneer minister, the Revd Erika Biscoe tells Bishop Steven about a powerful initiative to help girls with their self-esteem. This podcast comes just days after Bishop Steven’s stunning Diocesan Synod address highlighting the “storm inside the minds of our young people” in our turbulent, digital age.