In the penultimate trip in his series of listening and learning visits, Bishop Steven travelled to the Claydon Deanery in Buckinghamshire.
Starting the day at the Rectory in Whitchurch, the Revd David Meakin led an outdoor Eucharist service for deanery clergy. On one of the hottest days of the year, Bishop Steven gave a short reflection on the story of Elijah in 1 Kings, and how God carried him through the earthquake, wind and fire.
Over a homemade lunch, Bishop Steven invited those present to share how they are doing. Many commented on the difficulty of finding sufficient volunteers and the subsequent burden of extra work that puts on those they do find. They also stressed the difficulties and importance of finding times of rest - one vicar mentioned taking regular walks around the nearby Stowe gardens to take time to recharge. Clergy also praised the older members of their congregations for how they embraced technology and online Church over the pandemic.
For the first community visit of the afternoon, Bishop Steven attended a school leavers' service at St James' Church, Great Horwood. Year 6 pupils from Great Horwood CE School shared their fondest memories of their time there, as well as some prayers for their future. The Revd Mark Nelson, curate in the Winslow Benefice, shared a reflection on Jesus' words "I am the vine."
Pupils were given wristbands commending their commitment to core school values, such as love and kindness, and some Year 6s were awarded shields for excellence. The Bishop of Oxford presented the awards and prayed over the pupils.
Bishop Steven then visited the team behind the St Laurence Food Cupboard in Winslow. Meeting Jo Anderson, who was recently interviewed for Pathways magazine, the Bishop heard how the scheme started as a literal cupboard of food, collected by a small house group. Over the pandemic, the demand grew and grew, and food is now kept in two large wardrobes in the local council building and delivered each Wednesday to those in need. Thanks to a generous sum from Buckinghamshire Council, the Food Cupboard is able to offer fresh food alongside the donations. Demand is now increasing in the face of the cost of living crisis, but the community frequently come together to support the Food Cupboard.
After an evening meal with lay leaders, PCC members from across the Claydon Deanery attended an evening with the Bishop in Whitchurch. The Revd Didier Jaquet, a self-supporting minister in the Winslow Benefice, led evening prayer, and the Bishop preached on the Emmaus road story in the gospel of Luke.
"In [this passage] I find the risen Jesus showing some of how Jesus deals with tired and dispirited disciples - and I think there are some clues in that on how Jesus may lead us in this time."
Bishop Steven reflected on the four movements of the passage - all things we can do today to find the spiritual renewal we need at this time: Jesus listens, engages with the scripture, prays and share the sacrament, and finally is present as those he has met witness to others.
After the sermon, the floor was opened for questions and comments. Laity stressed the importance of rural church but had concerns on its future and whether it was fully valued by the diocese. Bishop Steven reflected on a previous visit to Mursley Deanery, where he blessed the bells of Little Horwood Church and saw firsthand how important the church was to its rural village, and reassured the congregation that he understands that urban and rural churches can never be measured by the same metrics.
The Bishop's final visit is to Burnham & Slough Deanery on 19 July.
The Diocese of Oxford has a long history of developing creative thinking regarding the rural church and mission and ministry in rural contexts. On 27 September, the Rt Revd Dagmar Wilkinson, Bishop of Huntington, will speak on rural church at the inaugural diocesan Rural Lecture, with a chance for questions. The event will be hosted by the Rt Revd Gavin Collins, Bishop of Dorchester. Register now via Zoom.