Reservoirs of Hope

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Time for a Change

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Blue sky thinking

This week I thought that I would start with a question:

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Seasons in the sun

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Happy St David’s Day! In a week that heralds the start of Spring we have record-breaking Winter warmth, record cricket scores and a win for the Welsh rugby team!

World Mental Health Day

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.

(by Alison Webster)

Prayer postcard


World Mental Healthy Day, on Wednesday 10 October, is a great opportunity to highlight work around mental health and the lives and experiences of those suffering from mental ill health. Organised by the World Health Organisation, the hope is that in raising awareness ‘more can be done to make mental health care a reality for people across the world.’[1]

We would love to see churches within the Diocese get involved in supporting this initiative, perhaps by offering this prayer during a service on Sunday 7th October or Sunday 14th October.

We know that many churches are already active in caring for those within and beyond the church who are affected by mental ill health. In September 2017, we saw thirty Christians involved in this work gather together to spend a day listening to the stories of those affected and to consider their own church’s response.

Dr Rachel Freeth led the training day, explaining the limitations of mental health services and emphasizing the valuable role churches can play in complementing their work. She explained that often those in significant distress may not be in the care of mental health services, perhaps due to lack of resources or because they choose not to engage. Some people prefer to rely on community groups or clergy as their primary source of support.

Those who do access mental health services will still confront serious limitations in terms of what those services can offer. This is because both the culture and purpose of these services limit what they can do. For example, mental health services will tend to focus on a diagnosis rather than the ‘person’. This emphasis on a cure or treatment, together with the need to assess and manage risk conservatively, can build barriers between health professionals and patients.

Spiritual or religious dimensions to patients’ lives and mental illness may also be misunderstood by doctors or support workers. Overall, an increasing fragmentation of health services can mean mental health patients are ‘passed around’ and there is an absence of holistic care. In this context, ‘the primary gift that the church has to offer is the creation of a graceful space for meeting within which the possibility of listening, understanding, friendship, belonging and tenderness becomes real.’[2]

In Cowley deanery, St Mary’s and St John’s Church are already seeking to be this ‘graceful space’. Every year on the Sunday closest to World Mental Health Day the church uses prayers, hymns and readings chosen by people with direct experience of mental health services. During the week the church also hosts a regular ‘Alice’s Tea Party’ event for those dealing with mental health issues.

If your church is involved in mental health initiatives we’d love to hear from you and share your story or event.

Email alison.webster@oxford.anglican.org


[1] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

[2] Inclusive Church Handbook on Mental Health quoted by Rachel Freeth September 2017. https://inclusive-church.org/mental-health

 

999 Food & Holiday Hunger

New research from Church Urban Fund suggests that 1 in 50 people used a food bank in 2016, a total of 1 million adults. The figure doesn’t include children and other household members who may accompany each food bank user. In addition to those receiving food aid, many more adults reported missing meals and experiencing anxiety about whether they could afford food and other essentials. In total UN figures suggest that 10% of the UK’s adult population experience food insecurity, the worst figure in Europe.

The main causes of this food poverty in the UK are benefit delays, changes and sanctions; low wages; gaps between welfare and employment income; and increasing pressures on household budgets from housing and fuel costs. For households under financial pressure, food is often the most flexible part of the budget and is only accounted for after fixed costs such as rent and bills have been paid.

In 2014, our own survey of food banks and food bank users within the Diocese (‘999 Food: Emergency Food Aid in the Thames Valley’) highlighted stories where one or more of these issues played a role. Karen, a single parent with two young children used a local food bank when low paid cleaning work made it difficult for her to cope with her bills and clothing her children as she moved off benefits.  John, a carpenter, needed the food bank when he struggled to find work and was unable to get to the Job Centre 15 miles away. His benefits were stopped and he needed to wait for a final decision on his future income. Many of the issues encountered then are likely to have been exacerbated by further cuts and the introduction of Universal Credit which has significant delays in initial payments.

‘999 Food’ shows the ways in which stories of hunger often interweave with stories of abuse, addiction, debt, disability and inadequate state support systems. But it also shows the holistic ways in which many Christian groups have responded. In Bicester the food bank works with the Salvation Army drug and alcohol service and encourages families to come in and chat as they collect parcels, giving an opportunity for volunteers to identify and respond to any other needs clients may have. In Reading, the ‘Readifood’ project serves rough sleepers, runs a small housing project and works with the council to ensure those in crisis receive three-day food parcels through a delivery system and drop-in centres.

More recently, churches have been turning their attention to the gap in food provision for children during school holidays. It is estimated that 3 million children may be at risk of hunger during these breaks including 1 million who would normally receive free school meals. In Milton Keynes, an area where 1 in 5 children live in poverty, St Mark’s MK has been serving two meals a week during the school holidays since 2015. Many churches involved in this work are trained and equipped by ‘Make Lunch’, an organisation which offers training and resources for churches and schools to enable them to offer free meals in the school holidays.

This autumn organisations like CAP are tackling the same issue on a national level, working alongside End Hunger UK in supporting a bill proposed by Frank Fields MP which would provide free meals and activities during the school holidays, paid for through the new tax on sugary drinks.

A pdf of ‘999 Food’ is available here

 

 

Baby and Toddler Groups: A place for faith in action

Baby and toddler groups can play a central role in enabling churches to connect with and serve their local communities. They often attract people from a range of ages and backgrounds through offering an easy point of connection (the care of small children) and a warm welcome. These may be people who would not normally have anything to do with church.

Many who come to these groups are at a stage where they are facing significant changes and challenges in life. The responsibilities of parenthood may be overwhelming, there may be new financial pressures or family relationships may be strained or breaking down.

Given this, baby and toddler groups offer a huge opportunity for the church to go beyond a friendly welcome and to respond to specific needs within the community. Children’s centre closures mean that the difficulties faced by many carers, families and young children are less likely to be identified or talked about and those who are struggling to cope may feel increasingly isolated. Baby and toddler groups may be the one place where people with financial, mental health, housing or other needs are able to find support.

Increasingly churches are seeking to respond to this challenge through offering more focused forms of support and care. Instead of hoping that difficult topics will come up over coffee, groups like Wonderfully Made at St Paul’s in Banbury are giving short talks, raising issues around postnatal depression, anxiety and debt. The aim is to make sure that parents and carers know that they are not alone and that there are places where they can get support online and via charities such as Christians Against Poverty.

Victoria Morrell, part of the organising group at St Paul’s writes:

 ‘Our local children’s centres had closed, and as a result there were more and more mums looking for local, supportive, safe environments for their children to play, and to make friends and get support themselves………we were particularly concerned about the number of vulnerable mums coming with no support network at all.  As a group we are passionate about maternal mental health, breastfeeding, and creating a “village” of support……We wanted to be “real” with people and encourage each other to be open and honest about the struggles of parenting, as well as the joys.  We wanted to be able to share some of the wisdom we had picked up, and to be able to ask questions that we had no answers for…. each week we have a “think slot” where we talk about parenting, and we talk about God.  Sometimes that leads to great conversations, and sometimes it doesn’t.’ *

We know that other churches are also seeing baby and toddler groups as places where help, support and signposting to charities and services can be offered. As a Faith in Action team we’d like to find ways to connect our work on issues of loneliness, mental health, housing, rural isolation and the environment with these groups. We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to talk more….

 

Bethan Willis – bethan.willis@oxford.anglican.org

* You can read more about the Wonderfully Made group

Care for the Family is one place to begin thinking about the needs of young families and those caring for children

 

Remembering Dementia

In Holy Week 2017 Joanna Collicutt, Diocesan Advisor for the Spiritual Care of Older People, gave a series of sermons focused on the practice of remembering. Now available online these sermons offer some helpful theological reflections for those living with and supporting those with dementia.

On Good Friday we see that it is Jesus who remembers us, putting back together our broken selves; on Holy Saturday, that God is found in darkness and the forgotten places; and on Easter Sunday, that the lost do not need to find themselves, but are sought out and brought home in Christ.

Amidst our own forgetting hope remains in the perfect remembering of God, but we are also encouraged to participate in this work, remembering Jesus, ourselves and each other in ways which heal and renew.

http://www.witneyparish.org.uk/perch/resources/holy-week-addresses-2017.pdf

Rural Life: A place of escape or a struggle with isolation?

Many people think of the countryside as a place of escape, a quieter life, a haven from the rushing nature of daily life.  For other people living and working in a countryside to which they are attached by birth and cultural upbringing, can bring strains and stresses.  The countryside can sometimes be a place of isolation, poverty and disadvantage.

Later in the autumn we, as a Diocese, will be thinking about what poverty means within a rural context (at the Biennial Rural Forum 2017). A prevailing view of countryside residents as rich and living in a rural idyll can mask the fact that there are pockets of deprivation and poor health beyond urban areas. Earlier this year a Local Government Association and Public Health England report drew attention to this, concluding that rural communities are largely neglected (Health and Wellbeing in Rural Areas, March 2017).

Bishop North’s recent speech at New Wine drew attention to the church’s failure to provide adequate ministry to the poor of this country but suggested that money spent on ministry in rural areas was money spent ministering to the wealthy. This ignores the reality that exists for some people in rural communities and the churches response to that disadvantage.

Responding well to the challenges of rural life is a key issue for our Diocese. Oxfordshire Community Foundation’s ‘Oxfordshire Uncovered’ report notes that 39% of the population of Oxfordshire live in a rural location with 4% living in isolated hamlets, a third higher than the average in England. The report also showed that 30% of rural households would need to travel for an hour to access a local hospital. Given that older people are even more likely to live in rural areas (41.5%) this can pose a significant problem. Overall, IMD analysis shows that the majority of Oxfordshire’s rural areas are among the 20% most deprived in England in terms of geographical barriers to services. Our own report on poverty (‘For Richer For Poorer’) suggests a similar picture across the Diocese.

Rural deprivation often centres around social isolation and the inability to access support services. Elderly people can be particularly vulnerable to this, and many others living in the countryside experience “real hardship”.

Isolation can be due to a range of issues including basic geography; the effect of less well-off people living cheek by jowl with wealthy people; the failure of incomers to appreciate the needs of those whose lives are changed by shifting community foci; little or no access to broadband or mobile phone signals; the lack of a local peer group, particularly for the young; and poor transport connections.

The Diocese of Oxford and the Faith in Action team (through Glyn Evans, the Diocesan Rural Officer) is participating in the 2nd Rural Oxfordshire Network to explore some of these issues and think about potential solutions. We’ll be teaming up with Community First Oxfordshire, the Oxfordshire Association of Local Councils, Volunteer Link Up West Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire Community & Voluntary Action for this event.

Glyn Evans – Diocesan Rural Officer

Sermon for the Service of Ordination of Priests, Reading Minster

Sermon for the Service of Ordination of Priests, Reading Minster, June 24th 2017

Alison Webster, Social Responsibility Advisor, Diocese of Oxford

 

Readings

John 8: 1 – 11 & 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12

 

Creative God,

All that we have comes from you

And of your own do we give  you.

May my words flow from the fire you have placed in my heart,

And may our thoughts together spring from your inspiration.

Amen

 

Today is a profound and joyous occasion. Thank you for the invitation to share some reflections with you. I feel very keenly the honour and the privilege.

I want to begin by revisiting our gospel story. I offer you my personal meditation on it, then we will see where it takes us.

Was it something in her eyes that you saw? Some sense that a part of her was hiding; that she was hiding part of herself?

Imagine the excruciating humiliation of the woman caught, we are told, ‘in the very act’ of adultery. How was it to have an intimate and private moment (if that is what it was; if it was indeed consensual, an act of love, and not just an occasion of him helping himself. The him that is invisible in this story). If not, how much worse, as the private humiliation gave way to a public one. Shame declared for the consumption of all, to be stared at, vilified, threatened. Her life hanging in the balance. They were angry because she had transgressed. She had broken the rules, flouted the law, given in to her desires (if they were her desires). She had done what they would like to have done, and what they would like to have done to her. She excited their imaginations, their jealousies, their anger. She deserved to die and the law of Moses was on their side. Right was on their side, or so they thought.

You could read all this on their faces, hear it in their voices, their baying for so-called ‘justice’. And you made them wait. You had the authority to do that, and you used it. You gave them a simple instruction, ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’, and it turned everything upside down. Her humiliation became their embarrassment. Her fear, their loss of face. Her pain, their shame. They left.

Such was your empathy that you didn’t look at her. You looked at the ground. You wrote in the sand. You saved her from one more male gaze. A simple but profound act of solidarity with one who was excluded, ridiculed and broken. How could you know how it felt to be her? And when her accusers had all gone, you offered her restoration. You gave her peace. Her transgression (if it was her transgression) was forgiven. You said, ‘Go’, and she could indeed go –  where she wanted. She was not held then, not restrained. No one could touch her. What did that feel like? What did she do with it?

Perhaps you understood because you, too, transgressed. What was it like for you, Jesus, to be the only human being ever to cross the divide between God and humanity, to disrupt the cosmic order of things and change them forever? This was something you kept concealed, revealing it, subtly and judiciously, to those who could take it in. To those who, at least in some small part, knew what transgression felt like. 

The story leads me to ask three things of you as you venture into priesthood:

Be real

Be transgressive

Be well

 

Firstly, be real.

I am a writer. I have been writing for three decades or more. The most challenging thing about writing is finding your own voice, and once you think you’ve found it, being true to it and developing it. When I’m working on a book there will be many voices to face down. The ones that say, ‘You’re not academic enough’, ‘People will think this is too emotional’, ‘Should I really be writing about this?’. But because writing is my calling, I have to remind myself that the only things that should concern me are, ‘Am I listening to God?’,  ‘Am I speaking from my deepest, most vulnerable self’ and ‘Am I doing the best I can with the gift I have been given’. Simple. Except it isn’t.

I think that finding one’s own voice as a priest is a bit like that. Because each one of you being ordained today can only be one kind of priest – the one you are called to be in your unique self. Just as I can’t write by imitating somebody else, you can’t be a priest by trying to be like somebody else. The only one that we are all called to imitate is Christ. There is immense liberation in that, but also a call to great discipline. Self awareness, self knowledge and honesty are all key.

I wonder what people were thinking when Jesus was writing in the dust: Why is he doing this? Why’s he not saying anything? He’s dealing with this badly. If I were him I wouldn’t do it this way. Yet, when the resolution came, it was ‘pure Jesus’. It came from Jesus’s authentic heart and self. He was always his own self. And I think that was why he was so deeply empathic. He was congruent with God, congruent with himself, and therefore completely open to others.

Be Transgressive

Be counter-cultural, as Jesus was. Turn things upside down.

In our context, I think the most powerfully transgressive way of being is to prioritise those who are vulnerable, stigmatised, marginalised and denigrated. For to do that means to stand with everybody.

Let me explain. Our culture assumes strength and autonomy as our natural condition, to be valued above all else. Vulnerability, frailty and weakness are to be feared – hidden away.

The gospel requires that we reverse this understanding; that we see vulnerability as our natural state. We are other-dependent. We are hurt and broken by others, and held up by them. Others make us anxious and afraid, but also enable us to flourish. Speaking into this reality is the voice of God, exhorting us to ‘fear not’. We are treasure. We are prized. We are cherished. We are loved. We are meant to be both fragile and ordinary. Like clay pots. Loneliness and isolation are all around us in a culture which breeds secrecy, stigma and shame. We need a new language of kindness and acceptance – a still small voice that can silence the cultural messages that we are not good enough, haven’t achieved enough, haven’t enough to show for our lives, that we are not enough. As priests you will have the authority to advocate for that – to embody it, to speak of it with words and symbolic actions.

Thirdly, be well.

We all know that, as priests, it is easy to become demoralised, disheartened, burned out. There are many and complex reasons for this, but you are most likely to be resilient and stay well if you can hang onto a clear sense of who you are in God, and why who you are as a priest is critical, to the world and to the church.

There are voices you will need to face down. Voices from a world that can’t see the point of you, and from – let’s face it – from an anxious church that is pathologically afraid of its own extinction. Don’t waste your energy arguing with these. They are what they are. Focus elsewhere.

Some twenty years ago a close school friend of mine took her own life. Her name was Ashley. She had just turned thirty. I was thrown into a maelstrom of inchoate feelings – a mix of grief, confusion, self-blame, powerlessness. This came at a time when I was deeply alienated from church, and not even sure that I hadn’t lost my faith. And yet. And yet, to my surprise in that moment I instinctively reached out for a priest.

I needed someone who embodied the close connection with God that I felt I had lost. I needed someone who was at home with ritual and symbol, fluent in that language and able to say things that couldn’t be said with words; to bring out from the experience something new and real.

To be with people at times like this – not with answers or explanations or sympathy, but to hold a space that is agonising and holy and sacred is, I believe, the spiritual practice to which you are called. It is mysterious; it is life-giving; it is liberating.

In a world of terror and trauma and tragedy; in a world of beauty and ecstasy, where hope refuses to be vanquished, a priest can hold that transgressive place where the divine bleeds into the human. Because of that, we need you. Because of that, the world needs you. Thank you for all that you will be, and all that you will do. By the grace of God, be real, be transgressive. And be well.
Amen