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.
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,

(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.



[2] Inclusive Church Handbook on Mental Health quoted by Rachel Freeth September 2017.


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 –

* 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.

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



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.



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.

The Big (election) Issue

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Housing has never been such a big issue in an election. Research from the Resolution Foundation shows that both the Conservative and Labour party have used the words ‘house’ and ‘home’ a record number of times. 1 in 6 people think that housing is the most important issue facing Britain.

It’s not hard to see why. Those under 35 are increasingly unlikely to be able to own their own homes. With houses costing 15 times the average salary (in Oxford) and buyers needing to save for 22  years on average in order to gather the necessary deposit and purchase costs (estimated as £53,500 in a neighbourhood in Reading) it’s clear that, for many, home ownership is unattainable.

Consequently, more and more people are renting privately, but this is also expensive, and often unavailable to those on benefits and leaves tenants vulnerable to eviction and homelessness. The end of a private tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness. Freezes to the Local Housing Allowance in recent years mean that those in receipt of Housing Benefit face increasing shortfalls between the benefit they receive and the actual cost of rent. In Milton Keynes a family in a two bed house need to find around £150 every month to top up their Housing Benefit and pay the rent. Shelter’s recent research shows this kind of pressure is driving many renters into debt.

When a tenancy ends the cost of a deposit on a new property coupled with upfront rent can mean ‘just about managing’ households become homeless. In the Diocese of Oxford we estimate that it costs around £2,500 – £3,000 to begin a new tenancy. Anyone without access to this amount at short notice can become homeless.

While councils have a duty to house the homeless (so long as they meet certain criteria) the lack of social housing means waiting lists have increased with around 29,000 waiting for a social rented home in the Diocese. This is despite councils such as Slough slashing their waiting lists by bringing in additional criteria.

Increasingly we are seeing that without a stable home, individuals and families are unable to live well and flourish. Research shows that children regress in poor accommodation, that young people are unable to grasp opportunities in their career or relationships and that households remain disconnected from their communities because they do not have a place to call home.

This bleak picture runs across the housing market making this a crucial issue this election. The response from the new government needs to include opportunities for home ownership, more security for those renting privately and a greater supply of social housing. All of this will involve building more, good quality, environmentally friendly, community focused housing.

Bethan Willis
Assistant Social Responsibility Advisor


Just Three Words: Reflecting on life with Parkinson’s


Three words is all it takes.

Three words.

But these three words will change the way you see your future…your life ahead.

And, like the tension of awarding Oscars. There seems to be a pregnant pause and then…

“You have Parkinson’s”

These three words.

For those who hear the diagnosis, it is devastating yet it is with a sense of relief that at last they know what has been bothering them for so long.

You see, the symptoms of Parkinson’s have been evident for some time, years maybe, but we didn’t know it, we didn’t realise.

One of the first things you learn when you are diagnosed is that everyone who has Parkinson’s is different.  By that it means no two people have the same symptoms.  Yes it seems unbelievable that the tell tale sign of the tremor in your hand….but wait a minute!  About a third of people diagnosed with this condition do not have a tremor.  So what other symptoms are there?

Some start to lose their sense of smell, some ‘live out’ loud and active dreams, shouting out, screaming and sometimes hitting their bed partner.  Many drool with excess saliva and have a damp pillow when they wake, lots of us find it really hard to turn over in bed, trying to shift your body but resembling a beached whale.  Walking becomes difficult, with some people ‘freezing ‘. Stuck to the spot, some taking sort shuffling steps.  Dexterity seems to leave you as you fumble in your purses, trying to pay your bill, doing up buttons and zips is challenging.  Your future looks grim as Parkinson’s is not an illness that will get better.  It is a future of not knowing what will happen to you, or your friends and partners……

Just three Words –  Your Way Ahead

Another Three Words

New friendships will be forged as common interests develop.  The WWW becomes a huge resource not just a vehicle to send pictures and e-Mails.  You can become your own expert as you keep up to date with newly published papers on areas that particularly appeals to you.

Being based in Oxfordshire there are many opportunities to take part in research projects being run by Oxford University and Brookes University.  This gives you an insight into the world of research and provides an opportunity to meet researches who are devoting their lives to helping to find ways to improve your future.

The annual Parkinson’s Awareness Week provides you with the opportunity to make your own contribution to developing a cure by raising funds and increasing awareness. There is no state funding for Parkinson’s research so every contribution is very welcome. The Oxford Walk; the BBQ in Wytham Woods; the Cheats Pub Quiz; Christmas Shopping day and Branch Meetings and Holiday are some of the ways we support fund raising and each other.

We are advised that mental and physical exercise help slow the progression.  The Branch supports this in a number of ways, with Zumba; Physiotherapy; ‘Voice’, singing in a choir, Wellbeing; Dance for Parkinson’s (Ballet with English National Ballet) to mention just some of the events that the Branch supports.

Securing shoe laces may seem to take too many attempts, but there are slip-ons and shoe horns! There is also support aids to help ones life be a little bit easier to cope with, a handle to help getting out of bed, slippy sheets to help you turn over in bed and many more small but useful things.  Life has definitely slowed down a pace and its good to cram as much as possible in the morning, and early afternoon when the drugs seem to be more effective.  Perhaps medically retired there are opportunities to volunteer at a local charity shop, take up silver jewellery making, attend the local gym and even try street dancing.

So whilst many day to day activities may take a little longer and be the cause of irritations a “Parky’s” life isn’t all bad.

This article was written by David Salisbury, a member of the Parkinson’s Society in Oxford

Take a look at for more details or get in touch with your local branch.

Faith and Healthcare

By Janet McCrae.

If patients are to flourish and recover well, healthcare needs to be person-centred and holistic.

In November a conference on faith and health was convened Dr Guy Harrison, Head of Spiritual and Pastoral care at the Oxford NHS Trust and Director of the Oxford Centre for Spirituality and Wellbeing. The conference aimed to show the importance of considering spiritual and religious needs in the context of health and wellbeing.

Research has shown that recognising a person’s spirituality or psycho-spiritual needs can be a source of support, inspiration, hope and recovery. Findings suggest that churchgoers (and those involved in a religious community) are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than ‘non-churchgoers’. Similarly prayer, meditation and mindfulness can be beneficial to mental and physical health, bringing peace and a sense of wellbeing. These practices are linked to extended life expectancy, lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol and reduced pain.

Despite some criticism of the methods used in these studies, they suggest that religion can function creatively in the process of facilitating healing. Religious practices may stabilise people in the midst of demoralising illness and offer innovative ways to cope with adversity. But religious faith can also make people vulnerable to doubt and spiritual crises. In either case it is important that religious beliefs and spirituality are addressed in healthcare settings.

Health care professionals can remain wary of linking faith and spirituality to healthcare, perhaps due to increasing atheism and agnosticism, or a fear of fundamentalist religion. These are challenging times to open up a conversation around the relationships between religious practices and health: but ‘the spiritual politics of the moment make this conversation vital’.[1]

During the conference, Prof McManus gave his thoughts on a Christian perspective. He suggested that if health means fullness of life means a relationship with God and with others. We feel for and care for, those who are sick or suffering. We are called to be good Samaritans. He gave examples of the care Christians give on a personal level (in terms of reaching out to another human’s need): ‘holding’ people with long term issues; connecting people with hospital care; being a bridge between hospital and community; and providing chaplains to help staff address spiritual needs and provide insights on faith and life – not just to deal with death and dying .

The conference left us with a series of ongoing questions:

  • What might promoting health mean in our church and community?
  • What are our priorities?
  • What do we do already and what resources do we have?

[1] John Swinton, Reason and Wonder: Why science and faith need each other, SPCK, London, 2016.

A version of this article appeared in the St Mary and St John Parish Magazine in November 2016.

Plough Wednesday

Yesterday’s news on Brexit may have offered some pointers as to what a post-EU future might look like, but there remains a great deal of uncertainty. For the farming community, which relies so heavily on EU policies and funds, there is particular concern about what the future may hold.

Last week, Plough Wednesday offered an opportunity for laity and clergy from across the Diocese of Oxford to spend time with rural and agricultural communities learning more about their way of life and the challenges these communities face.

Over the course of the day a group of 41, led by the diocesan rural team and Glyn Evans (Diocesan Rural Officer) saw the ways in which farming has become more high tech, how a rural mill maintains both local and global connections and considered the future of small family farms who rely on EU trade.

Input from the Farming Community Network showed that whilst the challenges of farm life are significant, Christians can have a role in responding to the all-to-common financial and personal difficulties which farmers and their families face.

For more information take a look at our newly refreshed Rural Affairs page.

Faithful Service

This week I read the latest Theos report on ‘Doing Good’. Whilst the report acknowledged the decline in attendance at church services, it offered a hopeful picture of a Church deepening its sense of service and love of neighbour. Church run projects are increasing both in number and in reach. An estimated 10 million people are attending church run events such as dementia cafes, toddler groups and debt advice services each year.[1]

As we look ahead to the church of the future it seems that church growth is linked to an ability to serve our neighbours in distinctive ways which reflect the love of God. The report suggested that this distinctiveness often lies in the characteristics of persistence, relationality and locality. Churches commit to communities for the long-haul; they focus on coming alongside people rather than ‘fixing’ individual problems; and they respond to needs with a deep attention to local contexts. In slightly more theological language we might say that faithfulness, mutuality and an understanding of the uniqueness of each part of God’s creation underpins these characteristics.

In my brief time witnessing the work of churches and Christians responding to homelessness and housing needs in the Diocese the faithfulness of those involved has struck me as a consistent theme. It comes from identifying a need and the resources to respond to it and then committing to it. Not looking for a quick fix, or being distracted by other needs.

In an age where media and social media coverage makes us increasingly aware of the suffering of people across the world this focus can be difficult. What about those who are in greater need or in crisis situations? Of course it is right to do whatever we can to alleviate these forms of suffering but we shouldn’t be drawn away from longer term commitments to serve.

In the Diocese we have many faithful servants who have spent decades responding to climate change, to issues of trade, to refugees and asylum seekers. Their compassion for other issues of injustice and suffering is not dulled, but they remain focused on the needs which God has called and enabled them to respond to. As they remain faithful their capacity to absorb crises, to respond to immediate and overwhelming situations increases. And, regardless of their successes, their faithfulness demonstrates the unfailing nature of God’s love for us.

[1]Nick Spencer, Doing Good: A Future for Christianity in the 21st Century, Theos, London, 2016, p45.

Loving the Stranger

 A sermon given by Alison Webster at Jesus College, Oxford, October 2016.

Readings: Deut 10:17-22; John 4:7-15; Ps 133.

A story….

In July 2016 a protest rally was held in my home city, Norwich, in protest at the result of the EU Referendum. At 3am the following morning, a brick was thrown through the window of an Eastern European food shop in that same city, along with a petrol bomb that caused fire damage. The owner and her daughter were asleep in the flat above the shop. They were scared for their lives.

On the face of it, this is a bad news story. Except for what happened next. Whilst the police kept ‘an open mind’ about suggestions that the attack was racially motivated, a fundraising appeal was launched by a local resident, who posted on a crowd funding website: “While protesters rallied against Brexit in Norwich last night, an Eastern European food store was petrol-bombed. The owner has no insurance. She could do with an act of kindness from her neighbours. Please donate. A small token will go a long way.”

The ‘ask’ was for a few hundred pounds to enable the shop to start trading again. Within a few days, the sum raised was £28,509. Not only that, but messages of support began to appear, spontaneously, written on post-its and cards, and stuck to the window of the shop.


The God of gods and the Lord of lords is characterised in Deuteronomy by two things – the protection of the vulnerable (widows and orphans), and love for the stranger. These things are presented as the very essence of justice.

Right now, particularly in our UK context, it seems that migrants, of all kinds, are our ‘strangers’. Worldwide, people are being displaced in unprecedented numbers by catastrophic war and conflict, by the effects of climate change, and by extreme poverty. People are on the move because they desire, simply, to survive. Widows and orphans abound, their vulnerability often further exploited by people traffickers, who sell women and children into slavery and servitude.

Yet rather than loving the stranger, our collective response, especially in the political sphere, is one of rejection. Why?


According to the philosopher Julia Kristeva there is a category of stuff which is considered neither subject nor object, but abject. ‘It is not’, she says, ‘lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’. The loathsome, she says, is that which disobeys classification and does not respect boundaries.

And in her book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas puts forward her now famous definition of dirt as ‘matter out of place’. That which society constructs as ‘dirty’ or ‘polluted’ is not so because of any intrinsic qualities of its own, but is a relative concept. A shoe on your foot, in contact with the ground, is not dirty. Take it off and put it on the kitchen table and it becomes so.

Crossing boundaries

So, with human beings, context is everything. When God says, ‘You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’, I think this goes beyond, ‘you should love the stranger because you know how it feels to be one’. It is, rather, a recognition that all of us are potentially strangers. We may live securely now, as part of the dominant group, which makes us simply ‘ordinary’. But at any point we could be plucked from that location and find ourselves elsewhere, or flung into a different situation in the same location. Either way, we may find ourselves to be newly marginalized and unsafe. Vulnerable. This is happening to thousands of people in our society through job loss, bereavement, debt, mental and physical ill health, increasing levels of racist and xenophobic hate crime, and the increasing frailty that comes with growing older.

Those who migrate physically, most obviously cross boundaries and are therefore perceived to be a danger or a threat. But there are others whose essence causes horror amongst some sections of our communities. Trans, intersex and genderqueer people defy categorisation as they transcend the gender binary that keeps the rest of us in our place; lesbian, gay and bisexual people likewise disrupt the perceived necessary connection between gender, and opposite-sex sexual object choice. Homeless people may be living on the street, and that is not what the street is for; those in mental distress may display forms of behaviour that challenge social norms. Stigma is the result.


Our gospel reading provides an interesting insight into how Jesus dealt with the stranger, and the common-sense ‘othering’ processes of his own social context.

With the woman at the well, Jesus initiates a conversation with one who should have been his ‘other’. She is a woman, and she is a Samaritan, but nevertheless he tells her to give him a drink. The dialogue that follows is intriguing. It is banter between equals. She challenges his request on the grounds that he is a Jew and she a Samaritan; his retort is that if she had recognised the opportunity his request afforded her, she could have had access to ‘living water’. She comes back with, in effect, who do you think you are to promise this? Are you saying you are of greater historical significance than Jacob, whose well this is? When Jesus explains that he is talking about eternal life that will be more like a welling spring than a deep well, she expresses a desire for the living water.

There’s an intriguing mutuality about this encounter. And as the story continues beyond what we heard read this evening, it becomes clear that he knows things about this woman that he has no reason to know (that is, that she has had four husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband), and this leads to a deep theological interaction, culminating in her recognising his identity as the Messiah who is coming. Here is powerful mutual recognition and understanding. Their conversation is interrupted by the disciples, who are of course perplexed by the fact that it is happening at all, and the woman returns to her city saying to her family, ‘come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.’ In other words, ‘come and see a man who really gets my life’.


And the Samaritan woman was just one of many people whom Jesus freed from social stigma. There was Legion, for example, who was so distressed he self-harmed with rocks and chains, and lived naked amongst the tombs, outside the boundaries of his town; there was Zaccheus, the tax collector, who had ‘gone over to the dark side’, colluding with the Roman occupiers to extort money from his own people. There was the woman ‘caught in the very act of adultery’ who had thereby broken a fundamental rule of Jewish society. And the woman with the flow of blood was ritually unclean, but Jesus called her ‘daughter’.

Jesus liberated potential within people that only he could see. He cut people loose from their physical, psychological and spiritual chains. He proclaimed liberty to oppressed people.


Jesus embraced those whom others considered to be strangers through listening to them, hearing them, and understanding. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he said. We see in his encounters what the psychologist Carl Rogers would call an effective empathic response. Rogers describes what happens in therapy when real empathy is present, ‘I have noticed that the more deeply I hear the meaning of a person, the more there is that happens. Almost always, when the person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody has heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me’…By that one simple response he is released from his loneliness, he has become a human being again.’

Jesus made strangers into human beings again. Their response to this was intense joy. They gave themselves to him. They wanted to commit. They desired to follow.

But where did his empathy come from? When Jesus looked into the eyes of those in the teeth of alienation and marginalisation, he understood them completely. He got them. And here, I think, is why. Jesus is the only human being ever before, or since, to know what it feels like to transcend, and thereby dissolve, the most important and fundamental boundary of all. That between the divine and the human. How lonely must that have felt? He was the quintessential boundary-crosser, and therefore embodied all that it meant to be a stranger, in a way that he alone understood.

Fullness of life

Back to our opening story. Mary Douglas says, ‘The quest for purity is pursued by rejection…It is part of our condition that the purity for which we strive and sacrifice so much turns out to be hard and dead as a stone when we get it….Purity is the enemy of change, of ambiguity, of compromise.’

Those who throw petrol bombs, or exercise more subtle forms of rejection of otherness, are siding with contraction and death. But fullness of life is to be found in diversity. God made a world which tends towards diversity, and therefore fertility and creativity. In our Psalm we are told that living together in unity is like precious oil running down. It is God’s blessing – life forevermore. It is the living water that Jesus talked about with the Samaritan woman. The ‘other’ who knew the truth about Jesus a long time before many others.