God in the Life Of the Rt Revd Steven Croft

BORN and brought up in Halifax, the new Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft has moved more than 140 miles from Sheffield to the city of dreaming spires to take up his new post. It was during his move that he sat down to tell Jo Duckles his story.

The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft.

The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft.

We meet in Bishop Steven’s new office in Church House Oxford. Over a cup of tea, Bishop Steven, the son of a warp twister who worked in the carpet factories in Halifax, remembered his childhood church experiences. “I was part of the generation whose parents weren’t churchgoers but who were sent to Sunday school as children. I was welcomed and nurtured within the ordinary parish church,” he says. He was one of three youngsters who were the first members of a youth group set up a by a young mum in his church when he was just 13.

That group, and a diocesan youth weekend when he was 16, helped Bishop Steven to grow in his faith and inspired his life-long commitment to youth work in local churches. It was also where he began to sense a call to priesthood. “I became aware God was calling me to ordained ministry when I was 17. I grew into that vocation over the following nine years and was ordained at 26,” he says.

Despite claiming never to have had a ‘proper job’ the gap between school and ordination was filled with various roles, working in shops and gardening at a local park. He also studied hard, reading Classics and Theology at Oxford’s Worcester College and training for ordination at Cranmer Hall, St John’s, Durham, where he was awarded his doctorate on the Psalms in 1984. He was an undergraduate in Oxford when he met his wife-to-be Ann, who was training as a nurse at the then Radcliffe Infirmary. “We lived the first two years of our married life here,” says Bishop Steven, whose parish ministry began as a curate at St Andrew’s, Enfield, before he became the Vicar of Ovenden, back in Halifax, where his dad grew up and grandmother still lived.

From there he went on to spend eight years as the Warden back at Cranmer Hall, training people for Anglican ministry. It was there that he took the call from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Chief of Staff, inviting him to take up a completely new post within the Church of England.  “The call came out of the blue and I was asked to talk to Rowan Williams. I was to set up and lead this project on Fresh Expressions in the Anglican and Methodist churches.”

So in 2004, when both of their sons were at university, Bishop Steven and Ann returned to Oxford, where they were based during the Fresh Expressions project. Their two daughters attended the Cherwell School and the family worshipped at St Andrew’s, Linton Road. Bishop Steven also assisted at St Michael’s. His innovative Fresh Expressions role saw Bishop Steven travelling the length and breadth of the country, discovering how fresh expressions were reaching those who had little or no experience of Christianity. “I largely set everything up from scratch, setting up a team and telling the Fresh Expressions story. It’s hugely encouraging 12 years later. We had some research done in Sheffield where 2,500 people attend Fresh Expression style churches and there is a similar project taking place in Oxford. One of the things I had to do was learn to see the Church from the perspective of someone outside.”

When he became the Bishop of Sheffield, Bishop Steven admits that having never been on the senior staff of a diocese, or worked in a diocesan setting, he faced a strange but enjoyable learning curve.
Sheffield is the fourth largest city in the UK with two universities and 60,000 students. The Sheffield Diocese takes in the whole of South Yorkshire and parts of East Yorkshire which were carried over when it was formed from the York Diocese 100 years ago.

“It is one of the poorest dioceses in the Church of England and the most generous in terms of its levels of giving. In my seven years there it celebrated its centenary,” says Bishop Steven. “I think the focus of my time there was helping both lay people and clergy to engage with God’s mission. I hope I laid the foundations for the Church in the Diocese of Sheffield to grow again. I loved my time there and loved the Diocese deeply.”

While he was there he took part in the first Northern Bishops’ Mission, which saw 23 bishops gather in Sheffield to run mission events that involved 20,000 people over four days. Another high point of Bishop Steven’s time in South Yorkshire was securing £1m from the Church Commissioners for development workers in deprived parishes. “In a middle-class parish, churches employ staff to do things like sweeping up broken glass and maintenance, or they have retired volunteers. In some of the more deprived parishes this doesn’t happen so the development workers were there to support the clergy,” he says.

Bishop Steven and I met the day after he had left the House of Lords as the Bishop of Sheffield and been officially re-welcomed as the Bishop of Oxford. He describes the Lords as remarkable. “It feels a great privilege to be there. The debates are engaging and interesting and I’m looking forward to taking a bigger role than I did when I had to clear a whole day to travel there from Sheffield.” And he says he is hugely looking forward to settling back into Oxford. “It feels like an immense privilege to be here. It’s a very different place to Sheffield. During this first year I’ll be growing some big ears, listening to the Diocese and getting a sense of what God is doing in this place at this time, and what God might want to do in this next chapter.” Bishop Steven is planning visits to each deanery to meet clergy and the leaders of the major institutions outside of the Church.

“I am really glad to be here and I am looking forward to doing the work of listening. I would like to communicate directly with as many people as possible. People can email me directly and I’ll be communicating via my blog. One of the things I enjoy is being in different churches Sunday by Sunday and not always for special occasions.”

Bishop Steven’s hobbies are cooking and he has recently taken up running. As I interviewed him he was wearing a fit-bit style watch, in a purple that matched his clergy shirt. He is also a prolific writer. His latest book which was due to come out this autumn is The Gift of Leadership which contains 10 biblical reflections on leadership for people from all kinds of organisations.
“One of my passions is forming disciples and I encourage all churches to teach the faith to beginners.” It was that passion that inspired Bishop Steven to join Paula Gooder, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell and the Rt Revd Robert Attwell to co-author Pilgrim, a widely respected resource to help churches to do just that.

Bishop Steven and Ann have four grown-up children, three based in London and one in Bristol. They have one grandchild and another one on the way.