The Lord Bishop of Oxford visited the Milton Keynes Deanery on 18 November in the first of 25 visits across the diocese over the next six months.
In a packed day's schedule, Bishop Steven was first welcomed to St George the Martyr Church in Wolverton, where clergy from across the city joined him for a Eucharist service. The Revd Gill Barrow-Jones presided, with Bishop Steven preaching on Genesis 1:1 - a story of creating form and order from chaos.
Reflecting on the current stage in the pandemic, Bishop Steven echoed the importance of a time of rest within the creation process, and encouraged clergy not to feel tempted to make up for lost time, but rather to let go of the past months and use the time ahead to brood; to love and care with patience, as a mother hen nesting on her eggs. The Bishop finished with a clear message to all of the clergy:
"You have done magnificently!"
A chance to listen
In an open plenary session, the Bishop welcomed honest conversation from the local leaders. The deanery visits form an integral part of the coming year; a year in which, Bishop Steven says, is a chance "to listen and to encourage the Church to be the best we can be in this time, for the sake of God’s world". The clergy shared their experience of 'decision fatigue' and a collective concern about the weight of the expectations on them over the coming months - both from other people and themselves.
However, it was clear to see that there had been moments of real joy in the last two years, when 'so much has been birthed'. Many spoke of the growing congregations seen through exploring online church and the elation of meeting some of those new members onsite for the first time as their faith journeys evolve.
A surprising outcome for many was the connection newcomers developed with formal liturgical services - the popularity of an online morning prayer service that had previously seen a handful of attendees, for example. One leader also spoke of a growing number of people joining the church following weddings - some of which were only even held in the church due to registrar waiting lists!
The honesty of the group resulted in thought-provoking discussions, and there was a strong sense of community within the Chapter.
Feeding the people
The afternoon saw Bishop Steven visit St Mark's Meals, a food box service run by a team of three from St Mark's MK. Pre-pandemic, one in four children in Milton Keynes lived in poverty. Many local teachers reported pupils were going home to no dinner:
"Whatever the reason your family is struggling, when you are six, there is not much you can do about it."
St Mark's Meals provided almost 10,000 dinners last year alone by delivering meal boxes to local schools. Any child is welcome to take a box, as often as they need, which contains ingredients and instructions to feed a family of four for the night. All schools need is a cupboard, and they can even order specific meal options online.
With both demand and awareness still rising, St Mark's Meals are now in over 70 schools across Milton Keynes, and the team have started sharing their knowledge and resources with other churches, helping them implement sustainable food box schemes in their own context.
Bishop Steven also met with the co-ordinator of the Milton Keynes food bank, one of the largest in the country. Throughout the pandemic, the food bank became the local council's main COVID response unit, and 70-80% of the food used by St Mark's is donated from the food bank itself.
St Mark's received a Development Fund grant in December 2020 to help fund their portfolio of social action projects - St Mark's Meals, Sanctuary, safe spaces for victims of domestic abuse, and Youthwork+.
Salt of the earth
In the evening, PCC members and lay leaders were invited to join a discussion with Bishop Steven at the Church of the Servant King, Furzton. Bishop Steven started with a moving sermon on Matthew 5:13, encouraging those present to see the verse not as a challenge but as an affirmation - to have confidence in the value of the work they are already doing and to see themselves as the 'salt of the earth'.
It was enriching to hear from the laity, who voiced concerns on matters such as finance and buildings maintenance, and the discussion also touched upon the future of ecumenism, an issue close to the heart of many of those worshipping in Milton Keynes, where several churches are part of a local ecumenical partnership. Bishop Steven reflected on Jesus' call for us all to be 'one', acknowledging the importance of good discernment within those partnerships.
Bishop Steven was also able to pop into Hot Potatoes, a monthly gathering for young people that meet in the Servant King hall. In getting to know the Bishop, they discovered that he is a big fan of pepperoni pizza and the Chronicles of Narnia books!
Come and see more
In the midst of gentle regathering and the current context we live in, where many outside of the church are rethinking faith and human identity, Bishop Steven wrapped up the evening with a warm invitation to all to Come and See once more in the coming Epiphany and Lenten season. Designed to engage with both enquirers and believers who may be reframing their faith in light of all that has happened, Come and See 2022 will look at the Lord's Prayer and is open to all across the diocese.
Bishop Steven's visits continue on 25 November in Wendover.