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“[C]ontemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world”: an interview with the Rt Rev. Dr Steven Croft, bishop of Oxford

Steven CROFT et Jérôme GROSCLAUDE

Notes de l’auteur

The following interview was carried out by e-mails in March 2020, coming after a face-to-face meeting on 17 June 2019.

Texte intégral

1. How would you describe to a non-British audience the relation between Church and State in England today?

The Church of England is the established Church in England. This means it has a special relationship with both the Monarch and with parliament.

The Monarch is the head of state. The Monarch is therefore head of – but also defender of - the faith, i.e., the Reformed and Protestant faith as it is understood and practised by the Church of England. This dual status is why Anglican ministers swear an oath of allegiance to, and commit to regular prayer for, the Monarch.

Of the 42 dioceses in the Church of England, 26 have bishops holding seats in the House of Lords, which is the upper parliamentary chamber in the United Kingdom. These legal privileges and responsibilities are used to represent the interests of all – including other faiths - and not only the narrow concerns of the Church of England itself.

2. Global warming is probably the biggest challenge today’s world has to meet: has the Church a role to play in helping British Society meet this challenge?

Emphatically yes! Global warming is the most important challenge the world now faces, more so even than Covid-19. The Anglican Communion has developed 5 marks of mission, the last of which is ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.’

This mark has a number of practical expressions. So, for example, at the annual General Synod in February 2020 the Church committed itself to achieving ‘net zero’ by 2030. There is also a ‘soft’ power in the Established church providing practical leadership through its own example. My own diocese of Oxford has established an Environmental Task Group charting a route to practical implementation that other dioceses and institutions can use as a template to follow.

The Anglican Communion literally encompasses the globe and combining this with the 26 Lords Spiritual, the Church of England plays an active role in helping not only its own churches but also British society and the international community both to recognise the gravity of the situation and to respond necessarily. I would note also, however, that the fourth mark (which refers to social justice) has important implications for proportionality. The five marks combined convey the missional importance of acknowledging our own national responsibility in contributing to – and consequently our duty for also mitigating – the problem of climate change.

3. On 25/8/2017 – as you were a member of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence – you wrote: ‘We need a greater level of education about AI and what it can do and is doing at every level in society – including schools. The technology can bring significant benefits, but it can also disrupt our lives.’ How much progress has been made, notably in terms of education, since then?

To be honest, I don’t see a great deal of progress in education since 2017. Where there has been more significant progress, is in exploring and identifying the potential benefits and harms of AI. Since 2017 there have been a huge number of high-level ethical frameworks produced internationally. More practically still, here in the UK I have become a board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. I attended a Vatican conference on responsible use of AI in February [2020] that culminated in a co-sponsored call for AI ethics by Church and some leading global business. More initiatives are emerging and I am about to join one launched by the Ada Lovelace Institute to promote informed public understanding of the impact of AI and data-driven technologies on different groups in society.

4. To continue with AI, has the Church a role to play in this education to AI? Why?

The Church has a significant role to play in the ethical governance of AI. That is because we have (and ought to have) deep insight into being human. Our doctrines of both human dignity and the common good shed practical light on the flourishing of both society and the individual human person. All of which is grounded in a deep and theologically nuanced ethical tradition.

5. To come back to education, but this time in its most common sense meaning, the diocese of Oxford is very much concerned with schools and education: can you tell us more about it?

Oxford Diocese has 283 schools educating more than 50,000 pupils. We also have connections with a number of multi-academy trusts. Our ethos is to provide education that is grounded in Christian values, but this is explicitly education for all and not simply religious education. In that sense our schools are schools of faith in the broadest sense, but not ‘faith schools’ in any narrow sense.

6. In 2019, it has been ten years since you were ordained a bishop. For you, what does it mean to be a bishop?

It means to serve and to lead communities and the Church and to form the church in the likeness of Christ. I think we have to root this in a common vision that is built around three central pillars; becoming contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world.

7. To follow up on the last question: in secularised Britain, what are bishops for?

Much of the answer to this question has been covered already, but to summarise, the ministry of bishops is shaped by the Church, by Christian tradition, and by the structure of Britain as a nation. As the established church, our role as bishops is to convene and represent all churches and all faiths in the public square.

8. The most puzzling aspect of the Church of England for a Continental observer is the position occupied by the Sovereign. What can you tell us about it?

  • 1 Dame Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy is composed of Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012 (...)

For a historical perspective, if you can possibly find the time Jerome, I heartily recommend the historical novels of Hilary Mantel.1 I am also currently [in 2020] reading a fascinating biography, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life [Penguin Books, 2019], by the Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch. They would answer all your questions and more! Alternatively, a much shorter answer can be found [on the historical section of the Church of England’s Website].

9. To continue on the same subject, how important is the personality of the present Sovereign in the relation between the Church of England and the State?

In the current day much stems from the character of our present sovereign. Queen Elizabeth displays the most enduring commitment to both her vocation as sovereign and ‘defender of the faith’ and to her own practice of that faith. This serves to anchor relations between the Church and the state and has been a valuable source of stability.

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Notes

1 Dame Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy is composed of Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror & the Light (2020). They were all originally published by Macmillan.

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Référence électronique

Steven CROFT et Jérôme GROSCLAUDE, « “[C]ontemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world”: an interview with the Rt Rev. Dr Steven Croft, bishop of Oxford »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/14320 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.14320

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Auteurs

Steven CROFT

Steven Croft was born in Halifax in 1957 and was ordained a priest in the Church of England’s diocese of London in 1983. He was consecrated Bishop of Sheffield in January 2009 and was translated to the see of Oxford in September 2016. He has been a member of the House of Lords since October 2013. He regularly speaks on Artificial Intelligence and Education.
Dr Croft is the author of a number of books including a novel, The Advent Calendar (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006) and Jesus’ People: What the Church should do next (Church House Publishing, 2009). His latest book, Comfortable words: a call to restoration (BRF, 2021), is a reflection on the sanitary situation.

Jérôme GROSCLAUDE

Clermont Auvergne University

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