More Food for Thought

Bishop Edward King Chapel

Gavin Francis is a GP, and his recent book Intensive Care (2021) reflects on the nature of pandemics, and how we respond.  What I admired most about the book was his neat summing up of the skill that a GP needs for the role: “science with kindness”.  Not enough is written about kindness, yet it is an essential core element in most of vocations, and arguably most professions.  

I used to remark to students at Cuddesdon that once they were ordained, most mistakes and faults would be forgiveable.  Bad preaching is not ideal, but it is tolerable. Poor administration is not helpful, but it is unlikely to be the deal-breaker between parson and parish. 

That then begs the question, what is the deal-breaker? I would counsel seminarians about to be ordained that they must be one thing, at least, and this was non-negotiable. They had to be good. Yes, good. Good people, full of goodness, and ideally overflowing with the milk of human kindness.  This meant that in being good, they must also be utterly truthful. 

Truthful and good. That is what we need from our clergy, and it is not bad thing in our GPs and others who work in caring professions and vocations.  I’ll take a good pastor any day, over and against an untruthful and bad person, even if they are someone who is a brilliant preacher, liturgist, administrator or leader. Goodness and truth matter most. Yes, most of all. Being Good matters.

For the earliest churches, goodness and truth spilled over into the sharing of the good news. That good news was not a mere sermon, however.  Good news meant actions, lifestyle, kindness and sharing. There was no good news for the poor if it just turned out to be a newsflash from a street preacher ranting about sin and salvation.  Good news for the poor meant a good church, and truthfully feeding the poor. And keeping them warm, in shelter, and treating them with dignity and kindness.

The goodness and truth at the heart of Christian faith is Jesus, the living bread.  The shared meals and feeding those who could not feed themselves extended from the very heart of the Eucharist. Just as Jesus, the Living Bread, is for all, so was the church to be a community that fed and nurtured the widows, orphans and those who could no longer care for themselves, or whom society (or religion) had discarded. 

Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, means ‘the House of Bread’ in Aramaic. So, from the crib to the last supper, to Emmaus, and to our altars today, the bread we share is banal – common food, symbolic of spiritual and inward nourishment, that binds us together as one equal body.

Common food and common eating is the hallmark of fellowship. When training for ordination, Emma and I spent a year on placement at Consett in County Durham. This once proud steel town had been decimated by the economic ravages of Thatcherism, and rates of unemployment were high, with the other accompanying indices of health, obesity, smoking and long-term depression. Yet working with the Curate and community there was a source of endless, utter joy. The congregation and parish were terrific company and moving exemplars of resilience and hope. 

It is the leaven of the communal suppers and lunches that Emma and I often recall, over thirty years on. For the menu was always the same: corned-beef pie. It was sometimes served cold, in ‘slabs’, or hot, with a side of boiled potatoes. We never quite got the hang of the recipe, but it was essentially corned-beef mashed with potato and filling an ‘envelope’ of short-crust pastry. It is fair to say that as a meal, it was filling. Indeed, I sometimes wondered with the winds whipping off the moors, if the function of this food was partly ballast. The top layer of pastry was not latticed, and it came as it came, hot or cold. 

The appreciation for this local Consett fare lay in its commonality. We all ate of one social meal, and it therefore bound us together, so there was no enmity or any kind of competition in the provision of food, of cooking skills, and so of class, taste or other particularities that might divide us. Corned-beef pie meant something: this is us – we share our social life, lot, and fellowship together. 

There is one body. One pie. Irrespective of education or occupation, or the lack of either or both, there was no room for any sneering snobbery when it came to food – what the sociologist David Morgan (2018) defined as ‘a matter both of public disapproval and private enjoyment’. All partook of one meal.

Years later, when Emma became Vicar of a parish in Sheffield (Holy Trinity Millhouses), the common meal for the congregation was meat and potato pie, and minted mushy peas. Again, you might think, more ballast than nutrition? Perhaps. But this common, repeated menu had a quasi-Eucharistic function. This is how we expressed our life together socially, not just liturgically. 

Like bread and wine each day, each week, the common meal for social occasions expressed our unity and our equality. Goodness and truth meant that we ate together as one, because we were committed to the goodness of unity.

So, pie was for sharing. Just as Swiss hamlets still remember and celebrate the community bread oven located in the centre of most hamlets or villages, with the loaves apportioned out as each person and household needs through the long winters. This work was regulated in each community by a ‘Banal’ – our word for ‘common’, but the Swiss term for the village council that looked after everyone, so fostering the common good.

My Candlemas resolution for the church is: be good; be truthful; and share with those who lack food, shelter and kindness. In feeding them, we feed Christ.  This is our common task, and indeed, should be our common prayer.