Food stories are a standard part of the news repertoire – and I suspect they have more impact on most people’s daily lives than high politics or war. This week’s (apart from Jamie Oliver’s beans-on-toast) was about the Co-op’s introduction of labels showing the fat and salt content of foods on their shelves. Another prompt to healthy eating. Food, diet, and health are not just news items, they are now part of the entertainment industry. This is the third week of BBC 1’s ‘Fat Nation’ series, diverting us couch potatoes with the progress to virtue of residents of a Birmingham street, as they give up burgers and take up skipping. Part of what fuels all this is a desire for people to be healthy. Discovering that the nation is idle and obese, the government fears for our well-being, and even more, for the cost to the health services in the long run.
If, as Christians, we seek to be good stewards of a divine creation, of which we are part, surely we should wish for ourselves and for others to live healthy lives, in body as in mind and spirit.
But I have a few questions about all this. Two come from the damaging ‘do nots’ of the Christian tradition. We stand in the shadow of the long history of Christian ambivalence towards the body: restricted diet and physical stress have long been used as ways of denying or diminishing our being as bodily creatures, and consequently becoming closer to God. It is a tradition which has been challenged only relatively recently, as we have sought to recover a sense of the goodness of our bodily being.
And then there is another strand in Christian thinking, a strand which we characterise as ‘puritan’, and which tells us that whatever is enjoyable cannot, by definitition, be of God. I’ve caricatured it in those few words, and there is no doubt of the value of setting aside much of what we do and get in a consumer society; but surely we are called to delight in the lavishness of creation, remembering the creator, rather than to withdraw from it as ungodly.
In contrast to these negative traditions, we set images of food and feasting at the heart of our worship: to do so is to speak to a fundamental human need and to use a universal language. But how do words about being called to the heavenly banquet sound to someone on their umpteenth diet? How do they sound to someone with a serious eating disorder, a group whose numbers are increasing as our image of an ideal body becomes more and more distant from the reality with which most of us live.
In my prayers for all those who use our community centre, I find myself at certain times praying for Slimming World and Weightwatchers, for the aerobics class and the line-dancers. And as I offer those prayers, I am increasingly aware of the ambiguities: am I praying for lives of physical well-being to be found through self-dislike and self-punishment, or for a growing acceptance of our different sizes, shapes, and life-styles? I hope I am praying that we are good stewards of ourselves and of each other – but I’m not quite sure what that stewardship involves.
As we await the report of the Lambeth Commission set up to address the crisis over sexuality, it might be useful to look at the rest of the news, and the way the secular world addresses such issues in Britain. The BBC news website has the following
A gay Conservative candidate has survived a deselection vote within his local party after winning support from Tory leader Michael Howard. Mr Howard earlier stepped in after press reports that Ashley Crossley hadbeen the victim of homophobia. He said there was ‘no place whatever for discrimination of that kind’ in his party, in a letter to local Tories.
Whilst the news media are all clear in their reporting of the Tory leaders’ view, what is equally significant is that without exception they all consider him to have acted correctly. Silence, or fudging the issue, would have been seen as reprehensible.
Of course Michael Howard has the full support of the law of the land in taking his stand. Discrimination on grounds of sexuality is wrong. Yet only ten years ago gay members of parliament were still being persecuted in the news media simply on the grounds of their sexuality.
There has been a complete revolution on this issue, one perhaps as challenging to people’s perceptions as was the ending of slavery in the 19th century.
The Church has asked for an opt out clause on sexuality, and this is beginning to look increasingly inappropriate. It is as though the Church were saying, at the point when slavery was outlawed, ‘but Christian clergy may continue to keep slaves’ with some argument like those used in the apartheid days of South Africa, to justify maintaining the status quo.
Lest this example appear unduly offensive, note that it is the South African churches and nation that have been foremost in campaigning against discrimination against homosexuals. They know, from their experience of discrimination, that all forms of it must be eradicated.
So, when the Eames commission reports, the rest of the Anglican Church will need to note that society in North America, in Europe and South Africa, finds discrimination against homosexuals unacceptable. The public, decisive, action taken by Michael Howard, as leader of the Conservatives, and Liam Fox, party chairman, ought to be an example to us all, and particularly to our own bishops. Homophobic discrimination has no place in the Church, and no place in the world today.
I am a conventional bloke really. When I find something that works I tend to stick with it. So when an overseas trip fell through at quite short notice and I decided to book a retreat it was a blow to find my favourite place couldn’t take me. At short notice I found myself heading for the Welsh Coast and a Jesuit-run week.
God was, of course, in all the places I’d expected to find him. There He was in my daily meetings with my spiritual director. He was up on the mountains – even when the fog descended – and on a glorious, almost deserted sunny beach. He was in the faces of my fellow retreatants as we ate our meals in silence. And of course He was there each day in the Eucharist as bread and wine were taken, offered, broken and consumed. None of that was any surprise. I do a retreat most years. Often it is in an Ignatian style and it is always wonderful for prayer to be the constant of the day rather than fighting for its share of space among all the other priorities.
What surprised me was how close I felt to God in a less usual setting. Each evening, after supper we gathered to sit in complete silence for half an hour with the sacrament set out before us.
The Eucharist is a drama. But this was a stillness. The Eucharist is a constant flow of words, music and actions. Here Christ was with us in silence. The time was set aside simply for us to be there with Christ. And to shun our usual responses of word and action in order to enter into a deeper adoration.
For an Anglican this is of course deeply controversial stuff. The final paragraph of article 25 begins “the sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” I don’t sit lightly to the Articles of Religion. Not only have I from time to time to assent to their place within Anglican tradition, I also regularly require others to so assent in my presence.
As I know from regular, daily reading of the scriptures, words not only convey meaning but also often hide, confuse or distort it. And never more so than when the writer and the reader live in very different contexts. For the Anglican Reformers the issue was not simply that lay people were gazing at the sacrament but that this had pushed the receiving of communion into a much lower place. People would rarely receive, would often leave the church once the Host had been elevated or even as a devotion go from church to church simply to be present for the consecration. A devotional practice that seems to have more in common with bird watching than genuine Eucharistic devotion.
I felt in my own devotions not a desire to replace the receiving the Sacrament but a delight to find it complemented. My time was not spent gazing on the Host but seeing it as a lens through which to see the One who gave himself for me and for many. A time to pause and be with Him in His self offering and in His passion. Sometimes, as St. Peter articulated on the Mount of the Transfiguration, it is simply “good to be here”. That moment of intimacy with Christ cannot be clung onto, as Peter himself was to discover. But it can be savoured whilst it is there. The sacrament becomes like an Icon – a window onto the Divine – but even more so because its relationship to that which it represents is closer than for any holy picture or religious ornament.
The primary purpose of the sacrament lies in the full drama of the Eucharist. Climaxing in the sharing of the elements by the substantive body of the congregation. The reformers rightly draw us back to this central truth. But at a time when we struggle to resist Forster’s jibe of “poor, talkative Christianity” and in a world ever busier, maybe devotion that brings us into the stillness of the presence of Christ is what many of us need.
And perhaps next year too I should plan my retreat at the very last moment.