This is my presidential address from the Sheffield Diocesan Synod held today in Handsworth on the edge of Sheffield.
Give us this day our daily bread Presidential Address to the Sheffield Diocesan Synod 13th July, 2013.
A few weeks ago I visited the food bank at St. Cuthbert’s Fir Vale in Sheffield. The food bank opened at the end of 2011. It served two people in its first week. The food bank now serves up to 50 single people and 15-20 families every week.
The volunteers walked me through the process of registration as if I had come to use the food bank. They gave me a warm welcome, asked me a number of simple questions and explained what was on offer. I was invited into a café area of the church for tea and coffee with snacks for my children. It was all very small scale, neighbourly and human and, of course, set in a church building.
I was taken behind the scenes and asked to pack some bags for distribution. Each bag contains tea or coffee, some breakfast cereal, some protein and carbohydrate, a treat of some kind, some long life milk. The cash value at the supermarket would be £1.80.
The food comes from a wide range of 25 organisations who collect it, from grants and individuals. The food goes to people who live in the area, who really need it, who would actually be hungry without it. There is absolutely no doubt about that. For whatever reason, some people are now genuinely hungry in our society. The food is distributed through a network of volunteers, many of them trained in food hygiene and healthy eating. The food bank is now at the centre of a city wide network of community and support.
Most of us will know that food banks are growing apace in our society at the present time. The Fir Vale food bank is an excellent example of the Church being salt and light in our community and reaching out to those in need. We believe that there are around 15 church based food banks in Sheffield who are part of the Sheffield Food Bank network. Rotherham has the Food for People in Crisis Partnership. We know of 7 church based food banks in Doncaster and that number is rising. The food bank at St. James Balby featured in a recent Guardian article. I was in one of the Barnsley deaneries on Wednesday and heard of two groups of churches preparing new food bank initiatives – a simple response to the need the churches see around them.
According to Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam figures released a few weeks ago, around half a million people used food banks in the UK last year. There are a number of interrelated reasons for this rise. We all know the cost of food and fuel are rising. More families are living close to crisis and when the crisis comes have fewer financial resources. Delays or failures in the administration of benefits can have a huge impact on vulnerable families. The changes to the benefits system are likely to sharpen the impact still further.
I would guess that many of the parishes across our Diocese are caught up in these changes in some way whether we are collecting food, offering it in very simple ways or exploring some larger venture. It is often as simple as a box with a collection point on Sundays for canned goods which is kept by the vicarage door for those in need. Often the food banks are ecumenical projects: churches acting together in God’s mission. With many others in our society, we are deeply moved that someone in the next street or on the other side of town could be physically hungry. We are moved still more that children should be without food in Britain in the 21st Century. We are disturbed that there should be such a divide between the haves and have-nots.
We are called as a Diocese to grow Christ-like communities. Christ-like communities respond with compassion to the needs around them and that is exactly what St. Cuthbert’s Fir Vale are doing along with many other churches and congregations.
Local churches are well placed to be channels of that practical support in times of need. We are close to the ground. We are in every place. We can mobilise volunteers. We have buildings and resources to offer. Every local church is part of a wider network in the diocese and ecumenically. We can draw on expertise in finding out how to do this. There is no doubt that local churches are leading the way in food bank provision across this area.
We are called as a Diocese to grow Christ-like communities which are effective in seeking to transform our society and God’s world. Exactly one year ago we agreed our salt and light strategy at this July Synod. It was formally launched at our Development Day in October of last year. The growing need for food banks shows us how vital that part of our strategy is for the church and for the region. But Salt and Light encourages us to go further than simple practical support, vital though that is.
We need to pray and think and reflect about what is happening. We need to reflect on what this change says about the society and the world we live in. We need to be challenged ourselves and we need to challenge others. What does it mean that some are needing food aid in our own society and our own towns and city? How can we not only serve our neighbours but work for change in this area?
As everyone here knows, Jesus gives his disciples a prayer. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. We use it every time we gather. We know it by heart. We pray it from childhood to old age. It is the most profound and wonderful prayer ever composed.
In the very centre of the Lord’s Prayer we find a prayer centred on food. Give us this day our daily bread. It is a prayer asking for the basic necessities of life. Yes, of course, bread is much more than food. We are asking for spiritual nourishment as well as physical food. But it is a prayer for physical food.
I’ve come to realize that one of the reasons the Lord gives us this line of the prayer is to teach us to be content with enough. I began by thinking that the prayer is at heart a petition. This is the moment when I ask for things for myself in prayer. It’s not wrong to do that but I don’t think the emphasis lies here.
For the prayer encourages me to ask God not for wealth but for just enough for this day – to seek God daily for daily bread. This line of the prayer has become for me a prayer to God to hold in check my own natural greed and desire not only for more food but for more material things, more of this world’s goods. This simple line of the Lord’s prayer is a powerful antidote to greed and materialism. It is a pathway to being content with what we have – with saying that enough is enough.
This is something, I believe the Church needs to teach again more clearly in our communities. I am not an economist and I don’t understand all that is happening in our society at the present time. But we do stand in a profound moment of change. That change is being driven by personal greed, corporate greed and national greed. It is driven by the message that more wealth and more goods and more food means more happiness. That message has been proclaimed at every level in our society for generations. It is proclaimed through our politics and education systems. It is proclaimed through advertising. It is proclaimed through every part of popular culture: you cannot be happy unless you have more.
The Church needs to proclaim a different message, to sing a different song. The message that wealth and possessions bring happiness is, simply, a lie. Christ’s love sets us free from the chains of our own greed and slavery to possessions. “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.25) The Christian Way is about learning to be content with enough. Give us this day our daily bread. We learn to see in ordinary things the surpassing generosity of God.
That message in turn liberates us and sets us free to be generous: to share with others what God has given us. The message creates in us as Christians a strong desire for justice. We do not see why we should live in an unequal world.
The message drives us to campaign for an end to world hunger. World hunger is created and sustained by institutionalized greed. There is enough food for everyone but some are denied because of the greed of others to consume. The Enough Food/IF campaign this year has argued for serious structural change to help the world’s poorest people – those who are starving and malnourished in the very poorest countries. Christians and Christian aid agencies have been in the forefront of that campaign. There has been real progress.
Back in the 1970’s, the aid agencies began a campaign to persuade the UK government to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid. The UK government reached that target this year. G8 leaders pledged an extra $4.1 billion to help tackle malnutrition and save the lives of almost two million children. Land grabs were on the G8 agenda for the first time ever. Fairer systems for buying and selling land in developing countries are key. There has been significant progress in combatting the avoidance of tax by multinational companies both in the UK and in the G8 countries.
The message of the Lord’s Prayer should stir us up to do something about the scandal of food waste. According to the love food hate waste website, about 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year. Around 50% of this comes from our homes. Some of this colossal food waste of that is in our own kitchens and dining rooms. The evidence of greed is in our rubbish bins.
The Christian Church and some other faith communities have long held to the practice of fasting. One of the purposes of fasting is to check greed and to help us reconsider our relationship with food. All of us will know that the Muslim community began Ramadan this week – a whole month of a different rhythm and connection between the community and what we eat and drink. Throughout the twentieth century, the Christian church weakened its practice on fasting. The time has come in the 21st Century to restore the discipline as part of our discipleship.
The message of the Lord’s Prayer leads us to celebrate the connections between people created through food through food festivals, allotment projects, teaching people greater skills in cooking, helping families to recover the tradition of eating together around a table instead of in front of the television or the smartphone. It’s not only about how much we eat but how we give thanks for and celebrate God’s gifts to us in food and drink. It should be about tackling overconsumption of food and rising levels of obesity in many sections of society. Concern for food leads naturally to concern for our environment, to questions of animal welfare, of fair trade, of concern for the farmers who produce food in many parts of this diocese, to making the most of what we have.
Jesus teaches us to pray: Give us this day our daily bread.
The only path to a better world is to find an antidote to human greed. I know of no antidote to that greed than the gospel of Jesus Christ which sets men and women free from the need to get more for ourselves and to give more to others.
I want to thank God this morning for all the churches across this diocese who are involved in helping the hungry, through food banks, collection and distribution of food, soup runs, homeless shelters, through collecting for Christian Aid, through joining the IF campaign, through allotment projects, through teaching people about growing food or food preparation, through food festivals. There is a growing need around us. There is plenty of scope for more churches and people to be involved.
In all of these ways, we bear witness to the love of Christ and we are salt and light in our communities.
Give us this day our daily bread.