This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (with Sara Cox):

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Coming down to London on the train yesterday, I had a quick look for 16 October 2018 and discovered – to my amusement – that today is Dictionary Day, Steve Jobs Day, Boss Day, Department Store Day, and Feral Cat Day. Can you believe it? Who invents these things. And does anyone actually do anything on Department Store Day other than go shopping? As someone once put it: Tesco ergo sum … or ‘I shop, therefore I am’.

But, it’s also World Food Day, and here it all gets a bit more serious. World Food Day was first launched in 1945 to celebrate the start of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its focus has been on food security and how agriculture needs to be developed a round the world in order for growing populations to be adequately fed.

Now, it’s easy to quote Jesus in the gospels praising those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but someone else then has to do the economics. Food banks around the country are absolute life-savers for individuals and families and are usually run by volunteers who believe that no one should go hungry in twenty first century Britain. But, we need to ask why they are so necessary and why use of them is increasing so markedly. But, World Food Day draws attention to the fact that global measures are needed if all people are to be fed. Look at Yemen and other places where famine and hunger are appalling, and food banks are in short supply.

Well, I can hear the voices already telling me that “I can’t change the world’s agricultural policies!” And I get that. But, today I could use my iPhone – or any other mobile phone, obviously – to celebrate Steve Jobs Day and locate a decent department store (hopefully without feral cats hanging around) where I could buy some food and take it to my nearest foodbank.

This way I can pay a small price for making a big difference to someone who otherwise will go hungry. And, in doing so, I’ll also be changing the world.

Anyway, it’s food for thought, isn’t it.

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I understand that a Brazilian has something to do with a close shave. (And that's as far as I am going with that one.) The World Cup semi-final last night between Brazil and Germany was anything but. Brazil was slaughtered. And it was the abject manner of the destruction that shocked: the boys from Brazil put up almost no resistance and, although wanting Germany to win, I found myself hoping they wouldn't push it into double figures. Defeat is one thing; humiliation is another.

I am a lousy prophet when it comes to the footie, but I tipped Germany to win the competition in Brazil all along. The sheer discipline and efficiency is set off by a ruthless opportunism that sees this as the team likely to dominate world football for a decade. It is not so much a joy to watch as terrifying to behold.

But, it is still only a game – albeit a very expensive and industrial one. I watched the match after hosting a dinner for a visiting bishop from Sudan. Bishop Ismail is the Bishop of El-Obeid, but frequently heads into the dangerous areas of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in order to visit the Christians there, pray with them and assure them they are not forgotten. This unassuming man sat and told us stories of his long ministry, perhaps unwittingly exposing a raw courage and sense of focused adventure that I found arresting.

Faced with death, imprisonment, war and oppression for thirty years, this puts the misery of highly-paid Brazilian footballers into perspective. Defeat might hurt, but it won't kill them. And I guess the pay cheque will still come into the bank despite abject performances.

When the World Cup is over Brazilian football will need to start re-building for the next twenty years. And when the naysayers about the South Americans' ability to run a global tournament such as this have reluctantly admitted that it was a great event – and almost no match was missable – attention will turn back to the massive problems of the poor of this growing country. Poverty is not displaced by spectacle.

But, before we turn our attention back to the corruptions and problems of other places, we might ask – along with the Bishop of Durham – why England is to have an inquiry into institutional child abuse that is not judge-led and has no teeth.

(And I hope Germany beats the Netherlands in the final…)

 

Before I went to Kazakhstan for the first time in 2003 I had little idea of its post-independence history. I knew it quite well (from a distance and in a bit of a weird way) as a Soviet republic, but after the collapse of the Soviet empire and its unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1991, I had lost track and lost interest.

So, 2003 was only twelve years after this massive change. I learned that Russia immediately cut off every economic or financial lifeline to the new Republic of Kazakhstan and left it – the dumping ground of the old USSR – as a polluted and poverty-stricken cast-off, ready to sink into oblivion. Twelve years later, however, the country was developing its economy, shaping its identity, carving out its place in the international political community, and building a confident new nation. Yes, there was also corruption and some very unsavoury things were happening in parallel to all this.

But, the common fact in every conversation about the country – with both old-hand politicians and young media people – was that the first five years were unutterably miserable. I was told by many people that “people starved and died in the street” – a combination of no work, no food, extreme cold and no shelter. The infrastructure had collapsed and had to be rebuilt bit by bit. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was acclaimed, even by serious opponents among my interlocutors, for holding to the discipline of getting a strong economy – the only way to build a long-term future for increased wealth, public services, education and business. The cost was consciously tolerated.

Now, why am I remembering this today – especially as I am in Basel on study leave and supposed to be reading theology? Well, this morning a letter was published in the Mirror newspaper, signed by 27 Church of England bishops. The letter drew attention to food poverty in England and called on the government to change its policies that are deemed to be driving people and families into destitution. (This letter follows the RC Archbishop of Westminster's condemnation of the effects of welfare reform as a 'disgrace' and its rebuttal by the Prime Minister in terms of moral purpose. I doubt if the timing is any more than coincidental.) Today the bishops are taking a bit of a bashing.

First, it has been suggested that if only 27 signed the letter, then 74 did not: draw your conclusions. Well, the 74 were probably not approached – not because there was selective ideological bias involved, but simply because in such cases only a number of bishops is usually approached for signature. I was not approached, but would have signed, had I been asked to do so. In similar cases where my signature has been added to a letter, most other bishops weren't approached. Many bishops aren't online most of the time, many are slow to respond to requests, and some refuse to sign anything on principle. No conspiracy here – and probably no fine strategic organisation – but, as usual, a bit random.

Secondly, when asked to sign such a letter you have to look at the general drift and not argue about every word – although I have refused to sign one or two open letters until certain assumptions were checked or details changed. However, agreeing every detail by disparate committee guarantees only that the letter will never be agreed or published. So, signature signals assent to the content whilst recognising that each individual might have preferred to have written it differently.

So, why write this now? And why the stuff about Kazakhstan?

Bishops have better things to do with their time than enter into ideological arguments that serve no purpose other than political point-scoring. To accuse signatory bishops of simplistic or malicious political bias is silly. Whatever their political views – and there is a range of opinion on welfare cuts and their effects – they are in touch with real people in every community of this country. So, when hearing government defences of the 'moral intent' of policies that directly affect the communities the churches and their clergy serve, they cannot remain silent about the realities on the ground. They might respect the moral intent – and even agree with it – whilst seeing the devastating consequences of that policy on the people we meet every day. The proliferation of food banks, coupled with the evidence that many, many poorly-paid working people are having to use them in order to feed their family, is a reality that poses a challenge to the moral effectiveness of the said policy.

Any why Kazakhstan? Well, I am NOT comparing post-independence Kazakhstan with England. The question that this raised in my own mind this morning, however, was whether the open recognition of Kazakh policy in the 1990s is preferable to the muddled attempts to add moral justification to an English policy that the government just don't want to admit is so brutal? Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.

Harsh? Yes, but honest. And at least we would know what we were dealing with. The churches would continue to care as best as possible – and without discrimination – for poor people. And bishops would continue to tell what they see and hear of the human cost of political ideology and question its moral basis from a Christian ethical perspective. And debate would rage on. But, at least it would be clear what was going on.

 

The newspapers variously report today on the debate in the House of Commons about foodbanks.

OK, make allowances for the natural party-political hype and journalistic attribution of motive to anyone with whom they disagree, but this still makes anyone with an eye on our future social stability worry. There might be very good reasons why Iain Duncan-Smith left the debate early and refused to speak in it; and there might be reasons why the government benches laughed while stories of poverty and serious hardship were being related from the benches opposite. I wasn't there, wasn't able to follow the debate (I have a day job), and am not in a position to judge.

However, the existence and proliferation of foodbanks should be a source of shame and shock, not an excuse to score political points. We shouldn't turn our horror at the impact and implications of austerity onto mocking IDS as he leaves the chamber early. This isn't about him; our focus should be on constantly holding before him and those with power the consequences of the value systems driving policy at present.

I wonder if anyone referenced Fr Timothy Radcliffe's recent Romero lecture. If not, they should have done. It should be read in full (despite the alarming number of typos). Poverty, especially as experienced by the young, will infect generations to come, and influence their identity/solidarity with wider society. When George Osborne asserts that “we are in it together,” there will be a generation of cynics who will wonder what the 'it' was.

… “forgive me for being vastly oversimplistic. The poor suffer violence in our society too. Everywhere food banks are opening because ever more people in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, simply cannot afford to eat. Children arrive hungry at school every morning. Millions of people, especially the young, see no future, no hope. Cathy Corcoran from the Cardinal Hume Centre said to me: ‘If you are a long term street homeless person in the UK your life expectancy is mid- 40s max – if you have an intravenous drug issue on top then it comes down to the mid-30s.’ People disappeared from the streets of San Salvador because they were murdered by death squads. They disappear from our streets because they die. Our country is afflicted by a vast, hidden violence on the poorest. If we do not open our eyes to it and respond, then it will surely erupt and destroy our society before long.

Our blindness to this violence is not just due to ignorance. The way that we see the world filters out the dramas of their lives. The French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu says that every society has a cognitive map which silences some people. They disappear into what he calls ‘social silences.’

This is for at least two reasons. In our world everything is quantified, measured, administered. David Graeber writes that it is ‘money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic’ which justifies ‘things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene.’ Of course statistics matter. I am a great fan of the admirable Office for National Statistics. It keeps politicians truthful. But if numbers shape our cognitive map, then the poor will disappear and we shall not register the violence that they endure.” (Fr Timothy Ratcliffe)

 

One day in the life of the General Synod of the Church of England here in London.

  • Women bishops legislation in groups
  • The naming of dioceses
  • Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York
  • Church schools
  • Review of how the General Synod works

OK, there was also some other exciting stuff in between – legislative, mostly, but also lunch.

What holds all these seemingly disconnected agenda items together? Well, they fit into the mosaic of imaginative and prophetic life and work of the Church of England at every level.

Women bishops will come to be – we are simply trying to get the best legislative way of doing it, but are also learning to behave more maturely and Christianly as we do so. This matter brings in questions of justice, ethics, theology, ecclesiology, mission and order.

Until now an English diocese could only be named after a city. So, even though the new diocese in West Yorkshire & the Dales is based regionally, it has to be named after the Bishop's see: Leeds. In future it will be possible to name a diocese after its region – as it has been for ages in other parts of the Anglican Communion. So what? Well, the change (not welcomed by all) is permissive and demonstrates a concern to see from the outside what we are about on the inside. Not an enormous change, but perhaps significant.

The Archbishop of York delivered a powerful Presidential Address in which any hint of us being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' was declared dead and buried. The scandals of poverty, homelessness and the inequities between rich and poor were cited and statistically exposed – along with references to Jim Wallis, St Francis, Pope Francis and Gustavo Guttierez inter alia. As the Archbishop of Canterbury commented on Twitter, this was a “powerful address on shocking state of UK poverty. Statistically based, ethically clear, spiritually challenging”.

Church schools are contentious and often misrepresented. They are not faith schools. They aim to serve the communities in which they are set and they need to regain confidence in their ethos and remit. This debate was not about 'schools for the sake of the church', but, rather, about 'church for the sake of schools'. There were some impressively informed and wise contributions regarding education per se and the impact good education can have on the ground. In other words, theology provided the context for consideration of the common good, good education for all and the broader development of society for which good education is vital.

Anyone with experience of the General Synod knows that business could be done differently and, probably, better. But, the aim of this is not simply to order the mechanics of our business better (as an end in itself), but to enable us to get our business out there (as an end which is better enabled if the mechanics are clearer). In other words, this isn't about internal plumbing and yet more introspective navel-gazing; it is about enabling the church to be better focused on its real mission.

So, the agenda looks a bit bitty. But, it has to do with creating a mosaic of church life and witness that works at the levels of individual commitment, congregational focus, parochial service, diocesan priority, national prophetic speech. It is held together by the vocation of the church to be grasped by a prophetic imagination – being drawn by a vision of God's character and the vocation of God's people to live for the sake of the world in which we are put. It is prophetic because it dares to engage with uncomfortable truth and the messy unclarity of human life and society whilst demanding imagination of a world that does not yet exist.

 

“My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.”

So writes the anonymous author of the most harrowing war-time diary I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin. Even though she is writing as the Russians approach in 1945 and the infrastructure of German society has all but collapsed, her recognition of the need for food applies always and everywhere. And today, here in affluent England, if children come to school hungry, it is a stupid person who thinks that child is going to be able to learn and grow and concentrate and thrive.

So, it is good news that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this evening that all infant school children are to be served free school meals from some time in 2014. In fact, the Children's Society briefed the Anglican bishops meeting in Oxford just before the announcement. Unmitigated good news on a day when we had been taking a sobering and serious look at children, young people, education and schools. The effects of poverty sat high in our consciousness.

Here is the context:

  • 3.5 million children live in poverty in the UK (after housing costs have been deducted).
  • Around 1.9 children live in workless households in the UK – higher than in any other European Union country.
  • Yet, 63% of all children in low income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work. (But, this doesn't spell out that so many of these 'paid jobs' are part-time or very low-paid.)
  • In 1979 c.14% of children lived in poverty; in 2012 it had risen to 27%.
  • Rather than eradicating child poverty by 2020 (a government commitment in the Cild Poverty Act), it is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the figure will increase by 800,000 – which means that by 2020 one in three children in the UK will be living in poverty.

Shocking? Or acceptable?

Food bank reports indicate that most people come to food banks on their way home from work. Which bangs another nail into the shameful and misleading political categorising of poor people into 'benefit scroungers' – those who refuse to work and cost the country millions. This lie has traction in the country at large, but the evidence points to serious problems for poor people who do work.

So, what about the children? Good news about the free school meals – whatever the political motivation behind announcing it today – and news that highlights the importance of food and the iniquity of poverty for a society that wants its children to grow into educated, creative and altruistic citizens.

Now, what about the other children in our schools? And what about tackling the causes of the child poverty that the government, by announcing its policy today, has explicitly acknowledged?

 

Well, would you believe it? A whole day at the General Synod in York without bishops being on the agenda. (Don't worry, Monday's coming.)

The mission of the Church of England makes it essential for us to open the door to women bishops – although there now seems to be a greater determination in the Synod itself to get it right rather than to get it quick. Yet, today we debate matters that affect the lives of huge numbers of people in the communities our churches are called to serve and reach in the name of Christ: (a) safeguarding (following up the Chichester commissaries' reports), and (b) welfare reform and the church.

Naturally, our appetites will be whetted by worship in York Minster in the morning and some wonderful legislative material in the early afternoon: The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013 and other stuff I am not even going to begin to describe. All important, but, in some way, opening the door to the heavy debates later.

The Church of England is determined to be transparent regarding safeguarding matters. There is determination in these papers to face the historic problem and make sure abuse or grooming cannot happen again. No complacency or illusions, but real determination. It has to be a good thing, surely, that more survivors of abuse are feeling able to come forward – even if this causes institutions like the church massive embarrassment, humiliation, reputational damage and loss of moral authority.

Indeed, when I spoke to a group of young leaders in Ilkley last week, one young woman put it to me that the church had forfeited any moral authority because of such scandals – a charge I took very seriously. I hope this will be the start of a conversation about 'moral authority' and what legitimises ethical comment and judgement.

Welfare reform is causing misery and devastation in many of our communities. I have written on this many times before now. Suspend your ideologies and political allegiances for one minute and it becomes possible to see the effects of the cuts (as, if you like, observable phenomena) aside from justifications or condemnations.

The numbers of people using food banks is growing by the day. These are not 'skivers' or 'scroungers' or people whose “chaotic lives (not shortage of cash) cause parents to send their children to school without breakfast” – as Education Secretary Michael Gove put it so generously last week. Meanwhile the misrepresentation by the powerful of poor people continues unabated.

The Synod will debate these matters not in order to boost its self-referential credibility or its self-justifying sense of righteousness. It will debate these matters on behalf of those whose voice is not heard and whose plight is too often ignored or misrepresented. And it will do so because of a biblical mandate to “open your mouth for the dumb” (Proverbs 31:8-9) and because Jesus said/did things that were good news for poor people and bad news for the cushioned rich.

The church can do no other than articulate what it sees and experiences every day. Synod brings together the stories and the analysis and places a magnifying glass over both. Not for the sake of the church – just for the sake of those whose life is tough.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.