Food Preferences As Symbolic of Psychological Divisions: A Christian Take

There was a by-election for the federal seat of Batman last weekend. During the campaign, commentators mentioned the difference between the north of the electorate, which is more traditional Labor territory, and the south of the electorate, which is becoming more ‘green’. I laughed out loud when I heard that this divide was called ‘The Great Wall of Quinoa”* I immediately thought of Switzerland where the difference between French Speaking Swiss and German Speaking Swiss is known as the “Rösti Graben” (Rösti is a kind of grated potato pizza, so the name means ‘Rösti ditch!’). My mind went to all those places where food becomes the issue over which different groups divide, or by which different groups identify themselves.


When we were young, a Canadian family visited our Church. We had a parish dinner at our house, where they cooked. They made Pizza and put some very stinky cheese on top. All of the kids went around saying ‘Poooo! That cheese smells like vomit!” Our parents were mortified.


But the same was true over the influx of people into the UK from the Indian sub-continent. I remember the complaints on the television about the smell of the curries and how it permeated their houses! I began to wonder about how food becomes the focus of such divisions. Here is my take on it.


While reading some anthropology, I have learned to be sensitive to the idea that the boundary of our bodies is a very significant one. We carefully guard what we ‘admit’ to our ‘internal self.’ Physically, we guard against becoming sick by keeping a close watch over what ‘gets in’. But the power of the food metaphor is that its meaning is transferred from the physical meaning one to the psychological meaning. In rejecting some one else’s food choices, we are not only saying ‘I do not know if your food will make me sick’, but also ‘I don’t know if you will make me sick! (in my inner life.)’


There is the key. Food becomes the metaphor for the question of ‘to admit or not to admit another’.


In the electorate of Batman, those in the north are saying “You ‘greenies’ in the south with your new fangled food choices! We are working class. We are meat and three veg. people. We are mistrustful of you! “


This was, of course, one of the first issues that the Church had to face, and it has become a characteristic of Christians ever since. The Gentiles were thought of as being ‘unclean’ in such a way as even to prevent Jews from eating with them or eating their food which, of course, was non-kosher’.


Paul’s theology drove a chariot straight through all this, by saying ‘There is no longer the category of Jew and Gentile! The division now lies between those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who are not. Everyone who is ‘in Christ’ belongs to the New Creation. This new community was naturally symbolised by the fact that Jews and Gentiles then ate the same food together. This is just more radical than we can really imagine, but there it is!


In the Church today we say ‘We are the body of Christ, for we all share in the one bread.’ The members of the Church are not individuals, who need to guard against one another, but members of the same body. The food is distributed among all the ‘organs’ and the blood flows from one part to the other without any barriers. In the church we have no ‘Rösti Graben’ or ‘Great wall of Quinoa’!


Were it so! Such unity requires more being and acting together than many congregations will accept, so that we do not become one body, but an aggregation of individuals. We give expression to this reality, again with food, by the frequency with which individual cups are used in Church, or the frequency with which people will ‘dip’ their bread into the chalice, rather than run the risk of sharing something dangerous with another member of the same body. Such loss of intimacy is also expressed when, on Maundy Thursday ‘hand washing’ replaces ‘foot washing’ in some places.


I think that the symbol of one cup, one body, touching another’s feet, is a powerful antidote to the fear of ‘the other’ that is growing in the world these days.

*For those not ‘in the know’ Quinoa is a grain that is becoming very popular among the young and ‘hip’.

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Spending ‘Spiritual Capital’ as a Clergyman

The recent discussion about gun availability has reminded us about the brave move by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, in buying back many of the country’s guns, and so helping to decrease the number of mass shootings in Australia, since the Port Arthur Massacre, to zero.


In the context of this conversation, people have been mentioning the idea of Political Capital. Here it is in brief. They say that a new government, or prime minister enters office with a lot of good will and a certain ‘bank account’ of political capital. Because of the fact that nearly anything that anyone does will provoke opposition, even among one’s supporters, the idea is that a leader will only have enough ‘political capital’ for three or four ‘big things’ and then they are voted out. This was certainly true of the leadership of John Howard. He did a good thing with the guns, but alienated a lot of his support base in rural Australia. He introduced a goods and services tax, which he said he would ‘never ever do’, which lost him a lot more.


So if this idea is true, I am wondering if it applies to clergy tenure as well.


The idea of ‘clerical leadership capital’ certainly does not appear in the bible as far as I know! There, the images describing religious leaders are those of shepherding, and perhaps a bit of prophesy in being a watchman, and there is the image of being a steward of the Mysteries of God. But I can’t find anything that says that a clergyman or woman has a limited time span in a congregation to do anything before they know that their time is ‘up’.


I think that it might be a help to clergy to have an understanding of the fact that in our work, we are also spending ‘spiritual capital.’


I remember that my first vicar said to me ‘Well, you go into a place having a certain number of things that you know how to do, and then, once all of those cards are played, then it is time to move on!” I did not like the idea at the time, but it represents some wisdom about the fact that at some time or another one’s time to move on has come.


This is especially true if one wants to change something. Perhaps it is true that there are only three or four things that a person might be able to do, before the ‘spiritual capital’ runs out.

Against this is the idea which speaks of a distinction between ‘relationships’ and ‘tasks’. Some clergy are more focused on good relationships, while others are task oriented. To be too focused on relationships means that, since doing anything at all is going to alienate some people, not much gets done. To be too focused upon the task means that relationships go by the wayside, and soon there is no one left to do the task!


A number of my clergy associates speak of themselves as being more ‘pastoral’ than activist. That may be true, because most of us are introverts. But I do not think that simply caring for people will help to re-commend the Gospel to the generations who have now not heard it.


Over the 37 years that I have now been a priest, I have always had an idea about what I thought the task of each congregation was. Ever since the 1990s I have thought that since we are in serious decline, the task of the priest was to gather more people, to form them in Christian ways, and to then baptize them into Christ and the Church. At the same time, I thought that congregations also needed more education in being Christian, so that they could also play their role in such a task. I could not bear the thought of presiding over the gentile but inevitable decline of congregations without trying to strike a few blows to counter the trend. But it is in trying to do this that I have spent my ‘spiritual capital’ When the time to go has arrived, I have felt a bit of a failure, but knowing about the idea of ‘spiritual capital’ makes me feel a bit better.


It is a shame that congregations often act like consumers of religious goods and services. I think that there are few who would be willing to undergo the training necessary to make the shift from spiritual consumers, to co-workers in the gospel with their clergy. There are of course very many dedicated people as leaders of congregations, but I think that these dedicated people have not been trained up enough into what is needed to begin to make a difference. In the mean time, we plug on!

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How Some of modern Society Offends Our ‘Deep Story’ and Influences Our Politics

Recently, in conjunction with the Davos economic forum on the future of work, I heard another take on why people voted for Donald Trump. The first thing that this person said was that, as a researcher, they went to the deep south and spent a long time speaking with the people who represent Donald Trump’s constituency.


This was a wake up call to me. Normally I would be bagging them and saying “Don’t they understand that this person is unstable and unfit for office! Why would I want to go to spend time with them?” It would be all I could do to not be completely angry all of the time.” But this researcher went as an anthropologist. She went to understand. Good on her.


Then she raised the idea of people’s having a ‘deep story’. This piqued my interest too.


It is as if we all carry an implicitly held story about how things should be. We say in English ‘That is not how you make porridge!’, meaning, that there is a ‘way things are done’ that should not be broken. When it is broken, then we are aware that something is not right, but often cannot be articulate about what that thing is. This unconsciously held idea about how things should be is what this anthropologist calls the ‘deep story’


I like this a lot, because I think that if we could spend time uncovering each of our ‘deep stories’ then we might be able to talk across the political divide.


So this person articulated two elements of the ‘deep story’ of those people whom she lived with, who voted for Donald Trump. The first element she mentioned was the significance of ‘standing in line’. Queueing is a moral action. Standing in line and waiting is a way of sharing out scarce resources. We do it all the time, and we ‘believe in it’ as a way of being. So when we see people who are perceived as not standing in line for the scarce resources, then we are resentful of them. So it is no surprise that the politicians will call asylum seekers ‘queue-jumpers’, in order to placate those people who are angry about having missed out on the good things of life, but see asylum seekers as getting all the help they need, without having to stand in line!


It is not known to the people who are angry that it is in part due to the policies of the very same governments that they are missing out! This is also hidden. The result is that these people find their moral world transgressed against by those who are perceived as being queue-jumpers.


The other moral value that this commentator mentioned was the willingness to work. She said words to the effect that “When I spoke to these people they said “We work!” That means that they resented the people who were also seen to be getting getting benefits without having to work. It also touched upon the deep disgrace and shame this group of people feel when their ability to work is removed by the rapid changes in technology that are making so many jobs obsolete.


Both of these elements of the ‘deep story’ seem to me to have their roots in the Christian ‘deep story’. It is part of being a Christian that each person is called by God to make their contribution to the whole. It is part of being human to have a ‘vocation’ from God (from voceo: I call). Work is part of our ‘going out’ nature, in response to God’s call. The sharing of scarce resources by standing in line is also a good thing.


But where I get angry is that whereas before, there were low level, or entry level jobs for people who were not technological whiz-kids, now these people are thrown on the redundancy scrap heap, where they are then demonised for being ‘dole bludgers’. Who can afford even to re-skill these days? So the ‘deep story’ of the government makes them punish people who cannot work and makes it even harder for them to enter into the paradise of ‘life long learning’. Why do we not, through our government fund this necessary adjustment. Instead, we have a lot of angry people, voting for a president who, because of his ‘deep story’, that is bound to individual effort and trickle down economics, cannot deliver what he promises. How have we let the need for a ‘home’ turn into a ‘housing market’? We are in for some very big changes, but punishing those on the receiving end of them is not going to make the anger that leads to revolution go away.

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Being A Member Of The Congregation In Two Places

Recently, I have had two experiences of being a member of a congregation that are worth telling you about.


The first experience was one that I would call ‘relaxed’, to put the most positive spin on it. The presiding priest seemed not to have prepared properly. He took a long time to find the right place in the prayer book for the seasonal variations and the prayer of thanksgiving, as though his arrival at the altar, was the first time he had looked at them. Things that were in the liturgy were forgotten and it seemed to me that the ‘feel’ or ‘spirit’ that the priest was conveying said ‘We are having a nice chat here. I can put in asides and commentary to what is going on because we all know each other. We are having fun, and a ‘nice time’ ”


Some of me ‘gets’ this. An atmosphere of informality can be good. It helps to put people at their ease. But more importantly for me, as a priest, what I do on a Sunday morning is the expression of what I am ordained for. Of all places, this should be the place where I am most prepared, not least prepared. What I am doing is the most important thing that anyone can do: preach the Good News, and ‘show forth Christ’s death until he comes.’


However, during that Eucharist, my internal dialogue reminded me of two other things that I believe about the Eucharist. The first is, that the presence of God in the Eucharist is guaranteed not by the quality of the performance, but by God’s own promise. Eucharist is not something that happens for the people in the pews by the people up the front. Eucharist is something that God offers us: Gods own self in the presence of Christ in bread and wine. It is not about ‘us’. I don’t go to Church as a consumer of religious goods and services, to ‘get something out of it’ but to play my part in it, and to receive what God is offering me.


The second thing in my internal dialogue is this: that the structure of the liturgy itself will do the work it is designed to do. Whether it is done well or badly, what counts is whether I come with a heart open to God, bringing my desires and secrets. What matters is whether I come, aware of my own sinfulness, and in need of God’s forgiveness. What matters is whether, in the intercession, I offer my thanks and pain for the world, and come ‘standing in the need of prayer’. At the Eucharist, I am one of the celebrants, so how the thing goes depends to some extent, yes, upon the quality of the president, but it also depends of the quality of the other celebrants, that is, most of the congregation.


How this goes does depend to some extent upon the leadership. If the intercessions are offered in a way that prevents me from offering my prayers, then it has failed. If the readings are read in a way that prevents me from saying ‘Yes” when the reader says ‘This is the word of the Lord’, then they have failed. But my take away from this Eucharist was that although the quality of the presiding matters, what also matters is what I bring to the Eucharist.


The second experience of Eucharist was so different, but equally perplexing. The parish where I went had a very good choir of young people, but a small congregation of older people. The church itself was absolutely beautifully presented. But the setting for the sung parts of the Eucharist (all of the responses and the psalm) were so difficult that I could not sing or learn them. Hardly anyone else sang much, except for the Choir. The preacher had no notes. I felt that the perfection of the whole Eucharist had excluded me. It seemed to be done in such away as though it was a performance of the people ‘up there’ for God, maybe, but which left me as an observer, not a participant. I felt that the preacher’s speaking ‘off the cuff’ did not do sufficient justice to the Good News. Did he not prepare? This sent me a message that the preacher, like many clergy, was protecting what was most precious to him through a studied indifference, rather than bringing his passion to the preaching.


There, I did not have the ‘internal dialogue’ about the Eucharist. If they were going to be ‘perfect’ (which they clearly knew how to be) they could have been ‘perfect’ in facilitating the standard of worship which Vatican 11 commends: that of ‘full, conscious and active participation’ of all members of the congregation.

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Memorials: On How or Whether To Remember

For a while now there has been a lot of controversy about memorials. The two events that stand out for me are the attempts to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlotte, Virginia and the removal of Bishop George Bell’s Memorial from Chichester Cathedral and the change of name of a school.


So I am trying to think through the question: what is it right to do with physical objects whose history is now contested?


So the first place that I go to is my own life. There are things that I have done of which I am ashamed. Like the recovering alcoholics in a twelve step programme, most of the time, when I have been made aware of the shame that I bear, I have gone to the person concerned and have tried to make up for it by confessing the wrongdoing.


Often this works. I am released from the shame, and I can then say “I am not that person anymore. My sins have been confessed, atoned for and forgiven. I have changed my ways. The person that did this thing is now not me.’


This strikes me as being similar to the situation of Germany. Ever since the holocaust, they have set up memorials to what they have done. As a nation they have done all that they can to make amends. They have said ‘That is who we were, true, but that is not who are. We want to set up a memorial to remind us of who we were so that we do not do it again”. German has two words for ‘memorial’. One is ‘Denkmal’ Its origin is in the word ‘denken, to think’. So a ‘Denkmal’ invites a person to think about what is memorialised. But their second word is ‘Mahnmal’ This word has its origins in the verb ‘mahnen’ to warn. The object is set up, like a light house to warn people of things that have been done in the past that should not be repeated.


It is because of the ‘Mahnmal’ that reminds Germans of the Holocaust, that prompted Angela Merkel to offer places to Syrian refugees. She was saying “Once as a nation we expelled people and killed them. Now as a nation we are receiving people and giving them life’.


In the English speaking world, I cannot think of any ‘Mahnmals’ so that the idea of ‘remembering’ is more ambiguous. I think it might be possible to add information to a statue or memorial, in order to describe what is going on in the light of changed circumstances. Some people have suggested the doing of this about the statue of Robert E. Lee, and about the memorials to Bishop George Bell.


But what if I do not think that I have done anything to be ashamed of? The memory of my actions is not ‘grievous’ to me, but others disagree? Then the history of my actins is contested. This is true of both Robert E. Lee and George Bell. For very different reasons, some wish to keep a positive memory of both people. Then the acknowledgement of the contested nature of a person’s legacy could also be acknowledged in the memorial.


But the problem gets murkier. I am worried by the polarisation of things. It is as if we want someone to be a ‘saint’ in which case we can happily remember them, or a ‘sinner’ in which case we can happily forget them. Alternatively, as is the case with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have a selective memory, or use a rationalisation and say ‘Yes, he was a conspirator in a murder plot, but the one whom he wanted to murder was a terrible person, so that makes it ok, and he was really good about everything else.’


Sometimes ‘moving on’ depends upon forgetting, or maybe better, being agnostic and leaving the issues about how to evaluate the history unresolved. Bonhoeffer himself said that a person could sometimes throw themselves on the mercy of God. We could say about Bishop George Bell “He did some wonderful things in being a voice against revenge in the Second World War, but now someone is accusing him of also being a paedophile. He is in the hands of God’s judgment and mercy.” In heaven, or at judgement day all that is true of him will be laid bear. That is the true place of judgement. Being Christian allows for this perspective. As St. Paul writes ‘We see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face.’

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Advent, Judgement And Jesus’ Way of Power


During advent, the readings for morning and evening prayer have been from Isaiah. Isaiah and his followers in later chapters have been saying that the cause of the exile of the population of Israel and Judah has been their faithlessness to God: through their injustice, and their lack of covenant faithfulness.


In other places Jeremiah says to the people words to the effect that “ You may believe hat you are safe because we have the temple of the Lord’ but the Temple of the Lord is not going to save you.


God’s instrument of correction of the people was their military defeat by foreign armies.


I am thinking about the connection between these events and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.


The Church has tried to some degree to ‘set its own house in order’, but it has not been enough. Now an external source of coercion has stepped in, like a foreign power, to give us a very big wake up call. On top of a decline in people coming to faith for other reasons, we are now more generally on the nose in the community because we have been attached to our institutional reputation, more than we have been attached to the ‘little ones’ as St. Matthew calls them.

Now I am thinking that we too must get ready for a time of exile, where we say ‘This Royal Commission is perhaps God’s way of telling us that the kind of power that was exercised by those people in institutions who have not listened to the voices of the abused ones is not the kind of power that God exercises. We should give up trying to exercise that kind of power.’


Some of the problem was that we also believed too much in the power of confession, and absolution as an instrument for changing people with paedophile, or megalomaniac tendencies. Where better to go than to a school of little people if you want to lord it over others. Where better to congregate than around children in choirs, Sunday schools and orphanages if one has paedophile tendencies. Some of the structural problems faced by the institutions were because of the nature of the work those institutions did, and the opportunities that it gave for abuse.


But the saddest thing of all is that this way of being contradicts our core directive, and now our credibility to represent this core message has been damaged by our own unwillingness to see what we were doing.


In a way, the very early days of the Church, when it had no institutional power are a kind of ‘time of innocence’ where it might have been possible to be a better Christian than it is now.


I don’t want to press this too far, because the Church was not without its problems, as the Letter to the Corinthians shows, with the case of incest there, but I do think that our entanglement with government money and lack of transparency in our operation has made us not as god a Church as we might be. Now we all wear the consequences.


Through the Royal commission, we are experiencing the meaning of Advent in our own life, rather than talking about it.


The other thing that comes to me in this context is the vehemence with which people have expressed themselves. The presumption of innocence has gone out the window for those accused.


No matter what the outcome of the trial of Cardinal Pell, he has become the focus for so much venom, that only his losing his job, or being found guilty will satisfy some people for whom a the sacrifice of some is the only thing that will return the social order to any form of normalcy.


Our justice system purposely separates the operation of justice from the desire for vengeance so that such demands for blood can be resisted.


Jesus died as a blood sacrifice by the authorities, in order that he might be the last scapegoat.


Neither the people who were able satisfy their own sexual and power needs, under the cover of institutional protection, nor the people who want to see a new reign of terror like that of the French Revolution have grasped what Jesus came to make possible.


We are living in times where what is most primitive in human beings is coming to the surface. This is happening both in the committing of crimes, and the sacrificial revenge that is exacted for them.


Here is the invitation to confession for Advent “The Lord comes, bringing to light things now hidden in darkness and disclosing the purposes of the heart.” How true is this. But the things hidden in darkness and the purposes of the human heart are darker than we wanted to know about, or could imagine.


I pray that God will work in me to make me a better human being by learning more what it means to be a follower of Jesus, whose way of exercising his power as God is neither compulsive, abusive, nor vengeful.



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On The Power Of Being Blessed

The readings from the Common Testament for Morning Prayer have come from Genesis in recent days. I have been reading the story of Jacob. At the instigation of his mother, Jacob receives the blessing of Isaac, his blind and frail Father, instead of his older brother Esau.


The story is complicated. The first part of the story happens when Esau, the hunter, comes home with no catch, but is hungry. Jacob, the home-body and cook says to him ‘Sell me your birth-right as the elder twin, and I will feed you.’ What an offer. Anyway, Esau does it. Then Rebeccah and Jacob work out a way of making Jacob feel and smell like Esau, so that when it comes time for the blessing of his father, Isaac actually thinks that he is blessing the elder one, Esau.


Esau finds this out and is distraught. He says ‘Bless me too father!!!’ But the blessing has already been given. Jacob has been made lord over his brothers, and the wish of the father for prosperity has been given to Jacob. It cannot be rescinded.


Now a scholarly reading of this story goes like this: The great saga, of which this story is a part describes how the blessing of God, promised to Abraham is made effective through the birth of Isaac, then the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel), and on through the Exodus.


The crucial thing is that one receive the blessing of God.


The problem with Esau is that he did not have his values sorted out. Twice, as he says, his distorted values mean that Jacob, who knows he value of the blessing, does what is necessary to receive a blessing, while Esau, misses out.


The whole story focuses on the way in which putting one’s relationship with God, and god’s blessing is the most important thing. Everything else must take its place in relationship to that.


I am reminded of the later text, which Esau did not understand ‘You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of god.’ It is connection with God, which is truly nourishing.


I remember a couple of stories from my earlier days that illustrate this for me. Before I understood my vocation as a priest, I would ‘put out’ as it were that I as a troubled, searching soul with its of questions. People would ask me in response ‘Well what do you want to do?”


I used to reply “I think the main question is ‘Who do I want to be!! And The Bible says ’seek first the reign of god and god’s righteousness and everything else will be added to you.“


In that context I identified with Jacob and his wanting the blessing above all things.

At another time I began attending an Anglican Church. I saw the priest giving a solemn blessing to some people at the Eucharist. I asked him ‘I would like one of those blessings”


He said “Yes, but you get a better one in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, to which you are entitled.” “Yes, “ I said, “But I want a blessing”. It was great to receive this.


I have felt like Esau: missing out. When I read the story I began to cry because I understand the remorse that comes when I see that something that I could have had, is not mine because of mistakes that I have made. “Bless me too father!” Instead I have had to suffer the consequences of my actions. I have not been blessed, but like Esau I have wandered around the fringes of the things that I hold most dear.


It is for the sake of understanding the power to bless that I take this office of a priest very seriously.


During the Eucharist people often bring younger people for a blessing. It is a wonderful thing to be able to say ‘The blessing of God, Almighty be upon you and remain with you.”. At this point I do not agree with some priests who wave their hands in a general fashion over a young person and say ‘The Lord Jesus bless you.’ What I am not doing is ‘something nice’. Like the blessing of Isaac on Jacob there is something powerful about words of blessing which when delivered solemnly are effective words. There is nothing that ought to be taken more seriously in the Church than being blessed, or being given the right to pronounce a blessing.


This happens too at the end of church. It is one of the most enjoyable moments of being a priest to be able to say ‘…and the blessing of god almighty, Father, son and holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always.”


We do this too when people go on holidays, or are preparing for surgery or in fact for any reason that needs it.


Christians then live in the world like Jacob: as people who are continually blessed.


We do not live like Esau who has not understood the value of being blessed and who must go about the world in a state of perpetual lack. How good.

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