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Food is so much more than just fuel

By Emma Thornton, Visit Cambridge & Beyond

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001

A good deal of what I do as a bishop involves food. So far that has ranged from a simple sausage roll to a succulent hog roast, from coffee and a biscuit (preferably chocolate) to a four course sit down dinner.

Virtually every church service and community event I have participated in is followed by a reception or a party of some sort or other, with a great variety of food and drink.

These are incredibly generous, with far more food than the congregation or gathering can possibly get through. Clearly a hardworking crew from the home team have taken their task of hospitality very seriously, and the result is usually amazing.

I can go several days on a diet of plump sandwiches, sausages on sticks, mini pork pies (to which I am unhealthily partial) and chocolate brownies – with the occasional piece of guilt-reducing fruit.

Meetings and gatherings to which I am invited of community leaders, school heads, clergy, politicians, or business people, seem often to happen around a meal. My experience is these are not only the most congenial sorts of meetings, but also the most productive.

Food is essential. We eat to live. Eating reminds us we are mortal, it reminds us of our humanity. Many people across our county work hard for those who go hungry by supporting local food banks, or giving to international aid charities like Oxfam or Christian Aid.

We know the challenge of distributing food to those who most desperately need it around the world is only going to increase with climate change. Immense efforts are going into anticipating these challenges, so people can simply live.

In Suffolk, Christians are making a real difference in their communities helping those in need of food.

At the Stowmarket and Area Foodbank, which was launched to provide individuals and families from the area who are in crisis with emergency food parcels, they are helping so many of those in need, as my colleague Bishop Mike saw during a visit last month.

It is run in conjunction with congregations in the area, through Stowmarket Churches Together working with local organisations to identify individuals and families who can benefit from their help, at times of real need.

Food is essential, but we know eating is about more than meeting our basic physical survival need. Particularly when we recognise the difference it makes eating with others. Something else is being fed than just our bodies when we eat together.

We know that families who regularly eat together build their relationships and ties to one another. Children develop social skills, and perform better at school than those whose families don’t share regular meals around a table.

The majority of families do eat meals together regularly, although the proportion is falling. TV and other technologies and work schedules militate against this. For the social and developmental benefits to happen, apparently a family needs to eat at least four meals a week together.

So what makes the difference when we eat together?

First, eating is an equaliser. We all need to eat, and when we eat together we are recognising each other’s shared humanity, and indeed mortality. The activity of eating is a social leveller. That eases how we relate to one another.

Second, we make conver sation in a different manner than when we talk, without food involved. Eating changes the pace, and seems to make us more attentive to one another.

Combined with the equaliser factor, I think this is what enables meetings round meals to be more productive than those without.

The discussion and debate process is lubricated by the social contribution of eating together.

None of this is new, of course. The ancient Greeks combined their ‘symposia’, discussions of political or philosophical issues, with a meal.

In the early years of the Christian Church, before church buildings existed, people met in homes for a meal, conversation about their faith, and prayer.

The bonds established through these sorts of gatherings, were strengthened by the combination of a meal – which would have included the bread and wine of communion – and discussion.

These bonds would have been essential for the early Christians as they faced persecution.

We are now in the harvest season and there will be a great deal of suppers and other meals to express our thanksgiving for this time of year. We have great cause to be thankful in a county that produces so much of our nation’s food.

But as well as applauding all those who prepare our harvest thanksgivings, I would like to suggest we do something more about eating together, year round.

We can think of all the people we know who do not have families to eat with, and invite them to share a meal with us, or take ourselves and a meal to share in their home.

And if you are someone who lives alone and would love to share a family meal from time to time – contact you local church and tell them I suggested you invite yourself for a meal!

For those of us responsible for meetings and other gatherings – try meeting around a meal and see if it makes a difference to the quality of your work – I believe it will.

And whoever we are, let’s be thankful for all the food we eat, and for those who produce it and bring it to us, not just at Harvest, but the whole year round.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich


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