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A couple of days ago, I sat in a packed church in a Cambridgeshire village to hear Rowan Williams speak about food banks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury was measured and carefully non-party political in his observations. His address was a model of the power which is exercised when discernment is coupled with commitment to truth and justice.
Dr Williams is a patron of Cambridge City Food Bank and he evidently does far more than lend his name to its work A central theme of his discourse was the immense value of listening to and respecting the experience of food bank users and thus restoring some sense of dignity and worth to those whom the current political culture seeks to abase and demonise.
Speaking of the Christian belief in a God who has “a particular concern for those everyone else wants to forget; those who rarely break the surface”, he reminded his audience that to sit and listen is of equal importance with the provision of food. He described many of those with whom he speaks as “feeling humiliated, feeling that they've let down their families. They need us to work with the grain of their dignity.”
That refusal to follow the facile populist indignation so carefully fostered by the government and some of its media allies is a sign of authentic discipleship. Rowan Williams has probably not experienced much financial hardship in his life. He held the highest office of the Established Church and is now Master of a Cambridge college. But as a man who so evidently waits attentively upon the Spirit, he has understood and internalised the manner in which a cascade of relatively small financial difficulties may so terrifyingly combine to bring the 'precariat' to the edge of destitution. The comfortable should heed him.
Along with his conviction that the followers of Jesus are called to solidarity with the vulnerable and suffering, Rowan Williams also challenges power to put truth ahead of expediency. He castigated politicians for their reluctance to visit food banks and put their pre-conceptions to the test: “I haven't been struck by their willingness to take up invitations”. He condemned those who “pretend that the need is not real” and who “for reasons of ideology and comfort” will not accept what may be inconvenient to their beliefs. He insisted that it is essential to admit “there is a cost” to the policies being pursued and to acknowledge that this must be documented with integrity and kept under review if we are to find a better way forward.
What difference can we make? This is the challenge Rowan Williams laid down on a chilly March evening in a Fen-edge church. Not just to politicians but to every single one of us.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet