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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Speech at "More than Food – Expressing Compassion, Expecting Justice", October 2013

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Speech at "More than Food – Expressing Compassion, Expecting Justice", October 2013

by glynch — last modified 23 Oct, 2013 04:09 PM
Speech by the Bishop of Salisbury to the conference More than Food – Expressing Compassion, Expecting Justice, organised by the South West Churches Regional Forum, Stoke Gifford, 22nd October 2013.

The Gospel and the poor
Whether the Church is of, with or for the poor is an interesting and to some extent unresolveable discussion.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount saw the crowds, went up a mountain and taught his disciples saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...”[1] In Luke’s Gospel Jesus came down to a level place, looked up at his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God.”[2]  

What is clear is that the Gospel is about the poor.

Love and Justice
Love God and love your neighbour as yourself is a fair summary of the Law. It was not unique to Jesus.

The care of those in need is a striking characteristic of Christianity. The stories of Matthew 25 and of God’s judgement are on the basis of our welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the person in prison are  an impetus to gratuitous pastoral care. This is not about care of the deserving poor.

On a cold winter’s day in the mid-fourth century, St Martin, a Roman officer riding out of Amiens, clothed a beggar by cutting his cloak in two. That night the beggar returned to him in a dream:  “For as much as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.” It has been the stimulus to a great deal of charity but lest we feel too good about what we do for others, the point of the story is that the greater blessing is from the beggar, Christ, to us. 

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most popular in the Gospels. It is only told by Luke and he is making some very particular points. A lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus asked him what is written in the law and he replied with the well-known summary that we should love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus said he was right, ‘Do this and you will live.’ The lawyer, wanting to justify himself (that’s a big mistake for anyone with Jesus), asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10: 25–30).

To answer the lawyer Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, one of the best-known stories in the Gospels. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was beaten by robbers and left half dead. Two men, a  priest and a Levite, were going to Jerusalem. They saw what appeared to be a dead man and had they touched a corpse, they would not have been able to perform their religious duties in the Temple. So for good religious reasons they passed by on the other side. A Samaritan, whom Jews despised, saw the man and was moved to pity. He bandaged him, poured wine and oil on his wounds, put him on his animal and paid for him to stay at an inn.

‘Which of these was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’, asked Jesus. ‘The one who showed mercy’, replied the lawyer, unable even to say the name ‘Samaritan’, so much were they despised. Our neighbour is anyone in need, not just people like us, the scandal is that it was the despised Samaritan, an outsider, who showed good religious people the meaning of the law. Go and do likewise.

This is non-tribal religion and it is the most explicit of stories teaching us not just to ‘love the stranger’ but to recognise that the stranger is our teacher. There is a picture in the National Gallery by Jacopo Bassano in which the Samaritan literally takes the weight of responsibility for the beaten man. It is, and is intended to be, a story that humbles us.

Love is about the care of individuals but it is also about the care of society. Love distributed is about justice and inevitably takes us into the area of politics and how the society is organised. 

A recent Church Urban Fund report, Hungry for More, uses the work of Corbett and Fickert, to suggest that the work of alleviating poverty falls into three categories:

  • A relief response, such as a food bank, provides support during a period of crisis when someone is unable to feed themselves or their family.
  • A rehabilitation response works with people to restore the positive elements of a pre-crisis situation – for example, a debt advice centre helping people to pay down their debt so that they can afford to buy food in the future.
  • A development response, such as a cookery course, tackles underlying problems such as poor nutrition, but also helps to build relationships and break down distinctions between ‘helper’ and ‘helped’, changing and shaping all those involved.

At St Martin-in-the-Fields where I was the Vicar from 1995-2011 we found that these sorts of responses were good but what made the biggest difference to people were the creative writing, art and music groups. These creative groups were not just lovely activities in which people did something enjoyable and beautiful together. These people were not used to receiving applause and to write, play or paint for others caused people’s sense of worth and self-esteem to grow.

As members of faith communities we might want to add two more responses.

  • What is the overview, the big picture? What is going on here? Can we collect the stories and evidence to create greater understanding.
  • Can we be prophetic in response to injustice, repent and love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with God?
There is a debate to be had about what fairness and equity would be at the heart of public policy.

Truth and Advocacy
In John’s Gospel Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit of truth and says the Spirit will guide us into truth[3]

Richard Burridge comments on John’s  description of the Holy Spirit  in John 14.16 as ‘another Paraclete’  The Greek ‘Paraclete’ means ‘someone called alongside’, to  help or assist.  In Latin the direct translation is ‘advocate’ who is someone who speaks in a court for a person on trial either as their defending counsel or to intercede with the judge on their behalf.  Other translations use Counsellor, Intercessor and Comforter. Comforter literally means to give strength and this might be an integrating theme of what I want to say. Do government economic policies and welfare reforms give strength to the poor?  Burridge notes that in the Bayeux Tapestry Bishop Odo comforts his men, strengthens his men. “The good bishop is encouraging them by prodding them with a spear from behind!.” Is this the comfort of IDS’s reforms strengthening the poor after years of them being allowed to be supine. [4]

The Bishop of Hull made a very striking 2 minute speech to General Synod in July. Changes in housing benefit (the bedroom tax) were to encourage people to move into more appropriate sized homes. It was not because there is not a supply of smaller homes in the social housing stock. Arrears have rocketed. Not just the bedroom tax but the lot. It suggested a tipping point was reached and people gave up. i.e. it had weakened the poor, not comforted them. 

In the South West a survey shows 30,000 will pay the controversial so-called bedroom tax. Of these just under 19,000 are disabled.  It is less easy for disabled people to move because they are likely to be living in homes that have been adapted for them. One analysis shows the massive gap that would have to be overcome in the region if people were to be able to downsize to accommodation that would fit the new rules. In Cornwall there are just 65 one and two-bedroom homes and more than 3,300 people eligible to be charged for under-occupancy. In Wiltshire, there were no unoccupied one- and two-bedroom properties at all, for 2,953 affected households, though 48 were advertised as being available shortly. The situation is similar in Gloucestershire, which had just three suitable properties for 540 people.[5]

This is now the subject of a welcome inquiry.

It seems equally wrong to be putting pressure to find work on the 2.2 million who are unemployed when there are only 400,000 job vacancies[6].  It’s just not right to define welfare as to help people into work with such a mis-match between the number of unemployed and the number of vacancies. We might also note that of the 2.2 million who are unemployed 200,000 are long-term unemployed. Most people are chasing even low paid work. Listen to the experience of people applying for jobs or advertising vacancies. And one-third of those in part-time work are looking to work more hours.

What you see depends on where you stand and the Church has a unique position in being rooted in every community and of being independent of public money. Choosing what to count and what counts often shapes the debate.  

It is a very interesting time for us to be meeting. There has been a lot of description and discussion in the media about the reality of food poverty in the UK and the rapid growth of food banks, the paradoxes of getting people into work on low pay supported by welfare and the implications of welfare reform, and the gap between the richest and growing numbers of the poorest. Some of the speakers today are well equipped to describe and analyse what is going on. It is, or ought to be, astonishing that 3.6 million children in the UK are living in poverty and that 6 out of 10 of them are in low-income working families[7]. This is a country in which income and geography can improve your life expectancy by over 10 years[8]

Renewing Hope
Recently I have spent some time with colleagues in the Diocese of Salisbury thinking about the culture of the Diocese and what it would mean for us to be committed to ‘renewing hope’.  The basis of what we are working on is contained in the management consultant Peter Drucker’s aphorism that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. We have been helped by research from the University of Bath that has identified the key traits of trustworthy leaders include ability, benevolence, integrity, and predictability.  If people trust you they can accept and work with the reality of all sorts of difficulties. They will also expect to be listened to and be really heard.  We therefore have a responsibility to put the picture together, seek truth, build trust and renew hope.

In a society of payday loans, food and fuel poverty, increasing rents, high youth unemployment, and crisis situations arising from changes in benefits, our churches have a key role. We care for the individual and build hope in our communities by being like light, salt, yeast changing experience for the common good and renewing hope among those who feel  desperate.

This day should enable us to understand the reality of poverty in our region. What exactly is going on?  It should provide us with insights and ideas that will enable us to respond to situations of crisis and need. And perhaps we will also be challenged to find ways to let hope flourish in what has become a harrowing situation for many households.

There is a saying attributed to St Augustine of Hippo:  “Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be will be.”

So we pray today that God will comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; and that God will give bread to those of us who are hungry, and hunger for justice to those of us who are well fed.

[1] Matthew 5.3

[2] Luke 6.20

[3] John 16.13

[4] Richard Burridge John, The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF 2008


 and also


[7] The Children’s Society, 17th October 2013.

[8] Church Urban Fund, Poverty in England, 2013.

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