Let me tell you something: I had no idea how busy bishops are. Of course it’s no surprise that they have a lot on but they are tyrannised by their diaries. They’re booked up six months ahead.
So there was a certain amount of cat herding involved to organise a baking session to include John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford. I suppose I could have set my sights lower but as with much of ‘Our Daily Bread’ I had quite a strong picture in my minds eye about how a programme about bread and faith might work. It seemed essential that it brought spiritual leaders of different faiths together to do something that resonated with each of them.
I spent something over five years reporting from Malaysia, a very mixed country ethnically, culturally and spiritually. It’s predominantly Sunni Muslim (non Sunni expressions of Islam are effectively treated as heretical) and Islam has become a proxy for race in the struggle between the Muslim Malay majority and the various minorities; Chinese, ‘Indian’ (mainly Tamil but also Punabi and others) and lain lain – others – including the peoples of Malaysian Borneo and the indigenous Orang Asli (literally ‘original people’ in Malay).
So, in Malaysia, Islam is often appropriated by some rather ugly Malay ethno nationalists who know that while you can challenge the notion of the Malays being Malaysia’s ‘master race’ (yes some Malay politicians do speak in those terms) in Malaysia you can’t question Islam. (I should mention that some Malaysian evangelical Christians also seemed to believe that if Malays weren’t required by law to be Muslim, with penalties for those who lapse, that they would defect wholesale – an idea that some Muslim leaders also played up – but something I saw absolutely no evidence of and thought either delusional or plain disingenuous).
In that context I have particularly vivid memories of a conversation I had with someone whom, while I disagreed with a lot of what his party advocated, I very much liked as a person; Nasharuddin Mat Isa. At the time he was the deputy leader of the conservative Islamic party PAS. He’d been whisked off to America as the guest of the US government to meet with representatives of other faiths and Nasharuddin told me that he’d been to meet with leaders of the Jewish community. This was extraordinary in itself because there are, to all intents and purposes, no Jews in Malaysia, yet there’s virulent anti-Semitism (and not just amongst Muslims) and the country has no diplomatic ties with Israel – Malaysians are banned from travelling there. If they want to smear a politician Malaysians will imply that they’ve been doing business with Israel. Indeed the bookshop of the main ruling UMNO party used to sell that obscene fraud ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and I suspect it was one of UMNO’s publishing companies that reprinted it.
Therefore I asked Nasharuddin, with enormous curiosity, how his meeting had been.
“We should talk more,” he said.
And with those words imprinted on my memory it seemed inconceivable that I should make this programme in any other way. It needed to bring together the three Abrahamic/Ibrahimic faiths and so cover their respective representatives in flour that it would be impossible to tell one from another.
In the event all three managed to keep the flour in the mixing bowls but they did, most definitely, find common ground and I think they established a fellowship during that baking session that meant something to each of them. And so, a good year having passed since the programme was recorded, I asked all three participants; Bishop John, Rabbi Jonathan Romain and Imam Monawar Hussein, for some reflections on the session.
Bishop John’s were necessarily brief (every minute of his time being stolen from another demand upon him), but capture the spirit of that morning.
“The experience of baking bread together as members of the Abrahamic faiths was rich both personally and spiritually. Bread is so basic to all of us and also full of meanings, layer on layer. There’s nothing like getting your hands into something to bring out the tactile significance, and bread was perfect for this. The bakery was very hospitable so the whole experience was like all religion should be – stimulating and fun but with serious intent.“
The segment at the end of the programme at St Mary’s, Kidlington was recorded on Palm Sunday last year as the congregation walked through the village singing. It was quite beautiful and, I thought, found the perfect balance of a public offering of faith without its being a ‘display’ or ‘demonstration’ – gentle, respectful and present. I spoke to several members of the congregation afterwards and the experience of having communion bread baked by their own bishop clearly added an additional layer of appreciation to its significance – with the Bishop taking on not just the role of shepherd to his community but baker and provider (both material and spiritual) as well.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain‘s thoughts are very ‘him’. He’s a journalist, broadcaster and author and he exudes the warmth that all my Jewish friends seem to share. As I’ve said before I suspect that inside every Rabbi is a little of the showman who wants not just to teach and support but to entertain. After the baking session I joined Jonathan and his congregation at Maidenhead synagogue, where he shared his loaf, and it felt less like a religious service and more like a family gathering.
“Did you hear the one about the bishop and the rabbi and the imam ? No, they weren’t in a balloon that was losing height and one of them had to jump out…nor were they screaming abuse at each other in some holy place devoted to brotherhood and serenity…instead all three were wearing aprons and pummeling dough.
That in itself was cathartic enough, but what was even better was swopping stories about bread in our respective traditions. Although some of it was interesting in that we learnt about each other’s traditions, what was truly arresting was when the Imam told a Muslim story that I had long known as a Jewish story – which demonstrated very powerfully how, beneath the surface differences of language and rituals, there is very little distinction in the two core beliefs that all share: the unity of God and fellowship of humanity.
As for the story, it’s a good one: Abraham is in his tent in the desert. An old man comes by, Abraham invites him to stop by for a rest and offers him food. Before the old man starts eating,he says he wants to say grace, and gets out a wooden idol from his pocket and starts worshipping it. Abraham – the great monotheist – is furious and boots him out of the tent. Then a divine force booms forth and says ‘Abraham, I’ve put up with that chap for 60 years, couldn’t you put up with him for five minutes?’
Not only is it a great lesson in both hospitality tolerance, but making bread together led us to discover that what we had each thought was our USP (Unique Selling Point) was actually a common denominator. And that was even more humbling than learning how hard it is to make bread properly.“
I was equally glad to have Monawar Hussein join us. Monawar was a businessman and now spends a lot of his time in study, in community activities and at Eton College where he’s Muslim Tutor. Of course when I dropped into Eton to record the sound effects right at the end the Muslim students were gathered on a Sunday morning. Islam’s holy day may be Friday but Eton does religion on Sunday mornings, so that’s that!
Monawar is a Sufi, Sufism being a more mystical understanding of Islam. One of the things I was interested to learn during my time in Malaysia was that Islam almost certainly spread to the region through Sufi traders. It makes perfect sense. Sufism embraces all those things; music, poetry, art, even dance, that work so well as gateways to understanding.
The other day Monawar sent me his reflections on our day spent baking together.
“One of the major challenges confronting our contemporary pluralist society is how do we ensure that there is deep understanding between the diversity of faiths, cultures and ethnic groups that inhabit these isles? I believe the solution is simple – bread – to come together and break bread, to enjoy each other’s company, enter into conversation and in the process to learn about one another. It is in this spirit that I came together with my brothers from the Jewish and Christian traditions – Rabbi Jonathan Romain and Bishop John Pritchard. The occasion was hugely enjoyable, enriching and through conversation, the stories we shared illustrated the strong commonalities between us.
From a very young age, Muslims are brought up to honour and respect bread (and food in general). If a crumb falls on the floor we are told to pick it up, blow upon it and eat – to always be grateful and never be wasteful. Recently, I stayed at a Sufi shrine in the foothills of the Himalayas. I met disciples of the Sufi Master and one of their core duties was to make bread and feed visitors, sometimes as many as 800-1000 people per day. During festivals this figure runs into many thousands per day. A tradition of the Prophet informs us ‘to love for your brother what you love for yourself’. For the spiritual novice, to serve bread, is to inculcate the quality of placing the ‘other, the stranger’ before oneself. A lesson, that if we implemented in our lives, would surely not only transform us but our communities too.“
He speaks, during the programme, of the alienation felt by many young Muslims. The gulf that’s opened between the Islamic world and the West is such a vast topic I hesitate to get into it further here. However the time I’ve spent with Monawar has only served to strengthen my belief that we should talk more.
Not at our baking session, but his words with me every time I bake, was Satish Kumar. If I was to pick out a perfect minute from the entire series it’s Satish’s monologue with which the programme opens. He dropped into Bush House one day and we ducked into a studio to record his thoughts. I was rapt. I keep hearing very cool stories about Satish. My friend Percy Pyckwyll and I were wandering around the woods of Gloucestshire a couple of weeks back and Satish came up in conversation. Perce recommended Satish’s book ‘No Destination‘.
One of the things that Buddhism teaches you (Satish is a former Jain monk I should point out, but clearly has a good understanding of other philosophies) is to be in the now. The sense I got from spending a very short time with Satish is that he’s a man wholly living in the now. If you’d like to hear a little more of our conversation here’s your chance:
Lastly Dan Schickentanz deserves yet another mention for generously playing host at his bakery in Abingdon and for his thoughtful contributions. Dan is a baker by vocation. I think that comes through in what he says – he appreciates the spiritual dimension to what he does and even a bishop, a rabbi and an imam need a little guidance sometimes, especially when it’s towards the goal of a better, and more profoundly satisfying, loaf.