Emma Tanner

A Work in Progress

A Story for Pride Month

Once upon a time, there was a girl. The girl lived in an affluent, middle-class town in an affluent, middle-class area, and she lived in a bubble. She went to a very nice private school, was always top of her class, and always followed the rules. Every Sunday she went to church at a very nice, very pretty Church of England village church, because that’s what you did.

When she was 17, she had a revelation whilst reading a book in the bath (a whole other story) and realised that being a Christian really should involve more than going through the motions in a very old stone building on a Sunday morning, and invited Jesus into her heart. Shortly afterwards, she moved to Cambridge to study veterinary medicine.

On her first day, she met the only other veterinary student at her college, in whose company, as it turned out, she would spend most of the next six years and who would become her very best friend- her brother.

She also joined a big student church in the city centre (a very conservative evangelical church, but that wasn’t language she possessed at the time), and the Christian Union. Her village church back home hadn’t been very hot on teaching about how your faith should impact your actual daily life, so this was all a bit of an eye-opening journey of discovery. She found out that sleeping with your boyfriend before you were married was wrong (oops), as was teaching in church if you were a woman (what?!) and, worst of all, being gay.

Some of this didn’t really sit right with her at the time, but she thought they must know what they were talking about, and at that time she definitely wasn’t one to question authority or rock the boat. So she rolled with it.

She met all sorts of people from different backgrounds and walks of life and started to burst herself out of her bubble.

Then, during their first year, her brother-from-another-mother came out as gay. She walked beside him as his family journeyed from rejection to affirmation, and as he finally allowed himself to be his true authentic self. People questioned how a very conservative Christian girl could be best friends with a gay man but to her it never felt like a contradiction.

What she did have, though, was a deepening sense of disquiet at the teaching she was hearing. She didn’t really understand why being gay, even if you thought it was wrong, was a worse sin than anything else. She knew there were people in the Christian Union who were having (heterosexual) sex outside marriage, and getting drunk, and gossiping. How was being gay worse than that? No-one could give her a satisfactory answer. She kind of parked it, figuring it was something she wouldn’t understand this side of heaven.

Fast forward a few years, and the girl was now happily married, with two little girls. She didn’t see her friend so often now, but they had the kind of relationship where they could always pick up exactly where they left off, no matter how long it had been. She was growing in faith and confidence, stepping into God’s plans and purposes for her life, and becoming rooted in her identity as a daughter of the King. She was realising that her mind was a God-given gift to use for His glory, that thinking and questioning and exploring was OK, and she was starting to let go of the stifling need for the approval of other people.

She followed with interest, and no small amount of dismay, the story of Christian worship leader and theologian Vicky Beeching, who after years fighting her sexual orientation (and countless people praying for her ‘healing’ or ‘deliverance’) publicly came out as a lesbian, and promptly saw her livelihood disappear as the (predominantly American) conservative Christians who bought and played her music dropped her like a hot potato. This made the girl stop and think. What if everything she’d been taught about this issue wasn’t quite as black and white as it first appeared?

At the same time, and seemingly coincidentally, she started reading through the whole Bible, following Nicky Gumbel’s Bible in One Year. Reading through the entire Bible, some of it for the first time, pulled her up short. She was familiar with the ‘clobber passages’, the small handful of verses in the Bible that appear to address homosexuality- behaviour, mind you, not orientation- but she now got a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, the wider Biblical landscape, in a way she never had before. She hadn’t been reading with any particular agenda or conscious preconceptions, but her main take- away was that the things that the Bible, and indeed Jesus himself, seemed to focus on weren’t the same issues that the church prioritised. Social justice. Standing up for the oppressed. Holding the rich and powerful to account. Putting Jesus above everything else. The amazing gospel story of God’s unconditional redemptive love for all His children. This gave her more food for thought.

Then the girl got talking to an acquaintance from church. This lady casually dropped into the conversation that if one of her children came out as gay, she’d disown them. Kick them out. No need to pass go, no collecting £200, just out, no questions. The girl was really shocked by this, and it made her ask herself the question

 “What would I do?”

And she knew she didn’t even need to think about it. She would continue to love them as best she could, would try in her limited, imperfect way to mirror the Father’s unconditional love for all His children.

But where did this leave her theologically? Was coming to a position of affirmation and acceptance of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, a contradiction? The girl wrestled with this for a long time. She read lots of Biblical commentaries reflecting a wide range of viewpoints. Then, one day, as she prayed about it once more, with tears rolling down her cheeks, she heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit say

“It’s OK! You don’t have to choose. There is no conflict.”

And she felt an overwhelming sense of peace in that moment. She talked it all through with her husband, who in his quiet, understated way said he was in total agreement. And that was the end of her journey. Except it wasn’t.

Fast forward another 5 years or so, and the daughters of the girl were now teenagers. She liked to talk to them about anything and everything, and so over the years they’d had plenty of conversations about sex and relationships and sexual orientation. The girl had taught her daughters that there were a wide range of different positions and Biblical interpretations in the church as a whole- but in that in their house, the girl and her husband would try their best to love in the way the Father does- universally and without conditions.

When the girl’s younger daughter was 13, it seemed like they were having more and more conversations about sexuality. Eventually the girl asked her daughter

“Do you like boys? Or girls?”

Her daughter replied, ever so awkwardly, that she had known since she was small that she liked girls. She knew that she was a lesbian.

The daughter loved Jesus, and knew her Bible. She had read all the clobber verses, and the interpretations of them that would deny either her sexuality or her faith, but she was unshakeable in the belief that God had made her just as she was, and loved and accepted her just as she was. She was under no illusion that a significant majority of the Christian world did not see things the same way. It made the girl sad that her precious daughter had already mentally divided up her friends and family into those who it was probably safe to tell, and those who it wasn’t.

The daughter asked the girl to share this revelation with her dad and her sister (gay or straight, faith that would move mountains or not, teen social anxiety is still a thing). Her sister, who also loves Jesus (but very definitely likes boys) accepted her and had her back straight away. Her dad took his daughter for a walk and said

“Mummy told me your news. Very good. Excellent.”

Which apparently according to the daughter was the best response because her mum liked to talk about everything and use ALL THE WORDS which was embarrassing.

A few months later the girl and her daughter went for a walk and the daughter said

“You know how when I was little I used to dream about heaven, and angels, and Jesus? I’ve started having those dreams again. I saw myself speaking in church. I’d really like to do that one day.”

The girl said to her daughter, with tears in her eyes and thankfulness in her heart that surely if there was any doubt about how her daddy God saw her, and accepted her, then this should dispel it. God was releasing something beautiful in her as she embraced all aspects of her identity and started walking in wholeness, not living a watered-down version of herself that was more palatable to other people.

Indeed, the daughter’s life bore such fruit that it would be almost impossible to deny the reality of her faith. She was kind, and generous, and wise beyond her years, with a steely core of faith running right through her. One of her friends at school asked her

“Is it normal for someone to be able to tell you’re a Christian just by how you behave?”

This made the girl’s heart sing.

A short time later, the daughter was baptised. The following week she announced to the girl that she was doing a presentation about LBQT issues to her school Christian Union. Gulp, thought the girl. She was worried about her daughter- it felt like she was voluntarily entering the lion’s den.

The teacher advertised the CU session with a content warning (bah, thought the girl.) The daughter spent ages preparing a power point. Then, ever so bravely, the daughter stood up in front of a room full of her peers, and a hostile teacher, not knowing whether they would reject her or not. She told them that she was gay, and she knew that God had made her that way- that she was fearfully and wonderfully made. She answered questions, some of them combative. In the end almost everyone was supportive, and even the sceptical teacher said the daughter had given her food for thought.

The girl was in awe of her daughter, and that day she was struck afresh by the awesome kindness and faithfulness of Jesus, who had gone ahead and made a way and prepared her heart years before to parent this amazing, courageous, faith-filled, gay, young woman of God. And she wanted to share her story in the hope that it might make people think, and give hope to those who feel on the edge, that they are somehow outside of the love and acceptance of God- because that is a lie that the church has been telling for far too long.

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The Complicated Process of Unlocking

Waiting to get into Primark in Norwich- Sky News

This week saw a significant lifting of lockdown restrictions in England. As well as continuing to meet our nearest and dearest outside, some of the things we are now able to do include go to the shops, have a haircut, have a pint in the pub- outside, of course- visit the gym, go for a day out to the zoo or a theme park, or attend an indoor parent and child group. For many it feels like a welcome step on the road to recovery.

I saw a fair few judgy social media posts yesterday, however, which put me into reflective mode. People loftily saying they couldn’t understand why on earth people felt the need to rush to Primark (“I bet they’ve sold out of leggings” said someone rather cattily) ; that they for one wouldn’t be rushing to visit the shops/go to the hairdressers/pub/insert whatever activity they are not interested in here.

This made me check myself, as well. Although I haven’t posted publicly, I confess that I, too, have harboured some similar thoughts. From the privileged position of being able to afford a holiday in the UK, and not having any loved ones abroad, I have pondered in a rather judgemental way about why some people are so keen for a trip abroad this summer. In a work context, too, I have been tempted to make comparisons with other organisations; to be critical of other peoples’ decision-making, whether I perceive that to be too ‘gung ho’, or too risk averse.

Whatever the context, if it doesn’t match up with the position that we have decided we are comfortable with, the temptation is to make ourselves feel better about our own choices by criticising other peoples’.

The fact is, however, that although we have all experienced a collective trauma, we have all experienced it in different ways. And there is no doubt that some of us have been shielded from its effects more than others.

For some, their very personal experience of the loss of a loved one, or prolonged shielding due to chronic illness or disability, is understandably the lens through which they are looking at the world at the moment. For others, having to stay at home has not meant staying safe and comfortable, but instead has meant stress, danger, or mental heath crisis. Workers from many sectors have not been able to work from home. For those already on a low income, being furloughed has meant being unable to make ends meet. Some of those who are self-employed or own their own businesses in badly affected sectors have fallen through the cracks of government support altogether.

We have witnessed first-hand at the Princess Project how disadvantaged communities have disproportionately experienced the effects of covid. Many families that were already on low incomes have had to make impossibly hard choices every day: between buying food, and nappies, or paying the rent or utility bills. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Little Village, a London-based baby bank, found that across the UK, 34% of children in households where there are children under 5 are now in poverty. More than half of the worst-off parents have had to borrow to cover basic costs such as housing and food in the past year.

Interestingly, the Little Village report also looks at the 2020 British Social Attitudes survey. Whilst 98% of people think that it’s important to reduce child poverty in Britain, a majority lay the blame for that poverty on parents themselves- 75% think that drug and alcohol problems are the underlying cause, and 63% believe that children are in poverty because their parents choose not to work. We humans really are a pretty judgemental bunch.

If our personal experiences of the pandemic differ so widely, surely it shouldn’t surprise us that our coping mechanisms for both lockdown, and emerging from it, will differ too. A long-awaited trip to Primark may be the only way that a mum on a low income can afford new clothes for a child that’s been growing like a triffid during lockdown, or a lifeline for a fashion-loving teenager who has been denied so many opportunities this year and whose mental health is suffering as a result. Or it may just be that people are craving a bit of normality, and a trip to the high street gives them that.

We can never can fully understand someone else’s story, or the decisions they make- that’s why judging those decisions is a dangerous game. That person who looks like they have it all together on social media is really hanging by a thread. That ‘perfect family’ is really anything but.

What is becoming apparent is that emerging from lockdown is going to be infinitely more complicated than entering it. Some may be keen to exercise any new freedom immediately, and to the full. Others may be more cautious. Both are OK. I think we take the moral high-ground about the choices we make at our peril.

Maybe (and this is very much a note to self as much as a call to action) we could all commit to thoughtfully making the decisions we think are right for us, our families, or the teams and organisations and businesses we lead, and supporting our friends, loved ones and colleagues in their decisions, even when they look different to ours. I think that’s the only way we will be able to emerge successfully, together.

References:

It takes a village: how to make all childhoods matter (Little Village/JRF, February 2021)
Caught in a (Covid) trap (Karl Handscomb and Lindsay Judge, Resolution Foundation, November 2020)
Call for a stronger social security lifeline for our children (JRF/Save the Children, July 2020) British Social Attitudes, series 37 (The National Centre for Social Research, 2020)


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Finding Solid Ground

Have you ever walked along a sandy beach when the tide has just gone out, when it’s hard to tell what surface your feet find with each step? Solid, dry, compacted sand; a wet salty puddle; sinky mud… you have to consciously think about where you’re walking, make adjustments, meander around to adapt to the terrain. A far cry from walking along a straight, paved path, when you don’t really need to think about what your feet are doing at all.

To me, the last few weeks and months have felt like walking on that sand. It feels like everything has been shaken, and that merely attempting to keep walking requires concentration and effort and a lot more energy than usual. Nothing is as it was. The measures we have had to adopt in response to covid-19 have affected every aspect of our lives. Home life has changed, as we have had to adapt to either spending most of our time cloistered away with the ones we love (who also happen to be the ones who can drive us bonkers!), or to being alone. The way we connect with friends and family has changed- from the national discovery of Zoom, in all it’s useful-but-a-bit-annoying glory, to, more recently, socially distanced walks and picnics with a chosen few. Work has changed. For some, work has come to an end, at least temporarily. Others are trying to juggle working at home with home schooling. Those of us in charge of businesses and workplaces are having to constantly adapt and refine our ways of working to cope with latest guidelines and developments. Church has changed, moving into homes and online into Zoom calls and YouTube services and live Facebook streams.

Against this backdrop came the killing of George Floyd, the catalyst for the release of a tsunami of pent-up hurt and anger and frustration across the world. That event, and varying reactions to it, prompted the beginning of a series of conversations in our multicultural church. Watching those conversations on the television, and having them myself with my black friends, has been challenging, uncomfortable, and revelatory. As shocking and awful as the video from the USA was, it seemed somewhat removed from the situation here in the UK. What has opened my eyes and broken my heart is hearing about the everyday lived experiences of black people in our own communities. Watching the youth pastor speak of his worries about his children’s future with tears rolling down his cheeks. Seeing a confident young man lost for words and choked with emotion trying to express how the drip, drip, drip of casual, covert racism has affected every area of his life. Hearing about a side of my black friends’ lives that, to my shame, I had never really thought about before. Listening to stories, and feelings and emotions that have been long suppressed but are now resurfacing. Scratch the surface and there is so much hurt and pain; this seems to be the big social justice issue that has been right under our noses this whole time but rarely acknowledged, let alone discussed. It feels like we are at a momentous cross-roads, at the beginning of a journey of listening, repentance where needed, reconciliation and change. It will likely be bumpy and difficult in places but we trust that it will lead us to a better place than where we are now.

All of these things can leave us feeling like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. It can be disorientating and unsettling. This morning I woke up and knew that I needed a bit of a reset. I’ve written before about my favourite way to get my head around tricky stuff– trainers, headphones, worship playlist, Mote Park. I love how the park is always there, a constant, despite changing weather and seasons and degrees of busyness. I find walking the familiar paths whilst praying and worshipping helps soothe my soul, order my thoughts, and listen to God. Today was no exception. I was reminded once again of the importance, especially in times of turmoil, of focussing on the constants, on eternal truths that never change.

God is good.

Praise the Lord because He is good. Sing praises to our God. It is good and pleasant to praise Him.

Psalm 147:1, ERV

God is faithful- He always keeps His promises, and is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! His faithful love endures forever.

1 Chronicles 16:34, NLT

Nothing can change His love for us. He looks at us and loves us- no matter who we are, how we behave, what the colour of our skin may be, or what language we speak- and nothing we do can make Him love us any more, or less.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow- not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below- indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39, NLT

So rather than focus on the shaking ground, the shifting sand, I am going to make a conscious decision to try and keep my gaze fixed on Jesus, who never changes and will never let me down or let me sink.

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Thought for the Day: Of Politics and Prayer

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As a self-confessed politics geek, I’ve been in my element this week. I love it all- the debate, going to cast my vote, being able to have my say, feeling like I’m part of something bigger; even staying up all night to watch the drama unfold on election night. During this election it’s been great seeing so many younger people engage with politics for the first time. My daughters are of an age now when they understand more about what’s going on- even if being able to vote themselves is still quite a few years off- and talking to them about the political process and fanning the spark of their interest has been an added bonus this time around. I think my husband is concerned that before too long he will have three opinionated feminist socialists on his hands instead of one….!

There is a downside to it all though, even a dark side. We human beings are not always very good at disagreeing well. Impassioned differences of opinion can turn into arguments and personal attacks, which can cause rifts in relationships. Elements of the media have been vitriolic in their treatment of various politicians, who have also been subject to horrendous online abuse and trolling.

But this isn’t just about those with a public platform- we all have a part to play. We can disagree with those in authority, whether in government or opposition, whilst still respecting their humanity and treating them with grace and compassion. We can hold different opinions to our friends, family, colleagues and strangers without casting aspersions on their intelligence, motivations or understanding, and without making unkind personal comments. We can listen to each other. We can listen to God.

In the Bible, both Paul and Peter remind us about the importance of praying for each other, and our leaders. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:3

“The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can go quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Saviour God wants us to live.”

It’s worth pointing out that the ruler in Paul and Peter’s day was the Emperor Nero, who murdered his mother and both his wives and persecuted Christians… yet they still urged the followers of Jesus to pray for him! When we pray for people, whether they are those in authority over us, or our friends, or family, or even (as Jesus commanded) our enemies, we start to see them in a different light. We start to see them as God sees them. We are reminded that they are all made in the image of God.

So whether you voted for her or not, perhaps, if you are the praying sort, you could commit to taking some time this week to pray for Theresa May as she seeks to form a government, and for politicians of all colours as they find a new equilibrium and a way forward. Healing our divided nation may seem at times like an uphill task- but it’s good to remember that all things are possible with God.

Originally broadcast on BBC Radio Kent Sunday Breakfast 11/6/17

 

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Let your Light Shine

This past week will surely go down in history as one of the most momentous in our nation’s history. However you voted, whether you are in the just-over-half or just-under-half, life will never be the same again.
Unsurprisingly, in a time of such unprecedented change, social media went crazy. 


Euphoria, triumph, grief, anger, bewilderment…. There were many different opinions expressed, with varying degrees of sensitivity. 

Then followed a spate of ‘stop whinging and get on with it’ type posts. We are being exhorted to pull together, accept things, put a brave face on it, stiff upper lip, it’ll all be OK- oh, and don’t ask any difficult questions.

On the face of it this seems like sensible advice, and what I was telling myself. The country has been pretty much split down the middle (52:48 is hardly a resounding victory) so more arguing is hardly going to help.

But in the light of recent events I have been prompted to reevaluate my position. I no longer think it’s OK to sit back and hope for the best. I strongly believe that, now as before the vote, we should be on our knees praying for wisdom, and guidance, and courage ….but I don’t think that our Christian responsibility stops there.

This vote has unveiled a deep divide within our country. Those who voted ‘Remain’ can’t just dismiss all 17.4 million ‘Leave’ voters as racist, or old, or uneducated. Those who voted to ‘Leave’ need to recognise that the pain being expressed by the Remain camp is not just intellectual snobbery, or being bad losers. There is a deep dissatisfaction in our society, a distrust of red and blue politicians alike. The campaign was fought on both sides in a way that promoted division and sowed harmful seeds of bigotry (whether racial or educational), fear, and selfishness. Something has broken. And no amount of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ memes are going to fix it.

It seems like the  referendum result has somehow made racism and xenophobia socially acceptable again. Whether it’s teenagers on a tram in Manchester disrespecting and verbally abusing a fellow traveller, or Polish schoolchildren being confronted with racist notes and graffiti, or the BBC thinking it’s OK to interview a neo-nazi (complete with swastika tattoo) on the breakfast news- it’s like the boundaries have suddenly been taken away and, like children, we are now testing them. The problem is that our political leaders have abdicated all responsibility for the genie they’ve let out of the bottle. Our Prime Minister has walked away from the result of his self-inflicted nightmare and left us to our own devices. Both Labour and the Tories are seemingly too busy scrambling for power to notice what’s happening, let alone provide leadership and direction.

And that’s where the people of God should come in.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God- a kingdom that transcends all earthly powers and nations- we need to put our trust first and foremost in Jesus, the Prince of Peace. We need to make it clear, both to ourselves and to those around us, that our hope is in Him and not in politicians. This is not a time for the Church to be anxious or divided. Now more than ever we are called to be lights shining in the darkness. Our little lights may feel weak and flickery, and if we’re relying on our own battery power they will eventually stutter and go out. But if we are plugged into the mains, energised by the Holy Spirit, then together we can shine an unwavering beam of light- of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- into the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

That might mean calling out and standing up against racism and xenophobia wherever we encounter it- on the street, online, amongst our friends or families. It might mean giving a voice, and being Jesus’ hands and feet, to the disadvantaged in our communities who feel disempowered and ignored by the political elite. It will almost certainly mean loving those we find difficult to love, and forgiving those we find difficult to forgive. 

It may well come at a cost. Following Jesus has always been a costly business if done wholeheartedly. But the cost of sitting back and doing nothing will be far higher. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Silence in the face of evil is in itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

So I am going to stick my head over the parapet and risk being labelled opinionated (again!) I’m going to stop apologising for caring deeply about the future of our nation, and the safety within our communities of people who don’t look or sound like the majority. I am going to try my best to do what I can with what I have, where God has placed me. And I hope you’ll join me.

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A poem for anti-bullying week: words of wisdom from a 6 year old

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Guest post by my baby girl 🙂

Sticks and stones can break your bones
But words can hurt you more.
Bullies bully and buddies help you.
Be a buddy not a bully.
Be friends not enemies
Help others not hurt them.

By Charlotte Tanner (age 6)

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Bread of Heaven

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I’ve been thinking a lot about food this week (some might say ‘nothing particularly unusual about that’, but that wouldn’t be very charitable). First of all, I started a new diet. The weight I managed to shift a few years back has been slowly starting to creep back on, and I now have two choices- buy more clothes or try to get back to a healthy weight again.  I promised myself when I got down to within my healthy BMI for the first time in 2008 that I wouldn’t buy any new clothes in a bigger size- rash, I know, but I can be very stubborn sometimes. Not wanting to renege on that, coupled with being a cheapskate, means I’m back on the wagon again.

Secondly, I became aware of a campaign running at the moment called ‘Live Below the Line.’ This campaign challenges people to only spend £1 a day on food and drink, for 5 days, to raise awareness (as well as money) for the 1.4 billion people around the world living in extreme poverty. I haven’t been doing this challenge myself, but have been following the efforts of some who have, for example Jack Monroe. I have been really impacted and humbled by how little so many people have to live on- including here in our own country. Another prominent movement at the moment is the Enough Food IF campaign, which is trying to get the G8 leaders to tackle the issue of global hunger at the summit next month. Over 150 organisations have signed up to this campaign- Christian, Jewish and Muslim as well as non faith-based groups- all coming together to make the point that the world produces enough food to feed all its inhabitants, if it was produced and distributed fairly. Carry on reading…

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