Peter Owen-Jones is an Anglican Priest, a television presenter and an emerging voice in the battle to secure a better future for planet earth and her inhabitants.
He has two early memories about bread. A good one and a bad one. The good one recalls a time when he made toast over an open fire and squashed freshly picked blackberries on it and ate it up. The bad one – or rather the series of bad ones – involves him as a boy at boarding school when they used to bend the (sliced white) bread to check for freshness. If it folded it was fresh. If it broke in two it was stale. It always broke in two. It was not the white sliced nature of the bread that offended his boyish sensibilities, it was the fact that it was stale. He wryly tells me he was part of a thoroughly modern 1960s family that was an enthusiastic participant in the new bread revolution. That meant white sliced at home? “Indeed,” he responds and begins to laugh, “in fact white sliced bread AND margarine – for the complete 1960s food experience! That was a combination that left you feeling like…” he sticks his tongue out a couple of times and screws up his eyes and his nose in a deep think, “…you had eaten slugs.”
Today, seated at his desk in the soft sunshine of a summer’s afternoon, Peter has a whole different set of associations with bread.
“Warmth. Earth. Comfort. Picnics.”
The reasons for his bread journey are partly physical and partly a result of what he calls a general process of awakening. “A number of years ago I began to realise that the bread I was eating made me unwell. I mean, really unwell. I just could not tolerate it at all. So I started to eat wheat free bread and felt better. I gradually changed the way I ate entirely and I awakened,” he says, “from the poison that is processed food. Good bread is the central core of the way I eat now. Good bread,” he continues, “is the metaphor for all things that are good and so it is also the central core of a new way of living for me and a new world to live in.”
We sit down to share some rye and spelt toast and slather on some butter and wild cherry jam that he had made the day before from cherries foraged from a magical stand of cherry trees just down the road. “Oachegh” he exclaims thickly through the toast. “There is something fantastic about wild fruit jam – better flavour, better colour, no pesticides.” We stick our tongues out at each other to compare how purple they are. Dark purple. Really dark purple. Mauve.
Breaking bread, either alone or in company, is an excellent time to reflect on all sorts of things and for Peter it is an automatic trigger for thinking about virtue because, for him, bread is a touch point for contemplating our relationship with all of creation. “If we eat shit we are by default treating the natural world like shit. And if we eat well – if we eat things of love and beauty – we are by default treating the natural world with love and respect.”
Luckily for him there is a baker in the village who is conscious about where he buys his flour, taking both quality and proximity into account. He bakes for the people in the village and for people in some of the surrounding villages, and is desperately keen to make a living without having to transport his bread too far away from the bakery. Doesn’t Peter think it’s amazing that such a small village can support a baker? “The UK bread culture is changing. People are beginning to feel willing to pay a bit more to get an excellent loaf from a local baker who cares. They don’t want a price-led, advertising-based bread culture that is rooted in a ruthless, capitalistic ethic. And if they understand that this is what they are buying when they buy shit bread, they may well change. We all have to change. We have to be kinder to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet. Our choices regarding what we eat should be based on a conscious understanding of the impact that the food has had from its creation to its consumption. The benefits of eating good bread include better grain, better farming, better health and a better connectivity with the land. Good bread is the end result of a good process. ”
Is good bread a good gift?
He smiles, “When I receive bread as a gift I feel cared for. It is the most wholesome gift I could ever receive because I am receiving something of goodness.”
Is that how he feels when he receives the sacrament?
“The sacrament is life, and bread and life are interchangeable. The sacrament and bread are interchangeable expressions of our creativity and our fragility.” He pauses, “The sacrament is the abiding metaphor for the best of what it is to be human. So when I receive the sacrament I feel I am the most priviledged being on the planet. It is the only time in the week when I take an hour out to celebrate all that is good. I feel I am taking part in the continually unfolding process of creation.”
Indeed much of what he is doing now as both a parish priest and a “voice” is aimed at getting people to engage in the world around them on an emotional rather than a financial level. “It’s one thing,” he says,”to make the connection between lifestyle and the implications of lifestyle. But it’s not enough. We actually have to take responsibility for our lifestyles and the impact they are having. We have to be aware. We have to be willing to act accordingly. That may be wasting less or driving less or paying more for a better loaf of bread. If paying more for a better loaf of bread means I cannot go on a holiday, so be it. In fact, maybe I won’t be so exhausted if I ate better bread all time and so I would not need a holiday.” He laughs his explosive laugh.
“Creation isn’t over,” he says. “It’s not something that happened a zillion years ago. It is something that is continually unfolding and we appear to be awakening to the fact that we need to be in partnership with it in order to have a future. We have no more rights than a butterfly.”