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Grace in the scales

by
14 January 2022

What can the C of E learn from Slimming World’s model, asks Katherine Magdalene Price

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Could the Church do better than this? A Slimming World banner in Essex

Could the Church do better than this? A Slimming World banner in Essex

“WHEN I ask parents and godparents if they repent of their sins, and I hear someone mutter something about chocolate, my heart sinks.”

That line is from a sermon that I preached as an assistant curate. At that time, it felt rather close to home. It’s widely acknowledged that theological college, like the camera, adds ten pounds (at least).

I had no intention of taking action on my weight until my search for a sermon illustration led me to the website of Slimming World, and I found myself where many will be this month after Christmas and after nearly two years of lockdowns, signing up to a slimming group.

Slimming World has two elements: the eating plan (they avoid the word “diet”) and the optional support-group sessions. As a curate used to leading small groups of my own, I took a professional interest in the group dynamics and the techniques used by Shelley, our “consultant” or group leader.

In many ways, the approach was corny: quizzes, competitions, certificates, and stickers: the motivational techniques of primary school. And yet the proof was in the (low-fat, hold-the-custard) pudding.

Over the following months, as my cassock started to hang looser, I began to think how wonderful it would be if I could transform my spiritual health in the same way. What might a Praying World group look like? A group of people who come together weekly, usually with a leader or teacher, out of a shared commitment to a new and healthier way of life, to learn from one another and to be accountable to one another. But wait. . .

 

THE slogan of Slimming World is “touching hearts, changing lives”. You’d think, after 2000 years, the Church might have that market covered. So, how come the SW group was empowering its members to live out a commitment to a way of life, week by week, at a cost of £4.95 a time, while the Church, judging by its many initiatives and discipleship programmes, has a hard time convincing its own members that transformation is what they’re there for?

I wondered whether Shelley ever had to say: “Guys, it’s great you come to the group, and great you pay your money, but have you considered trying the weight-loss bit?”

I wasn’t just a Slimming World convert, but an evangelist for it, in a natural way that I’d somehow never quite pulled off when talking about my faith. Someone would compliment my changing appearance, or remark on my choice of salad over sausage rolls at a church lunch, and it would spark a conversation. I saw interpersonal evangelism working — and just not in the Church.

 

I HAVE had a few years to reflect since my starry-eyed-curate days. I’ve learned that discipleship comes in all shapes and sizes, and transformation doesn’t always show itself off in a little black dress.

But the Church of England has also been reflecting. Arguments about the parish and the mixed ecology have been thoroughly debated in these pages, but small groups are part of everyone’s vision for the Church, be they new congregations in homes and halls, or Lent groups and Alpha courses.

The Church is looking to expand these kinds of outreach at a time when “joining” is at a low ebb. It is widely recognised that the kind of intermediate associations, clubs, and civic-society groups so central to the vision of William Temple and others have dwindled in recent years.

Busy people divide their time between work and the nuclear family, although pandemic solidarity may have slowed the trend. So it’s worth attending to an organisation that has successfully established small groups across many different types of neighbourhood.

Slimming World describes itself as the UK’s favourite slimming group by weekly attendance: 900,000 members across more than 18,000 groups. In fact, roughly the size of the Church of England.

So, what is Slimming World doing right? I’d sum it up in one word: grace.

Like many overweight people, I didn’t believe that I could lose weight. I’d subconsciously bought into society’s pernicious ideas about the kind of people who “get fat” and the kind of people who succeed in “getting thin”.

For one thing, I didn’t eat what people call junk food. My spare tyres had been metabolised from a pretentiously middle-class menu of home-cooked local organic ingredients. How could I be fat when I didn’t “deserve” to be?

David OldsThe Revd Katherine Price signed up to Slimming World

Second came the lie of no pain, no gain. I wasn’t planning to starve myself or hit the gym; so I didn’t “deserve” to be slim, either. In my sermons, I preached grace. When I stood on the scales, grace went out of the window.

 

THE notion of weight as a barometer of moral strength is ubiquitous. It may not be as explicit as the equation of slimness with attractiveness, but it is just as harmful, not least to those experiencing eating disorders. In my current position as a higher-education chaplain, they are people I meet often, up against not just their own unhealthy thinking, but a society that colludes with their illness by praising them for self-control.

The Slimming World programme is based on being positive about food and about yourself: “Love food, love food optimisation!” On their website, they describe the vision of their founder, Margaret Miles-Bramwell, as “an approach based on freedom from hunger, and freedom from humiliation and guilt”. The organisation also raises more than £1 million annually for charity.

Each session starts with a weigh-in. Shelley would go round each person in the group, introducing them with one of three phrases. It could be “You’ve lost X pounds this week.” She never revealed the absolute weight, only the change. We all cheer.

Or, “You’ve maintained your weight this week.” We cheer. Or, “You’ve had a gain this week, but you’ve stayed to group.” We cheer. This was grace in action: accountability undergirded by unconditional affirmation.

Each person was encouraged to tell what went well and badly, and to make a resolution for the coming week, not dissimilar to an Ignatian examen. At the end, the consultant announced our collective weight loss. Something as individual as losing weight had become a joint endeavour.

If Slimming World’s “success” is about grace, that is reason to have hope for the Church. SW’s slogan is “changing lives” not “changing dress sizes”. Being overweight may be the specific need which brings people to ask, “How can my life be changed?” (what in the Church we call repentance), but the answers are the same.

The more I work in pastoral care, hearing the varied struggles of students and colleagues, Christian and otherwise, the more I find myself explicitly or implicitly proffering grace. A world that no longer understands sin too often offers a choice of two paradigms for human problems, the medical and the criminal: either you are entirely to blame or entirely helpless. Seeing ourselves as fallen and redeemed squares the circle, allowing us to take responsibility without making our worth dependent on our success.

Of course, we must beware of cheap grace, mere positivity, and self-acceptance without self-transcendence. I’ve recently been re-reading Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water. He draws out the spirituality of the Twelve Step programme used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

In place of the medical and the criminal, Rohr suggests a different paradigm: that of addiction. AA provides an example of how the mutual-support-group model can profoundly change lives.

 

BUT the group is only one element of the Slimming World approach. The other part is the “Extra Easy” eating plan. The plan is based on the insight that what works is what you can stick to. There is science behind it, but applied pragmatically: no calorie-counting, no banned foods, very little measuring-out, and no hunger.

The focus is on swapping foods for less calorie-dense alternatives rather than just resisting. And, yes, foods such as chocolate are described as “syns” . . . of which you are actively encouraged to have a little each day.

There is wisdom there for us, too. But this is where the parallel with the Church breaks down. What would be the spiritual equivalent of weighing in? Would we have certificates for Disciple of the Week? In that classic of catechetical pragmatism, Christian Proficiency, Martin Thornton suggests: “The only certain guide to spiritual progress is moral theology — we are making progress in prayer when we commit fewer sins.”

In a consumer culture (excuse the pun), is the attraction of Slimming World simply that it offers a clear programme and measurable outcomes against a single metric?

The desire for measurable success and reproducible programmes is a pitfall for the modern Church. Pragmatic, technique-based spiritualities are on the rise. Yoga and mindfulness offer the tricks and tips of the spiritual life emptied of the theological content.

But a relationship with God is not something that we cultivate for the sake of its fringe benefits. The Christian life is not “Extra Easy”. A church cannot just replicate what is going on next door in the church hall — but perhaps it can recognise that grace is at work there, too.

The Revd Katherine Price is Chaplain of The Queen’s College, Oxford.

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