Church of England Newspaper dated Friday October 7 2011
By John Gilheany
Whenever the topic of vegetarianism arises in theological discussion
the tendency for most Christians is to duly declare the Bible
inconclusive but supportive of individual conscience.
The Churches have harboured outspoken objectors to ‘flesh-eating’
since the earliest decades of Christian history and in more recent times
the locally influential Bible Christian Church of Salford gave rise to
the national Vegetarian Society, in 1847. In that same year, an essay
was reprinted which afforded an earlier concern, expressed by John
Calvin, with a contemporary title, ‘The Tyranny of Vegetarianism’. For
whilst the Salford sect and many of their early VS allies sought to
invoke the tranquility of Eden and Isaiah’s vision of wolves and lambs
relaxing in harmony; supporters of Calvin’s stance were acutely wary of
being bound by “fictitious laws”.
And indeed very little has changed between Christians who believe
that slaughter defies spiritual existence and those prepared to dismiss
such assertions as apostasy.
In 1990, the dispute even erupted in Parliament when the Minister of
Agriculture, John Selwyn Gummer – a General Synod member at the time –
denounced the growth of vegetarian propaganda. In a speech to the
international Meat Trade Association, Mr Gummer referred to human
dominion over creation and chastised “deeply undemocratic food faddists
who want to impose on the rest of us views which come from their own
The dispute became a brief source of media bewilderment when the
(vegetarian) Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill,
conveyed otherwise private misgivings to the Minister about the
relevance of equivocal passages in the New Testament. In the Christian
press, meat-eating commentators were unable to support any contemporary
challenge to conscientious abstinence from animal products on biblical
If anything at all became clear from the controversy, it was that
Christians had never really got round to reflecting upon the relevance
of industrial-scale slaughter and individual shopping habits in any
Yet historically, the vegetarian diet not only found favour with many
monastics and lay penitential practitioners but also appealed to the
sensibilities of Methodist founder John Wesley, Baptist preacher CH
Spurgeon, General Booth of the Salvation Army, Leo Tolstoy and even Pope
Pius X, who became a vegetarian within months of receiving a respectful
plea from religious food reformers in 1907.
It may seem unlikely to contemporary onlookers but
Christian-vegetarian apologetics were more prevalent in the active sense
a century ago than is the case today.
Those familiar with GK Chesterton’s writings may be struck with
curiosity at the comparative frequency with which vegetarians were taken
to task by the towering Catholic controversialist during the early
decades of the 20th century. Yet for all his satire, banter and the
occasionally meaningful essay on the subject, Chesterton’s inveterate
hostility to vegetarian values belied an abiding respect for their
adherents: so long as they didn’t behave like ‘prigs’!
The Anglican communion has traditionally adopted as diverse a
response to ethical vegetarianism as has been the case with any other
In the 1920s the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Ralph Inge,
occasionally riled the London Vegetarian Society with the contention
that pigs owe their entire existence to human demands for pork.
It seems unlikely that the theory could hold moral weight in an era
of relentless factory farming which is currently being exported lock,
stock and farrowing crate to developing nations.
However, it should be emphasised that Dean Inge was an otherwise
straightforward advocate of animals’ rights in his writings, which
included a regular column in the London Evening Standard.
In contrast, Canon Peter Green – a Chaplain to the Royal Family for
over three decades – wrote dismissively of animal rights recognition
during the 1930s, despite having adopted a vegetarian diet for health
reasons following Lenten abstinence in 1909.
Animal rights theory and theology almost completely perished before the
Second World War despite having been acceptable in the basic sense to
many meat-eaters. That vegetarians could dismiss the concept may seem
unusual but for the fact that many abhor unnecessary rather than all
killing under prevailing, fallen conditions.
The principle has been highlighted by Christian vegetarians such as
Air Chief Marshall Lord Dowding and Sir Barnes Wallace who played
pivotal, if reluctant, roles in WWII while others felt it more noble to
make a stance as Conscientious Objectors.
The Church of England afforded solace to the Vegetarian Society during
its twilight existence prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s,
through the kindly presence of Canon Edward Carpenter who eventually
became Dean of Westminster Abbey in 1974.
Indeed, the vegetarian/vegan movement has always been able to rely on
clergymen to occupy prominent positions, or provide theological
assurance, even though such stalwarts usually remain mavericks within
their wider vocation. However, that’s not to lend unfair credibility to
the caricature of an uncaring and human-fixated clericalism, despite
significant anecdotal disenchantment among ‘animal-friendly’ laity and
ex-churchgoers that persists to the present day.
For there is often a more occupational reason for ‘clergy
indifference’ to myriad forms of animal plight of which slaughter for
cuisine may seem almost peripheral.
As former Bishop of Salisbury, John Austin Baker recently recounted:
“I must have been entertained to meals in hundreds of vicarages, but
memory suggests that those in which the menu was vegetarian could be
counted on the fingers of one hand. But the number of people who have
said to me, ‘I feel we ought to be vegetarian but it means learning a
whole lot of new recipes, and I’ve never got round to it’ is really very
As the 21st century unfolds, vegetarian criteria has firmly begun to
emerge from the province of personal inclination and increasingly relate
to issues of environmental sustainability; ethical allocation of grain,
as a primary food source in a hungry world; as well as to medical
benefits pertaining to a potential reduction of Western obesity and the
prevention of certain forms of cancer.
Whether Christian witness should reflect or counter such concerns,
embrace or ignore them, remains, as ever, within the realm of honest
reflection and prayer.
Reproduced with thanks.
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