The Fellowship of Life
Physical fitness and the exercise of compassion via practical and liberal vegetarianism imbues the personal philosophy of the Very Reverend Edward Carpenter, Dean of Westminster. Rebbecca Hall visits him at his home adjoining the Abbey.
When Big Ben across the road booms out that it's Christmas dinner time, the Very Reverend Edward Carpenter, Dean of Westminster, will be with his wife and four children in their historic home in the cloisters adjoining Westminster Abbey, and sitting down to a vegetarian spread. In the Deanery, meat is never served. "My wife Lilian and two of the children are strictly vegetarian" the Dean explains "and the other children, like me, are in the main vegetarian. The concept of eating meat appals me both aesthetically and on the grounds of humanity. However, in some circumstances outside my home I will arrange for guests to eat meat - if, for example they don't know me well enough to be aware of my feelings. Occasionally, too, I eat meat when I dine out and no alternative is offered. One has to remember that vegetarians are still a minority group and I don't like taking a holier-than-thou attitude at such times.
The Dean, now in his mid-sixties, has spent most of his life around London. He was educated at King's College, London, becoming a fellow in 1961. In 1935 he joined the Church as a deacon, serving three London area parishes until he became Canon of Westminster in 1951. Twelve years later he was Archdeacon, moving to the Deanery in 1974.
Dean Carpenter is also author of more than a dozen books, including a life of St. Paul and of Thomas Tenison, a chronicle of nineteenth century country parsons and a history of St. Paul's Cathedral. His working day is so tightly packed with church duties and wide-ranging committee work that his books have to be worked on late at night. At present he is writing a biography of Geoffrey Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
"It's fortunate my father has a sound constitution due to his athletic background," remarks his youngest son Paul. "If he hadn't joined the Church he could have become a professional sportsman. He was equally good at football, cricket and tennis. He played football for a club at Byfleet for several years, and broadcasts on soccer. He still swims before breakfast when we are on holiday. He is hardy - he and my mother take cold baths every morning."
The Dean agrees he has "always been fanatical about exercises since I was a schoolboy and was introduced to Muller's rhythmic exercises which I've practised ever since." He likes to jog around the courtyards behind the Abbey, to the interest of the several hundred schoolboys who are his next-door neighbours, at Westminster School. "We sometimes kick a football in the college gardens. The lady gardener gets worried."
He organised rambles with parishioners when he was a curate in Marylebone in the thirties and it was here he met a vegetarian man working for the BBC ("there weren't so many around in those days"). His housekeeper prepared such delicious meals, it was a pleasure to join him.
But it was Edward Carpenter's schoolboy interest in the English poets which first influenced him towards vegetarianism. "At Strodes School I developed a great admiration for Shelley - read everything of his, and about where he'd lived and travelled. He was vegetarian - he had lapses too - and he wrote about it. His words impressed me enormously."
Today, the Dean's interests are particularly focused on problems of the environment and conservation. He was a member of the recent commission on Man and His Environment, probing into land, air and water pollution and the need to find safe, economic use of our world resources.
His deep concern that there was not great enough awareness and sensitivity to the exploitation of animals today for human material gain, led him to support a Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare. Five years ago he travelled in a delegation to Rome, to petition the Pope on the necessity for this 'theology of compassion'.
"We need to have a code or practice set out, to decide how far man can go and when he should draw back on moral grounds from exploitation of lesser species of life. Historically, people are cruel - there is a kind of inbuilt sadism in most of us - and animals have always been the sitting target. But the most serious attack on animals today is not by sadism or cruelty - stoning a puppy or turning unwanted pets on the street, or shooting creatures for fun. It is by technological technique.
Man has become a manipulator. We manipulate lesser creatures for our material ends. By these techniques, we manipulate hens to produce eggs in ever greater quantities. In vast factories, chickens are forced to become egg-producing machines, or come out at the end of an assembly line as trussed corpses, treated with chemicals for commercial profit.
"We force-feed, we cruelly confine calves to produce more veal more quickly. More food is needed, of course, for our rising population - though eating grain rather than meat is a more economical way of getting protein. There has come a recognition that meat-eating is one of the most extravagant ways of feeding human beings. But there is a problem here - nature is carnivorous. In the natural system, one order of life preys upon another for survival. It is the economy of nature. But I, personally, find this natural order repulsive. It seems to me that we human beings should lift ourselves out of this system by being vegetarian. It isn't simply 'don't eat meat' - it is part of a much wider philosophy. (In fact, I suspect that dietically, meat eating may be more healthy.)
"There must be changed attitudes towards farming, but farmers mustn't be expected to carry the can. The whole community should take on the burden.
"In other respects, apart from food production, we must decide how far we should go with this manipulation. Race-horses now have sperm banks to breed speed for our entertainment on the race courses. Dolphins are trained to help us make war on each other. Where should we draw the line? Decisions need to be made.
But Dean Carpenter is optimistic. "There has undoubtedly been a change recently, either logically or theologically, in men's sensitivity. Forty years ago, how many of us would have considered going to the lengths we do today to preserve a species of bird, or a whale? More and more people are using field-glasses rather than shooting creatures. Teilhard de Chardin wrote of cosmic redemption - the whole order of man lifting itself up, and the leopard lying down with the kid. The strands of this philosophy are coming together, for thinking people today."
Each month, the Dean has a party in the Great Drawing Room of his home, and church-workers mingle with well-known public figures interested in conservation and animal welfare, former parishioners, sportsmen and people he meets through his many committees. Among these, he is Chairman of the London Society of Jews and Christians and Religious Advisor to the United Nations Association.
Dean's House, parts of which date from the fourteenth century, was badly damaged by fire bombs in 1941, but has been restored. Fortunately the delicately carved seventeenth century pine fireplace was only charred and two pictures presented in 1730 by a former Dean Wilcocks survived and are still in the room. One, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth by an unknown contemporary artist, is above the fireplace. It represents the Queen when aged 37 - but she has a Stuart face with the Elizabethan clothes. The other painting, a Canaletto, is of the Procession of the Knights of the Bath.
Biographies of Margot Fonteyn on the sill of a fourteenth century window, and the soft gold and beige colour scheme give a clue to the personality of the Dean's wife, Lilian. A beautiful, tranquil woman, she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and she holds poetry readings and meditation groups in the room. The long wall of curtains is her special contribution to the room - a Holbein print tapestry she found in Belgium.
Fifteen-year-old Louise and the older brothers, Paul, Michael and David, will make up the family party at Christmas, together with Hadrian the dog and the cat, Timida. There will be a party with the choristers from Westminster Abbey Choir School
Youth plays an important and growing role today, the Dean feels, in promoting awareness of the world's problems.
"By travelling abroad as they do, they see how others live, and can observe that there are other religious and ethnic groups - Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus - that have much to teach us. A cross-fertilisation, as it were, of East and West."
"Forty years ago," the Dean observes, "the average man knew very little about how others lived - what information he had was secondhand and seen through Imperialistic eyes. Now there is greater awareness, and concern."
"Environmental problems are discussed more and more by young people today and this concern of theirs may well lead in the direction of vegetarianism, as a logical progression."
Looking to 1976, the Dean says: "No realistic person can view the world as it is at this moment without anxiety - the violence, the materialism. But we should be positive in our reactions. If you give up hope, then you create the very thing you want to avoid."
On the issue of vegetarianism, we should also be positive, says the Dean: "We should show the world that ours is not a puritanism, denying of a pleasure by refusing to eat meat. We should be seen to be positively preferring this sort of diet because we find it so attractive."
The Dean of Westminster is a declared vegetarian; the Archbishop of Canterbury was recently admitted to the Butchers' Company as an honorary freeman. The Church's attitude towards the rearing of animals for slaughter remains ambiguous; fundamental moral issues like this must be resolved or the Church will forfeit spiritual leadership of new, aware generations.
From The Vegetarian of December 1975 with thanks to the Vegetarian Society
NB. Dean Carpenter (1922 - 2003) was an early Patron of the Fellowship of Life.
See also: A theology of compassion
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