The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


Are Meatless Friday's the Shape of Things to Come?

From The Catholic Times dated Sunday September 25 2011

By John Gilheany

John Gilheany describes the origins of the vegetarian movement, its place within the Christian faith, and whether the meat-free diet may be adopted by more food-reforming Catholics, in light of the return to the tradition of Friday abstinence in England and Wales.

Perhaps it's the top-hats and those businesslike expressions that adorn the features of the Victorian founders of the Vegetarian Society…

Whatever their photographers may have sought to capture, it would have been a tall task to have depicted sentimental, naive, heretical, or even vaguely hippy-like idealists! However, thanks largely to the ample efforts of Punch magazine, most of the dismissive terms which have often been attributed to motives for abstinence from animal products were cast at food reformers over a century before the exponential rise of the vegetarian lifestyle which began in the 1960s.

For most of its historical existence, the Vegetarian movement in Britain received considerable Christian input and leadership. It has often been remarked upon that the inaugural meeting of the Vegetarian Society (VS) was chaired by Joseph Brotherton, the first MP for Salford, in 1847.

Moreover, the Bible Christian sect to whom Brotherton belonged and occasionally ministered, included several civic leaders from the town of Salford who adopted influential roles within the VS.

From there, the story of Christian involvement in the development of vegetarian apologetics has long been a matter of neglect among scholars; despite the veritable genre of books on the history, ideology and indeed theology of ethical issues which arise from our dietary relationship to other creatures.

There have remained several signposts, nonetheless, which became a part of the fabric of vegetarian lore: such as the ascetic diet of John and Charles Wesley; the outspoken convictions of early Salvation Army leaders; Leo Tolstoy and in more recent times, the pacifist outlook of Methodist orator, Donald Soper. Even Mahatma Gandhi's legendary path to Ahimsa (or 'dynamic harmlessness') began with no less than esoteric Christian vegetarian campaigning in South Africa during the 1890s.

Maybe the tendency of some Christian leaders - such as the towering 19th century Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon - to hide their vegetarian lamp under a bushel (and there may be many others who have hidden the bushel as well!) has contributed to the burial of Christian vegetarianism, as an ethical outlook, over the years. However, it has often been the case that among the faithful, even ardent vegetarians may regard theology as an entirely separate sphere to decisions that inform dietary choices.

Catholics will find the name of 19th century VS president, Professor Francis William Newman, rather familiar.

The Oxford linguist was a younger brother of the Cardinal who dismissed ‘Biblical’ arguments for vegetarianism as “trash” and often maintained that the VS existed “not to found a sect but to influence a nation.” In reality the small network of local vegetarian groups and spokespeople were often isolated and the sense of frustration was particularly acute for those who attended most places of worship.

The Catholic Church still became a source of interest and intrigue for food reformers because of Lenten and Friday abstinence, as well as the monastic tradition which sought to subdue bodily passions through prayer, fasting and the abnegation of flesh-foods. However there was scant affinity between the pursuit of personal sanctification and the aims of most food reformers.

In short, the spiritual case for vegetarianism which was presented through lectures at church halls, tracts and periodicals, stemmed from outward concern for the plight of ‘food animals’, human degradation and desensitisation in slaughterhouses, and an eschatological vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in the course of daily life.

It is quite well known that G K Chesterton took a particularly scathing approach to the consideration of vegetarian arguments throughout his life. However there was often a remarkable depth of soul-searching beneath his criticisms; as well as satirical occasions which struck his opponents as disappointingly glib and evasive of the cruel conditions invariably experienced by livestock on cattle-boats and upon facing the slaughter-man’s pole-axe. Yet, there was an abiding warmth between Chesterton, Shaw and other leading figures of the Vegetarian movement despite rigorous debate in the press, periodicals and wider literature.

Other Catholics may have been more receptive to the extension of basic beatitude to those otherwise destined for the dinner table. In 1895, the Order of the Golden Age (OGA) was founded with the international aim of advocating vegetarian criteria among the world’s foremost Christian nations. The January 1907 edition of their journal, The Herald of the Golden Age, comprised their most resolute challenge to Churchmen to have been presented in over twenty years of publication. A copy was sent to every bishop and non-conformist leader in Britain . Furthermore, Pope (St) Pius X received a personal letter from OGA president Sidney Beard which respectfully implored the Holy Father to devote serious consideration to the subject of animal slaying throughout Christendom.

It may or may not have been a coincidence that press reports of the Pope’s having adopted a vegetarian diet began to circulate before the summer of that year.

Catholics today, as in earlier eras, may take a dim or devoted approach to the ethics, or otherwise, of consuming foods derived from animals.

Even a canonical return to Friday abstinence from meat could have little relation to actual vegetarianism should secular predictions of ‘fish days’ become a genuine facet of the faith. It remains to be seen of course whether or not the bishops’ wishes will receive active assent among the laity. When the National Conference of Priests met to consider a return to Friday penance, in 1983, a spokesman declared with considerable skepticism: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube again.”

If the rebirth of Christian vegetarian advocacy over recent decades may serve as any sort of comparison, then a worthy concept is not only difficult to keep under wraps but quite likely to return revitalised from the rest.

Reproduced with thanks.

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