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



Morals on a plate
by Simon Lister

We vegetarians number three and a half million throughout Britain. Our society's first meeting was 37 years earlier than that of the Fabian Society, and we were 126 old before the National Association of Catering Butchers could light a single candle on its birthday cake. Last week was our 150th anniversary and new members are being attracted at the rate of over 2,000 each week.

Much has been written in the national press about this anniversary, not all of it complimentary. One article said that all vegetarians were liars while the Daily Mail, under the banner "The hypocrisy of being vegetarian", suggested we would be on safer moral ground if we ate our pets. It is no coincidence that London's most famous vegetarian restaurant parodies our status by calling itself Cranks. As any vegetarian will tell you, suspicion of our motives among the meat eating community is widespread.

About once a month I get asked the question, "So why don't you eat meat?", and I find myself having to justify my fragile, incomplete ethical principles to people I have no history of intimacy with. Few other groups endure this sort of public scrutiny on such a regular basis. Imagine going to a party where the host asks, "So why are you such a lousy Christian?" The meat eaters' great fear is that the vegetarian across the dinner table really does enjoy the unique privilege of being able to cast the first stone - looking for chinks in our moral armour, questioning our commitment, is the best way of getting their revenge in first.

I certainly don't see myself as a crank. I have been a vegetarian since I was 11 years old when, on holiday, I saw a Greek butcher at work. I have eaten nut cutlets (our supposed staple dish) only twice in 17 years and I enjoy a wide and varied diet that hardly ever necessitates scavenging for berries in the woodland around the flat where I live. I am fit and don't have to lie in a darkened room after climbing the stairs. Despite being a vegetarian throughout puberty, I have astounded the medical profession by growing to 6'3" and I weigh in at the chunkier end of 13 stone.

I mention these facts to help break down the prejudice that divides our two camps. Vegetarians are not all sallow-faced deviants with a slender grasp on life, just as I am sure most meat eaters aren't aroused to a feeding frenzy by the sight of a rare steak or a plate of seafood. Although many are quick to dismiss us, the 150th anniversary of the Vegetarian Society shows that we do have our legitimate place in history.

The Vegetarian Society, formed in 1847, was the natural consequence of half a century of agitation for a vegetarian movement. Nurtured by Free Church Temperence, abstinence from meat eating was advanced as a principle by, among others, the Bible Christian Church of Salford. It was one of their congregation, James Brotherton MP, who later became president. Over the next 100 years, the society became more coherent, pooled its resources and established itself throughout Europe.

These initiatives developed not from the muses of a collection of eccentrics, but from a strongly argued Christian apologetic. Vegetarianism has always been present in aspects of Hindu and Buddhist thought, with religious communities practising vegetarianism as an integral part of their commitment.

The place of vegetarianism within Christianity, however, has often been overlooked. The first words of God to man in Genesis include, "See, I give you all the seed-bearing plants that are upon the whole earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food." A theme that runs throughout the creation narrative is the parity given to all creatures and the goodness of non-human life. Even after the flood God tells Noah that his covenant is established with "every living thing that is found on the earth".

In the New Testament, the gospels are not so helpful to our cause. Jesus was a man of his time: that is the point. We know he was not a vegetarian.

So why be a vegetarian if Christ wasn't? If it showed us anything, Jesus's public ministry illustrated an ethic that commands every aspect of our lives, where we are given moral opportunities to reject evil, including the sin of cruelty. I don't eat meat because I believe that animals are more than the components of a profligate, intensive farming culture.

Our ability to make moral choices is a gift; to be unthinking, and in this instance to deny the extravagent cruelty of factory farming, is a rejection of that gift. Like a political party in power for too long, our decision-making has in this area become arrogant; it is a false consensus. We have abused our stewardship of the earth and conveniently erased the concept of the dignity of all living creatures as a gift from God.

Perhaps it is this that causes the suspicion with which meat eaters often view us. Perhaps we remind them of a moral opportunity that they have so far missed but which they are capable of grasping if they really want to. Next time I see the familiar question coming, I'll get in there first by enquiring, "So why do you still eat meat?"

Redemptorist Publications 1997

The above article originally appeared in The Tablet dated 18 October 1997.

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