The History of The Fellowship of Life
The Fellowship of Life
by John M. Gilheany
The vegetarian movement in the U.K. had become a relic of another era towards the 1970's.
The counter-cultural backdrop of the late 1960's had generated an influx of activists to whom traditional methods of promoting vegetarianism were of little appeal. (1) It followed that traditional targets of vegetarian propaganda were to find themselves largely dismissed as stony ground for decades to come. Before the arrival of the twenty-first century, however, both the national animal rights organisations and their time-honoured targets, such as the Church would again become the focus of attention from grassroots campaigners.
Actual enterprises aimed at prompting the Churches to reconsider their relationship with creation had become sporadic since the demise of The Order of the Golden Age between the 1930's and 50's. In 1955 The Vegetarian Society published The Bible and Vegetarianism by their then Secretary Geoffrey L. Rudd which led to lectures in Church Halls. Yet there remained an absence of concerted focus upon the Churches from any particular vegetarian network in the decades which followed the Second World War.
The religious/spiritual case for vegetarianism had its own regular place in vegetarian periodicals throughout and towards the 1970's. Geoffrey L. Rudd was the Editor of an independent quarterly publication The Vegetarian from 1947 until 1959.In 1951 the title of the magazine changed to World Forum although the content continued to focus essentially upon vegetarian matters. Esme Wynne Tyson took over as Editor from Rudd having been a leading contributor of religious articles from an early stage. In 1970, Esme retired from World Forum although her writings had by then become a major influence upon Margaret Lawson the founder of The Fellowship of Life.
A new era
As reflected in their initial title; The Churches Fellowship for the Promotion of Reverence for All Life was in 1973 intended to orchestrate a traditional aspect of vegetarian advocacy. The Fellowship of Life as it soon became known has been an eloquent advocate of vegetarian Christian values for over three decades. The group/concept/ethos consolidated a declared aim of seeking:
"To promote a Christian way of life which is beneficial to All Creation, human, animal and environmental" (2)
The Fellowship of Life emerged from aspirations for a more active campaigning approach which arose within the Society of United Prayer for Animals.
An early area of focus for FoL members was the "travesty of compassion" involved in the killing of countless turkeys every Christmas. The situation had been an affront to humanitarians and vegetarian Christians, in particular, for nearly a century. (3) A fresh address by the Rev. Mary Francis on 23 December 1973 became the basis for the first FoL leaflet. (4) During December 1973 a letter to clergy from Margaret Lawson kept with the theme:
"Would it not be wonderful if Christmas day were to be one of 'Carols and kindness' not 'Carols and killings'?" (5)
The FoL newsletter basically began as a bi-annual circular in 1974. In 1977 the newsletter was issued in December to co-incide with the Christmas festival and has appeared on this occasion for a further twenty-four years.Within a year the Fellowship of Life had begun to take their Christmas without killings message to the readership of the main Anglican weekly newspaper. (6) The letter went without any critical follow-up, nor was there any response in print a year later when Margaret Lawson and another correspondent posited the same case. (7)
By the mid-1970's the FoL had produced several leaflets and pamphlets; embarked on sizeable mail-shots to clergy, featured in Anglican parish magazines and consolidated a literary presence in Church vestibules. In a March 1975 newsletter, Margaret Lawson envisaged the FoL approach to campaigning in terms of the Gospel admonition to overcome evil with Good:
"May I repeat that we must continue to plead our cause with tolerance and patience. One word of condemnation, tempting as it may be, does more harm than good, and may take years to wipe out - so let us "Count ten". Violence of any kind begets violence whilst love and tolerance whilst they may seem slow, are safe and sure, and quickest in the long run. Let us be content to sow seeds, leaving the results to God, knowing that nothing is done in vain in his name."
By 1977, The Fellowship of Life had acquired 27 Patrons, 18 of whom were ordained clergy. 1977 was actually designated "Animal Welfare Year" and observed with an itinerate exhibition entitled: Man, Exploiter or Guardian? The display was a joint venture between the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals and the Friends Animal Welfare and Anti-vivisection Society (1891-1978 - laterally: Quaker Concern for Animals).
The foremost Fellowship of Life flyer throughout the 1970's consisted of an illustrated montage of animal exploitation and contrasting words of Scripture: Calling all Christians. (8) The pamphlet experienced revisions and in 1980 the title was expanded to "...and People of Goodwill". Margaret Lawson explained at the time that:
"In a love which embraces all creation, human, animal and environmental, there lies a unifying factor linking all religions and philosophies."
In September 1980, The Church Times published a staunchly pro-animals article by The Rev Canon Arthur Fielder. The Christian and Animal Suffering attracted follow-up correspondence on the part of FoL which later reprinted Canon Fielder's essay for further circulation in 1981. (9)
The FoL newsletter increasingly featured updates on developments within complimentary medicine, disarmament and ecology, reflecting an earlier ethos of the group's founder:
"The Fellowship of Life is not an animal welfare society, as such, neither is it a vegetarian society. Its function is to promote a better way of life for humans, based on justice, mercy and compassion, and faith in God, which is beneficial to ALL CREATION (including themselves)."
The Fellowship of Life Newsletter, 1974.
The focus of Fellowship of Life efforts remained, nonetheless, on the promotion of vegetarianism within the British corner of Christendom. It was envisaged that through a benevolent diet: "...hearts would become sensitive to the rights of animals, to life and justice" - thus reducing the likelihood of support for many other forms of human or animal exploitation.
In 1984, Margaret Lawson gave an address at the Annual General Meeting of The Vegan Society. A transcript of the lecture formed an updated version of an earlier FoL pamphlet: "Why a Fellowship of Life?" (10)
In 1985 the FoL newsletter was modified to A5 which has remained the subsequent format. The relaunch saw the broad scope of FoL concerns maintained but began with an opening essay entitled Vegetarianism and Christianity. (11)
Throughout 1985 the FoL introduced Box adverts to the Anglican and Church of Scotland newspapers, entitled; "Why kill for food?" The campaign was adapted to "Why kill for Christmas?" - during December.
By 1988 there were indications that Margaret Lawson was considering a new FoL Secretary, to extend the influence of the group into the next decade. The Christmas 1988 newsletter contained an interesting reflection:
"Sometimes I wonder if it is this very matter of killing animals for food that comes between Christians and their God, preventing them from finding the lasting inner peace of reconciliation with him, as it was with the rich ruler who was told by Jesus to go and give his wealth to the poor. Certainly, the Church is waking up environmentally, but it is out of love for God and all His creation, or is it the instinct of self-preservation? How many of its leaders care enough about what happens to the animals to give up eating them and their products?"
As the 1980's came to a close the FoL were supplying leaflets to the short-lived, if keenly motivated ministry; Christian Animal Rights Education (C.A.R.E.) which leafletted the March for Jesus Accross the Nation - as it passed through Sheffield in 1989.
The 1990 newsletter was Margaret's last as Founder-Secretary, in which she observed that:
"Success will come eventually but not too soon for the creatures, or indeed, the image of the Church.
Perhaps a new Church based on love to all creation will grow out of the old, without the division caused by dogmas and rites, which will unite people of different faiths or of none."
Centuries of faddism
Earlier in 1990 the theology of vegetarianism was brought abruptly to the attention of a bemused national press.
At the International Meat Trade Association dinner, held in London on May 1st, the then Minister of Agriculture John Selwyn Gummer, initiated a now infamous diatribe against the nations five million vegetarians. At the time, a member of The Church of England Synod, Mr. Gummer pronounced that:
"I consider meat to be an essential part of the diet. The Bible tells us that we are masters of the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field and we very properly eat them. If the Almighty had wanted us to have three stomachs (sic) - like grass eating cattle - I am sure he could have arranged it but he chose to make us omnivores instead." (12)
In the same speech the Minister referred to vegetarianism as "wholly unnatural" and the preserve of "deeply undemocratic food faddists." It was to result in brief media controversy and conclude with an irreverent questioning in the House of Commons by the late vegetarian M.P. Tony Banks. (13)
The theologian Andrew Linzey later commented that: "Bystanders may marvel at how Gummer could in all innocence hurl himself, not at the weakest but at the strongest part of the enemy's armour." (14)
On this occasion most Church commentators saw the folly, inherent in ruthless Biblical interpretation, for themselves. (15) An appraisal by the Church Times columnist of the period became part of an update to the FoL pamphlet: Calling All Christians and People of Goodwill.
Towards a vegetarian Christianity
Clare and Tom Harral became Honorary Secretaries of The Fellowship of Life in 1991, from a background in human/animal rights and environmental campaigning. Margaret Lawson's legacy has been nurtured and enhanced in the years which have followed her retirement. The FoL newsletter retained its traditional emphasis on Life issues but also developed during the 1990's into a comprehensive chronicle, of spiritual and secular animal rights campaigning. Each newsletter came to comprise an inspirational resource of activity and ideas for those of a kindred outlook.
In 1992 the newsletter imparted an empowering answer to the oft-heard yet defeatist notion that: "I'm just one person, I can't make a difference in the world."
"Every individual's consciousness is connected to and is part of, the mass consciousness. When a small but significant number of individuals have moved into a new level of awareness and significantly changed their behaviour, the change is felt in the entire mass consciousness: all other individuals are then moved in the direction of that change.
And the whole thing may have begun with the one individual who made the first leap. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."
The FoL published a booklet entitled: "Christian vegetarianism - a Biblical approach to life during 1997. (16) The booklet essentially summarised the works and insights of several vegetarian clergy whose theology had begun to enable the growth of a movement. A bold flyer accompanied the booklet as part of a campaign package which was advertised in Christian periodicals and received front-page coverage in The Church Times during April 1998. (17)
As a new century approached the 1999 FoL newsletter contained an opening editorial which took sombre yet uplifting stock of the previous ten decades. (18)
On the face of it the increase of modern vegetarianism has been in contrast to the closure of Churches. Yet the Fellowship of Life contribution towards impacting vegetarianism upon the Christian consciousness may appear to have been meagre. It is however impossible to determine with any measure of acuracy the extent or the influence of FoL propaganda over recent decades.(19) It is nonetheless certain that the success of campaigns such as Veg4Lent and the emergence of CVAUK would not have been possible without the expertise and momentum which have been generated by The Fellowship of Life.
An early FoL prediction has at least become part of the history of the vegetarian-Christian movement in Britain:
"In the future, when we feel the ground has been sufficiently prepared, we shall appeal for the recognition of our ideals by the Church, or else we shall grow so strong that no appeal will be necessary! We founder members may not be there to see that day but the foundation will be laid and the torch will be handed on, blazing!"
The Fellowship of Life, Newsletter, December 1974.
1) "Many of these new vegetarians were not attracted to the old vegetarian network, and groups like the Theosophical Society, The Order of the Cross, and, as we have seen, to some extent The Vegetarian Society itself, failed to capture the new enthusiasm thrown up by the counter culture. It was not that the ideas or beliefs were essentially different but that their social atmosphere was unappealing to the young. New groups thus emerged."
The Vegetarian Movement in England, 1847-1981 - Julia Twigg; unpublished doctoral thesis, London School of Economics, 1982.
2) The Fellowship of Life newsletter 1977.
In 1983 the mission statement was expanded to:
"Seeks to (1) establish vegetarianism as a Christian way of life and (2) unite believers of all religions, or none, in a way of life which neither hurts nor destroys needlessly any part of creation, human, animal or environmental."
3) December editorials on Christmas became a regular feature of Vegetarian journals from about the 1870's onwards. The submission of letters to local newspapers was extolled as the favoured method of propaganda. In Manchester, where The Vegetarian Society was originally based there appears to have been a certain level of receptivity: KEEPING CHRISTMAS
4) Christmas Carol Service
5) To All Ministers on my "Mailing List"
6) Dead Bodies
7) Dumb Creatures
8) Desecration at Christmastide
Calling All Christians and People of Goodwill
9) The Christian and Animal Suffering
10) Why a Fellowship of Life?
11) Christians, the Bible and Vegetarianism
12) Vegetarianism -
reprinted extract from the newsletter of Animal Christian Concern (undated): Author; May Tripp.
13) House of Commons Hansard Debates appear online at www.parliament.uk/index.cfm although I have been unable to obtain the URL for the exchange in question. It is listed as Column 1002 and occurred on Thursday 17 May 1990.
14) Animal Gospel - Christian Faith as though Animals Mattered by Andrew Linzey. (P.41) Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
15) Vegetarianism - "UnBiblical" (1990 Press)
The ethics of meat-eating
16) CHRISTIAN VEGETARIANISM
17) God is a veggie, says booklet
18) A millennial reflection
19) There have been indications that decades of apologetics from animal advocates and theologians are reaching the mainstream Christian consciousness, for example: Hunting ban is just the start