Fasting and abstinence

by
20 February 2008

Martin Warner considers the relevance today of ‘acts of discipline’, especially in Lent

Our Lenten example: Ivan Kramskoy’s Christ in the Desert (detail), 1872-74

Our Lenten example: Ivan Kramskoy’s Christ in the Desert (detail), 1872-74

THIS SERIES for Lent continues to look at what the Church of England expects of its lay members (Faith, 8, 15 February). It starts from the six rules set forth by a committee of the Church Assembly (precursor of the General Synod) 60 years ago.

3. To mark, by special acts of discipline, Fridays and the season of Lent.

LEADERS of the Church of England in 1948 faced a nation recovering from the upheaval and austerity of international war. The routines of spiritual life had been widely disrupted.

Death, the loss of homes and livelihoods, husbands returning as strangers to their families, wives discovering a new freedom in work and independence: these were experiences that must have posed serious challenges to faith in a loving God. And for some they had returned all too swiftly after the earlier carnage of the 1914-18 war.

The report explains that fasting is not the only form of discipline that is to be considered. “It is a curtailment of pleasure with the object of (a) self-discipline; (b) recollection . . . of the seriousness of Christian calling; (c) provision of further time for prayer and worship.”

Looking back, we see a nation in distress: what message would the call to these disciplines have conveyed?

In his survey of English Christianity in the middle of the 20th century (A History of English Christianity 1920-2000, SCM, 2001), Adrian Hastings paints a picture of a post-war Church that was in fact responsive to much in the report. Duty, discipline, rules, and obedience were currency in the way that they are not today.

What is more interesting, however, is the popular impact of heroic Christian witnesses. Figures such as John Collins, Trevor Huddleston, and Ambrose Reeves represented the engagement of Christianity with the most pressing political issues that still confronted the world, specifically in South Africa.

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The report’s introduction to spiritual discipline and the description of fasting begins with two points that remain valid for us in the 21st century. The first is that “it is now commonly forgotten that the Church has from the first imposed on her members a certain common discipline.” Christianity is not only about self-fulfilment, on which we tend to be strong today: it is also about carrying the cross, faithfully, cheerfully, lovingly. It is a costly way of life.

The second point is that obedience and the Christian disciplines present to those outside the Church the witness of a life lived under God “in which there is compelling evangelistic power”.

This is not an invitation to show off, but it is a reminder of the attractiveness of transformative faith that endures all things for love.

Nor is the evangelistic power directed only to the world: it is also a means by which the whole Church is strengthened, and the individual Christian evangelised afresh by the life-giving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fasting and abstinence and the “curtailment of pleasure” are never easy disciplines. I find that living in the midst of absurd levels of plenty and of choice, fasting and self-denial are attractive disciplines, but a real struggle. It would be easier if my life were entirely my own. But its social and pastoral dimension commits me all too often to contexts in which a Lenten fast is easily compromised or broken, reminding me of my own weakness, lack of resolve, and dependence upon God’s grace.

In this regard, I still welcome the evangelistic quality of identification with Jesus in his fast, and the trials it reveals. I also welcome the fleeting moments of self-chosen poverty and mini-death that do come with self-denial, and the freedom that this gives to enter a new psychological space in which to say, “No,” and still flourish.

Renewed confidence in the grace of God as the source of our flourishing is part of our quest in the Lenten fast. This year, I have given up television. As a consequence, the release of time at the end of the day, limited but none the less precious, has reminded me of the atmosphere of a retreat.

It has given a new dimension to my consciousness of ending a working day — the need to unwind and relax — and placing all life before God in preparation for sleep, itself another mini-death and prelude to thanksgiving for the gift of a new day.

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The liberation that comes from all this is something that I sense may have animated the concerns of those who produced the 1948 report on spiritual discipline. I believe they saw that a people who had been burdened by war needed spiritual liberation by something other than victory. Surely that was an element in the mix of social concerns that led to the election of the Attlee Government in 1945.

The emergence of people such as John Collins, Trevor Huddleston, and Ambrose Reeves suggests that it might have been. Social concerns, one of the fruits of self-denial, emerge in attention to life at home and overseas.

This ought still to be the fruit of self-denial today. We saw evidence of that in Tearfund’s Carbon Fast, launched at the beginning of Lent by the Bishops of Liverpool and London to draw attention to the contribution we make to global warming and its destructive effects on those we shall probably never meet (News, 8 February; Faith, 1, 8, 15 February)

Another fruit of self-denial identified by the report is prayer. In our over-busy world, this is also a much needed opportunity for return to the stillness of God, in whom alone we find peace and refreshment.

Yet this return is not necessarily a comfortable experience. It will confront us with distractions and the demonic that is both within and around us. Identification through prayer with the fast of Jesus Christ is the school of Christian study in which we learn not to fear our demons or the power they appear to have.

The report’s language of duty, obedience, and rules may be unattractive to us today. But it remains important to recognise that self-discipline is something common to all Christians, that it is characteristic of our Anglican tradition, and that it is evangelical for others within and beyond the Church, as it is for those who practise it.

The Revd Dr Martin Warner is Canon Pastor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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