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Why we stopped eating meat

by
29 May 2020

Jemima Thackray and Huw Spanner find out how faith has affected six clerics’ progress towards becoming vegetarian or vegan

istock 

Samantha Chandler, secretary of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals and an ordinand in the diocese of Winchester

Samantha Chandler

I BECAME a vegetarian when I was ten. We lived in a house that backed on to fields with dairy cows. I also grew up with animals in the house, and I knew from early on that they were bright and had an emotional life just like us: they feel pain, fear, affection. They are not a crop or commodity to be harvested.

Now, I have a flock of ten rescued sheep, all rejects from farmers, and who would otherwise be killed. I have been a vegan for five years. I felt that I should be for a long time, as I was persuaded by all the arguments. I just worried that it would be too hard. But it wasn’t as difficult as I thought: I was lucky to become a vegan at a time when food retailers were starting to cater much better for vegans.

My journey was defined by this sense I have of the interconnectedness of all things, and of not wanting to be part of what I saw as an inherently cruel system. The growing awareness of how a diet that relies on large amounts of meat, particularly beef and dairy, is damaging the planet has made us all wake up. It’s a shame that the suffering of animals was not enough to make us change our ways.

My faith, and my sense of call to ordination, has always been intertwined with my connection with animals. Theologically, I don’t argue that Jesus was a vegetarian — he ate fish and the Passover lamb but, back then, they were living hand to mouth; there were not the industrial processes of today, which are so damaging.

God’s original plan was that we were plant-eaters; we were only given permission to eat animals after the Fall. But my main reasoning is that we worship a God of compassion: the Bible says “Blessed are the merciful,” and I don’t see anything compassionate or merciful about the current meat and dairy processing industries. I also refer to Job 39: there seems to be such a pride and tenderness in God’s creation of animals in this passage.

The situation we currently find ourselves in with Covid-19 can be traced to a wildlife market in China. But, before we point the finger at others, we must take responsibility for the way in which we have abused animals over the years, and how industrial livestock systems, that rely heavily on antibiotics in order to keep animals healthy, could have just as easily been the source of a similar virus.

We need to look long and hard at our treatment of the animal kingdom, and ask if it is pleasing to God. He has created a world where all creatures, no matter how small and insignificant, play their part and deserve our respect. I don’t believe that we can continue to keep animals in unnatural, overcrowded conditions, where they are denied fresh air and the ability to exhibit innate behaviour, without consequences.

 

The Revd John Ryder, recently retired as Vicar of Godshill, Isle of Wight

The Revd John Ryder

I STARTED changing my diet when I left school in 1972, and became completely vegetarian when I got married in 1979. I had become more aware of both the suffering of egg-producing poultry and the dairy industry, and the biblical basis for veganism, on becoming spokesperson for the Christian Vegetarian Association of the UK (now Christian Vegetarians and Vegans, UK). I have been completely vegan for about eight years now.

My awareness of the sentience and suffering of animals grew through study. Perhaps the first step was reading Konrad Lorenz’s book King Solomon’s Ring, a psychology textbook at university. But studying the Bible academically made it plainer. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus on divorce, saying that it was allowed in the law, Jesus replied that it was not so in the beginning, quoting the creation narrative.

Looking at the first two chapters of Genesis, not only was marriage indissoluble, but the diet given to humans, and to all our fellow animals, was vegan. And, looking at Isaiah’s vision of God’s Kingdom, so it will be then.

In the letter to the Hebrews, it says that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness. Sacrifice of your most valuable assets — livestock, in those days — became standard as sin offerings. It was the way to give to God, be in communion with him through a shared meal, and obtain forgiveness. All these, like the offering of Isaac, were but the foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

God asked of us, and our fellow-creatures, only what he was willing to do himself in the fullness of time, for us. Because of Jesus’s sacrifice, the others are no longer necessary, and neither — through his grace — are the allowances for sin necessary, I believe: such as the permission for divorce, or the eating of meat.

Moreover, the overall impression I get from the Bible is that God loves the world, and wishes to save the whole world, not just the humans in it. Suffice to say that the Bible has more to say in favour of slavery than meat eating, and, one day, Christians will be as ashamed of the latter as they are now of the former.

Knowing the degree to which animals experience fear and pain, and can see it coming — and, if they survive long enough, can remember it — I couldn’t face a God of love (or myself) if I was part of the cause of that suffering, by consuming any animal products. Genesis was written thousands of years before global warming and the difficulty of feeding an ever-growing population, and yet the diet it sets out is a necessary part of the solution to these problems.

It is also worth noting that HIV, SARS, and now Covid-19, to name just a few, are thought to have been passed to humans through eating meat, which should make everyone think about the inspiration behind Genesis 1, and hopefully adjust their diet accordingly. Properly followed, a vegetarian diet is also a lot healthier.

 

The Revd Janey Hiller is a vicar in the diocese of Bristol

The Revd Janey Hiller

I HAVE been a vegan for five years now. I was a vegetarian for a while, but then I went back to meat eating. My reawakening was in 2014, when a number of factors coalesced. First, my Christian community was doing a Lenten carbon fast — seeing if we could all achieve a 40-per-cent reduction — and, for me, it was most practical to do it through changing my diet.

I was a power-lifter at the time, and there is big culture of meat-eating among power-lifters. When I looked at the carbon-footprint calculator, I was horrified. It showed that, if everyone had my lifestyle, there would need to be the equivalent of 4.7 planets to sustain it. It was so shocking to learn that, for every one thing I had, four people were going without.

Another influence was reading Pope Francis’s Laudito Si’: On care for our common home, in which he talks about us all needing to experience a personal conversion to the fact that we are “in common” with creation: we are part of a whole, not a separate entity. I found this hugely profound and thought-provoking. It is a picture that sits between what we received theologically from previous generations, and fresh biblical scholarship which shows that we are creatures in the midst of creation, and that we have fouled it up.

To begin with, I signed up for a 30-day vegan challenge; and, as part of this, I received encouraging emails every day. I clearly remember day two being about how fertile land has been commandeered to cater for Western diets, and, once again, the inequality of this went deep. Because, for me at the time, animal rights was not the main motivating factor: the issue of human justice was the gateway.

But then, over the course of time and through theological study, I came to see that our treatment of animals is just as important. The Noahic covenant was made just as much with animals as with people; animals are just as much a part of God’s purposes to bring about the redemption of the earth as humans are.

We have taken the part we play as stewards of creation and warped it to become controllers of it, adopting a theology that revolves around providing for the needs of humans. But creation is not for this: it’s for the glory of God, and we ignore this at our peril. The Covid-19 pandemic screams this, and we will see more of this kind of thing if we don’t learn to respect our fellow life-forms.

 

The Revd Keith Littlejohn, Vicar of Goring-by-Sea, West Sussex

The Revd Keith Littlejohn

VEGETARIANISM crept up on me, really, and I think it needs to be integrated a bit more into my faith. Originally, it was very much about Eros. Thirty years ago, I fancied a woman I worked with, and knew she was a vegetarian. So, when I went out for a meal with her, I pretended that I was a sensitive vegetarian, too.

It put me back in touch with a feeling I’d had as a teenager: that it was wrong to eat meat. I remembered watching an Open University programme about farming methods, at three o’clock one morning, and being appalled by the cruelty of what I was seeing. There was a spark there, waiting to be fanned into a flame.

I have been vegetarian ever since (and, in due course, I married that woman I worked with). One of our daughters is vegetarian; the other is vegan, and an award-winning food blogger.

I don’t think that vegetarianism ever felt like a sacrifice, once I had made the decision. It didn’t seem to be any kind of impediment to my health, either — in fact, I think I felt healthier. Today, I experience it much more as an enrichment of my life.

The idea of eating meat now is revolting to me. I used to be a smoker as well, and it’s a similar thing: if I walk past a butcher’s shop I feel quite sick, in the same way that I feel unwell if I get a whiff of someone’s cigarette.

I am almost a vegan now, because I have a dairy intolerance as well. But we eat free-range eggs, for example. There are practical limits, however: for example, you can buy vegan Doc Marten shoes, but they’re about three times the cost. So, to some extent, I close my mind to such things.

I came to faith as an adult, and was ordained in 2003. At Cuddesdon, someone introduced me to books by the theologian the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, but there was nothing about the status of animals in my training and formation, and the bits and pieces I’ve picked up since don’t make for a sufficiently coherent theology to make any public teaching possible.

We are better equipped to preach on the mystery of the blessed Trinity than we are on animal suffering. Perhaps there needs to be some catch-up on that. Maybe that’s beginning to happen?

I do talk about my vegetarianism personally, however. If we are looking at Genesis in a Bible study, or the sayings of Jesus, I will talk about animal suffering and make the case. But I don’t see it as part of the proclamation of the gospel, and I wouldn’t preach it in a formal sense. Maybe there is an inconsistency there. Maybe it is time for those of us who are vegetarians, who have a faith, to amplify that a bit.

 

The Revd Professor Martin Henig, an assistant priest in Osney Benefice and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

Christine Finn The Revd Professor Martin Henig

I BECAME a vegetarian about 40 years ago. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and there was a gradual hardening of resolve. I’d always felt a close affinity to the whole of creation, and I wanted to live as lightly on the earth as possible. When I gave up meat, I felt morally better: a release from the guilt of being responsible for the death of sentient creatures.

My Jewish upbringing fed into it quite a lot. The principle that one should not do anything that causes pain is quite a strong element, at least in the sort of Judaism that I was familiar with. My father wasn’t a vegetarian, but he thought quite deeply about things, and he said that, strictly speaking, we shouldn’t be killing and eating animals. That went very much to my heart.

When I’m at home, I’m vegan. I didn’t become a vegan until it was explained to me what happens to the bull calves of dairy cows, for example. I didn’t want to be implicated in that. I am a third-order Franciscan, and I try to live as close as possible to the Franciscan ideal. I give non-human animals a very high status; I think they are created and loved by God. We promote ourselves, but, of course, scripture was written by human beings. Even so, the Bible emphasises that, in Jesus, God “became flesh”, not “became human”.

We’ve got the Bible, but we’ve also got the book of Nature, and we need to immerse ourselves in it — looking at insects, for example, to see how the whole of nature is interconnected. It’s very wonderful.

Of course, this is an imperfect world. I’ve sat on rocky headlands and seen the peregrine falcons taking terns, and that is part of nature. But I think we have the capacity to choose, which some creatures don’t. The idea of the lion lying down with the lamb is theologically very appealing, but a lion is not actually adapted to be able to eat vegetables, whereas I’m sure the human body doesn’t need meat.

It’s true that God allowed Noah to eat meat, but I believe that we need to aspire to the original covenant that God made with humankind. It doesn’t bother me that Jesus ate fish: it’s not so relevant what he did when he was incarnated into a particular society; what matters is how we react to the incarnation today.

You have to have a sense of balance, and I don’t go around criticising other people; but I think that the wider Church should be doing much more on this. It gives me hope that I come across so many people now who are vegetarian.

 

Nicky Pybus, a full-time pioneer minister based in Weston-super-Mare

Nicky Pybus

I GREW up in a Christian family, and, as a child, had meat and two veg every day, pretty much. I liked roast lamb, and bacon. I mean, everyone likes bacon, don’t they?

Three years ago, my husband and I watched a documentary on Netflix, Cowspiracy, which went into the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry, and we were horrified. We did more research, watched a few more documentaries, and then my husband said: “I’m going vegan.” And he did, overnight.

I was a bit more hesitant. For me, meat wasn’t the big deal; but I didn’t think I could give up cheese and chocolate. I went veggie to begin with, but my husband was cooking all these amazing vegan chillies and curries, and, within a month, I joined him. I struggled for a while, because I was a cheeseaholic, until suddenly, rather than craving cheese, I developed an aversion to it; even the smell of it made me feel sick.

Our children, who were 11 and eight, had decided that they wanted to go vegetarian, but, eventually, they announced that they wanted to go vegan, too. We thought they’d give it a week or two at most, but they haven’t faltered for nearly two years now.

We don’t take any supplements, and we are all fit and healthy. It’s about having a balanced diet. We’ve found alternatives: Bournville chocolate is made with soya milk and tastes like milk chocolate — that was a life-saver. We avoid leather. We’re on quite a tight budget, but New Look has a range of vegan footwear that is really affordable, and they last. Even Primark now stocks some certified vegan clothing and accessories.

Veganism certainly fits better with my values. For me, Jesus’s message is about love and kindness, and, as a Christian, I find it hard to think I should kill an animal when I don’t need to, to have a tasty plate of food.

I’m not saying that everyone should become vegan, but we all need to look at the way we are using the earth’s resources. Any step you can take to reduce your impact is a real positive. Even people who say that they can’t live without meat are now saying that they don’t have it every day any more.

I love baking, and that’s how I do my activism. My Victoria sponge, chocolate brownies, and coffee cake taste really good, and, if someone asks me about them, I tell them they’re vegan.

The area we live in is not exactly affluent, and I did wonder how the veganism would go down here, but these days people are much more aware of different dietary needs, and allergies and intolerances. I’m quite happy to be regarded as a weirdo, anyway. As a pioneer, that’s quite good.

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