Should Christians go vegetarian?

The debate on whether Christians have an obligation to follow a vegetarian, or at least meat-free, diet has been going on for centuries.

Religions and their relationship with animals will be at the heart of the annual Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics Summer School, and one of the areas of debate will be faith and food.

Most religions have some sort of dietary laws; the Old Testament, for example, lists food rules that are still followed by various religions. But the majority of Christians living in Britain today have health and economic concerns regarding their diet, rather than theological ponderings.

As often happens when searching the Scriptures for answers, interpretations of what the Bible says about whether humans should eat other animals or not differ widely.

David Grumett, lecturer in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, confirms there is no single view in Christian theology when it comes to eating animals. But if meat is eaten, Dr Grumett recommends an ethical approach:

"The animal should be raised well. It should be acknowledged in how they are treated - they are gifts from God.

"And when they are killed, that should be done with the absolute minimum pain and suffering possible," he added.

'Undue suffering'

But other academics take a more radical stance. One of the speakers at the Oxford conference, Corinne Painter from Washtenaw Community College, will be delivering a lecture called: Why don't most Christians practise what they preach?

Dr Painter thinks Christians do have a responsibility to abstain from eating meat and thinks they should follow a vegan diet. She told the BBC:

"Christians have a moral duty to eat food that is not the result of the undue suffering, unjust treatment, or human-induced premature death of sentient beings, who are clearly interested in avoiding suffering and in preserving their lives, which God explicitly stated are valuable and good."

Despite this interpretation of the Scriptures, the majority of Christians in the UK are meat-eaters.

A spokesperson from the Church of England explained there are three distinct positions taken as to whether meat should be on the menu. Some people abstain from eating meat for ethical reasons; some abstain as they believe that is the message in the Bible.

But it is safe to believe, they explained, that the view held by the majority is:

"That there are no theological objections to eating meat since God has given humanity dominion over the rest of the created order.

"Meat eating is assumed throughout the Bible to be both normal and good."

Medieval vegetarians

Conflicting interpretations aside, there is a long history of abstaining from meat within Christianity. During medieval times there was a complicated system of feasts and fasts. Meat could be eaten on some days, but not on others.

Monks and nuns would abstain, as it was thought to lead to lustful thoughts, a real challenge when trying to lead a monastic life. They would, however, eat fish. Dr Grumett sees a modern day link with the past:

"You could see the medieval monks and nuns as the forerunners of modern vegetarians in the sense that they had a higher more rigorous discipline of diet that they had chosen as part of the life they wanted to lead."

And there are examples of vegetarianism within Christianity in more recent times too. The now secular Vegetarian Society started life within the Bible Christian Church in the mid-1800s.

The movement did not spread among congregations, but the society holds the distinction of being the oldest vegetarian organisation in the world.

Dr Grumett thinks the movement to abstain from eating meat did not take hold in the wider Christian Church because of the founder Reverend Cowherd's own eccentricities:

"Cowherd based [the creed] on some quite odd interpretations of the Bible. So for instance he thought the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were actually animal skins with fruit and vegetables inside."

'Going veggie'

In the general populace, around 2% of the UK follow a vegetarian diet. Although there are no official stats for Christian vegetarians or vegans, they are represented by societies and authoritative voices.

The Christian Vegetarian Association has been active in the UK since 2004 and, as stated in its manifesto, believes in "promoting a way of life that represents good Christian stewardship and is consistent with belief in the God who created, affirmed, and will redeem all creatures."

Theologian at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Reverend Andrew Linzey believes the Bible's message is clear. He told the BBC:

"People always remember that we are given dominion over animals in Genesis chapter one, but they forget that two verses later we are given a vegetarian diet."

Prof Linzey refers to Genesis 1.29, which says God gave mankind "every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food."

Prof Linzey said: "The important point is that the original diet given by the Creator is vegetarian. Although we live in a world that is fallen and alienated, we should try to at least approximate God's will by going veggie.

"Animals have their own lives given by God, their own value and dignity. Where we see meat, we should be seeing a sentient creature loved by God," he added.

But Dr Grumett believes it is possible to be a Christian and a meat-eater, but that it is important to be responsible for how your food is sourced, keeping in mind moderation, wise stewardship and compassion:

"Vegetarianism is not a requirement of Christianity, but it is how some Christians and Christian groups have felt they have been called to live out their Christian lives."

The Church of England recognises this is a debate that will remain lively, whether Christians choose to abstain from eating meat for theological or ethical reasons, or decide to remain within the majority.