In the Church of England’s Questions Notice Paper 1 for the General Synod in February 2023, Professor Lynn Nichol asked the Chair of the House of Bishops:
“Q97 In the light of a recently published study by Cambridge University indicating that not eating meat on one day a week could ‘bring about a major reduction in global carbon emissions’, would the House of Bishops in line with the Church of England’s commitment to Carbon Net Zero by 2030 commend to the Church and Nation the practice of committing to Meat-free Friday this Lent?”
The Bishop of Norwich responded that he was very happy to commend the practice of having a meat-free Friday during Lent, and proposed that this might be best promulgated through the Environmental Working Group, under his chairmanship, “since the EWG has good links to dioceses through the network of Diocesan Environmental Officers and can locate the proposal within the wider context of the Church’s multi-faceted strategy for reaching Net Zero Carbon”.
Reporting by the media
Professor Nichol’s question addresses two distinct issues – the Church’s programme to net zero by 2030, and the adoption of meat-free Fridays during Lent. However, these have been conflated in a number of media reports; on 15 February 2023, the Religion Media Centre reported “the Times and Telegraph have picked up a story from the CofE general synod, advocating eating fish on Fridays during Lent as part of the campaign to reach net zero“.
Net Zero Carbon by 2030
It is evident from the boundary conditions specified within the RouteMap to Net Zero Carbon by 2030 [Page 7] that adoption of a Friday abstinence will not impact on the Church’s programme of reducing its carbon emissions. The “lifestyle issues” of “staff and clergy family lifestyles” and “Church Members’ emissions” do not fall within the scope of the target for 2030, (and possibly thereafter). It is therefore incorrect to assert that meat-free Fridays will contribute to the achievement of this 2030 target, although the initiative has the potential to make a significant contribution to emissions outwith the current scope for 2030, such as “commuting” and “congregation travel”.
Meat-free Fridays in Lent
It is known that reductions in meat consumption, particularly beef, result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is difficult to quantify how reductions in meat eating could be translated in terms of the Church’s emissions given the number of variables involved – type of meat, farming method, processing, packaging and transportation.
Nevertheless, as the Bishop of Norwich comments:
“Whether that’s on a Friday, which is traditional in the Church, or joining in with ‘meat-free Monday’, it’s a positive step we can take for our spiritual health, our physical health, and the health of the planet. And when we do eat meat, find out more about the factors that can increase carbon impacts, and choose more local sustainable sources”.
The meat-free initiative will now be promulgated through the Environmental Working Group “within the wider context of the Church’s multi-faceted strategy for reaching Net Zero Carbon”.
The report by Kaya Burgess in The Times (“Give up Friday meat for Lent to help planet, bishop urges” The Times, 14 February 2023, page 21) promoted the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Revd Graham Usher, to be chair of the House of Bishops – not just the C of E Environmental Working Group. A prescient mistake, perhaps, looking ahead to who might be the next Archbishop of Canterbury?
Many Orthodox keep to a meat-free diet for more-or-less the whole of lent, and for a longer fast during advent. They don’t do this to lose weight. They don’t do it for their health. They don’t do it out of a sense of legalistic obligation either. And they certainly don’t do it to save the planet.