'Done in discipline, and with liberty': Jeremy Taylor against a law of Lenten fasting

This (obviously wise and sensible) tweet from a Roman Catholic bishop in the state of Texas, issued amidst the crisis afflicting that state, is quite striking from an Anglican perspective.  The various iterations of the Book of Common Prayer do, of course, set before us the discipline of fasting and abstinence during Lent.  In 1662 the 'Forty Days of Lent' are 'Days of Fasting, or Abstinence'.  In TEC's BCP 1979, the days of Lent are 'observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial', while in the CofI BCP 2004 they are 'Days of Discipline and Self-denial'.

None of this, however, amounts to a 'law of Lenten abstinence'.  While parliamentary statute and royal proclamations required Lenten observance from the reign of Edward VI to that of Charles II, the 1604 Canons imposed no duty or law of fasting, and no ecclesiastical sanction for non-observance, beyond requiring clergy to announce the approach of fast days during public worship:

Every Parson, Vicar or Curate shall in his several Charge declare to the People every Sunday, at the time appointed in the Communion-Book, whether there be any Holy-days, or Fasting-days the Week following.

This was no more than was required by the BCP 1559:

the Curate shall declare unto the people, whether there be anye holy dayes or fastynge dayes the weke folowyn.

The current Canons of the Church of England maintain this duty, while also noting that 'fasting or abstinence' during Lent 'ought specially to be observed'.  Again, however, this is not defined as 'law', and no canon places such an obligation upon laity or clergy.  It is this which makes the above Tweet sound particularly foreign to Anglican ears.  There is no 'law of Lenten abstinence' in Anglican pastoral practice and, correspondingly, there is no role for ecclesiastical authority releasing us from such 'law'.  

Jeremy Taylor's discussion of the Lenten fast in Ductor dubitantium provides an insight into the pastoral ethos which underpins this understanding, rejecting the Lenten fast as required by divine or apostolic precept:

But S. Chrysostom says the same thing, and more pertinently and applied to this matter of fasting: 'He doth not say his fast is to be imitated, although he might propound those forty days of his: But, Learn of me, for I am meek and humble in heart: yea rather contrarily, when he sent the Apostles to preach the Gospel, he did not say, Fast, but, Eat whatsoever is set before you'. Now this argument of our Blessed Lord's example being remov'd, and it being certain that from his example to conclude a Divine precept in such extraordinaries and external actions is the worst argument of the world, and it being expressly affirmed by S. Chrysostom that Christ did not in his fasting propound himself as imitable by us ...

The result of this discourse is this, That the Apostles did not lay a yoke upon the Disciples neck in the matter of fasting, much less in the forty days fast of Lent; that as in relation to the Apostles, the Conscience is at liberty ...

The laws of religion should be, like the yoke of Christ, light and easy, fitted to the infirmities and capacities of all men ...

It is against the law of charity, and therefore ought not to be a law of the Church; that men be tied for forty days together to keep from their usual diet, not to be temperate, but to be vex'd and rul'd, this I say is uncharitable, and therefore unlawful ...

Fasting is very good to some purposes, at some times, and to some persons: but laws regard that quod plerumque est, and therefore in the matter of a periodical and long continued fast cannot but be uncharitable and unreasonable: and therefore when there is cause for such injunctions, they are to be press'd with argument and exhortation, not by Empire and necessity. For supposing the law otherwise without objection, yet he that fasts against his will, does not serve God; and therefore externally to be forc'd to do it, is not a lawful exercise of an Ecclesiastical power (II.3.4).

Taylor asserts that the discipline of Lent should not be a requirement of ecclesiastical law, and certainly not necessary to salvation.  Imposing it as law fails to recognise the variety of circumstances which individuals face, with the result of the various dispensations being 'the conscience is so certainly made restless'.  In words which reveal much of Taylor's vision of the spiritual life, he contends that the 'law of fasting can never be so good as the peace which it disturbs'.  

While 'ecclesiastical law' should not, cannot, impose a Lenten fast, fasting and abstinence should be 'press'd with argument and exhortation'.  This is evident from Taylor's writing and preaching.  In a Golden Grove sermon he challenged the excuses given for not fasting:

In the first changes and weak progresses of our spiritual life, we find a long weakness upon us, because we are long before we begin, and the flesh was powerful and its habits strong, and it will mingle indirect pretences with all the actions of the spirit; If we mean to pray, the flesh thrusts in thoughts of the world; and our tongue speaks one thing and our heart means another; and we are hardly brought to say our prayers, or to undertake a fasting day, or to celebrate a Communion: and if we remember that all these are holy actions, and that we have many opportunities of doing them all, and yet doe them very seldom and then very coldly ... The spirit is abated and interrupted by the flesh, because the flesh pretends it is not able to do those ministries which are appointed in order to Religion; we are not able to fast, or if we watch, it breeds gouts and catarrhs.

Likewise, the Rules and Advices to his clergy pointed to the importance of exhortation to fasting:

Let the people be exhorted to keep Fasting days ... according to their respective capacities; so it be done without burden to them, and without becoming a snare; that is, that upon the account of Religion, and holy desires to please God ... they give but little Testimony of Repentance and Mortification, who never fast.

In Holy Living, while cautioning that 'All fasting is to be used with prudence and charity; for there is no end to which fasting serves but may be obtained by other instruments; and, therefore, it must at no hand be made an instrument of scruple', Taylor nevertheless emphasises that 'it hath been practised by all ages of the church', and articulates a wise and warm spirituality of fasting:

All fasting, for whatever end it be undertaken, must be done without any opinion of the necessity of the thing itself, without censuring others, with all humility, in order to the proper end; and just as a man takes physic, of which no man hath reason to be proud, and no man thinks it necessary, but because he is in sickness, or in danger and disposition to it.

All of this is suggestive of an ethos of Anglican moral and practical theology famously identified by Kenneth Kirk:

The only successors of St. Thomas who can be fairly said to carry out his ideal of combining the principle of authority with that of freedom are the little group of Anglican divines of the seventeenth century - Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, Sanderson, Hall, and their fellows.

We might certainly want to question Kirk's summary of Thomas, but we can see in Taylor's approach to fasting that marriage of authority and freedom which was be characteristic of Anglican pastoral practice. Authority in setting forth the call, by means of exhortation, to Lenten abstinence and self-denial; freedom in avoiding the dangers of the use of 'ecclesiastical law' to impose it, instead calling for a response from the individual in the exercise of their 'Christian liberty', 'for fasting is not to be commended as a duty, but as an instrument'.  Or as Taylor states, in words which are an apt summary of Kirk's 'combining the principle of authority with that of freedom', 'done in discipline, and with liberty' (Ductor dubitantium, II.3.4).


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