Tuesday, February 12, 2002


There are various ways of ascertaining the attitude and teaching of the English Reformers of the sixteenth & centuries to ABSTINENCE & FASTING.

One way is to look at The Book of Common Prayer (1662) and note (a) the "Table of the Vigils, Fasts and Days of Abstinence" where the days and periods of fasting are listed; (b) the references to fasting in the Collects, Epistles & Gospels for Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent, and (c) the reference to fasting as preparation for Baptism in 'The Order of Baptism for those of Riper Years'.

Another way is to read the various Acts of Parliament and Episcopal directions in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I on this subject, where abstinence from meat is enjoined and fasting is required during Lent and at other times.

Yet another way is to read chapter 72 of Book V in the classic text, The Ecclesiastical Polity, of Richard Hooker where the duty of fasting is explained and the common agreements between Anglicans and Puritans on the duty of fasting are noted.

Here we shall take the simple method of noting the contents of the Homily on Good Works & Fasting, which is number 4 in the Second Book of Homilies that is attached to The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. It comes from the early part of the reign of Elizabeth 1 and has the advantage of being part of the public doctrine of the Church of England.

If it has a primary purpose that is to provide a biblical foundation for the supporting of public fasts called by the Sovereign or by the Church in the face of a national emergency or tragedy. These were over and above the specific days recommended for fasting by the Formularies and Canon Law of the Church of England. Thus the Homily is not specifically addressed to fasting within the Church Year - for that we have to look to The Book of Common Prayer. However, it does deal with individual fasting and thus obviously relates indirectly to the fasts within the Church Year in terms of how they are to be approached.

Fasting is presented in the Homily as a good work before God. Yet it is not a good work that earns or achieves God's salvation, but a good work that is the fruit of salvation, a sign of a soul that is conscious of its great sin, is repentant and desires to love God and seek his will and glory.

There are two kinds of fasts, the public fast when a whole people are called by public authority to join together to seek the face of the LORD for his blessing upon a nation, and a private fast when an individual person chooses to wait upon the LORD for a particular purpose as he works out his own salvation in fear and trembling. Examples of such are provided from both the Old and the New Testaments.

It is important to note that there is both an outward and an inward dimension to all fasting.

The outward fast relates to the body and is "an abstinence from meat, drink, and all natural food, yea from all delicious pleasures and worldly delectations." A normal day's fast is said to be an abstaining from all food and drink from dawn until after Evening Prayer.

The inward fast relates to the heart, mind and will and pertains to their sanctification.

Of the two the inward is the most important for God looks upon and into the heart of man where the truth about him resides.

Fasting to be profitable to those who fast and to be accepted of God. must be directed to three basic ends.

"The first is to chastise the flesh that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought into subjection to the spirit.The second that the spirit be more fervent and earnest in prayer.The third that our fast be a testimony and witness with us before God of our humble submission to his high Majesty, when we confess and acknowledge our sins unto him, and are inwardly touched with sorrowfulness of heart, bewailing the same in the affliction of our bodies."

We may add that in healthy people when the stomach is empty the blood system is the more able to provide oxygen and thus energy to the rest of the body, especially to the brain and nervous system. Thus the person who fasts is able to think clearer and to pray the more earnestly. And in the subduing of the desires of the flesh for food and drink there is a spiritual victory which assists the commitment to meditation, self-examination and prayer.

Let us all begin holy Lent on Ash Wednesday with a true fast, both outward and inward in scope, for the glory of God and the salvation of our souls.


The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Vice-President and Emissary at Large of The Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.
Shrove Monday [ a day for shriving and being shriven by the faithful people of God] 2002.

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