A time for fasting?


Andy Hawes 


One thing I learned from the excellent Prayer Book Society Conference talks (available online) was that the Church of England, or to be exact Parliament, did not order any national days of fasting and prayer after the epidemics of the 1850’s. In later times during other emergencies, particularly the two world wars, there were national days of prayer sponsored by all the major churches, but fasting was forgotten.

Our fore -runners in the Faith would have struggled to understand this omission. Certainly the Apostolic church would, and Jesus is probably wondering what has happened in response to his command ‘fast and pray’. In the ministry of Jesus we see a regular pattern of fasts, not least the forty-day fast in the wilderness. The Acts of the Apostles’ mission was powered by openness to the Holy Spirit enabled by prayer and fasting. 

There is still a widespread practice of fasting before Holy Communion. In my experience that has been chipped away to the point where people refrain from eating an hour before the time of reception, not even an hour before the Mass begins! One of the reasons for the long tradition of eight o’clock communion services in the Church of England was to enable a fasting communion.

I would guess the last time most readers were urged to fast and pray was last Lent. Fasting with prayer should be part of our rule of life.  Wednesdays and Fridays are stipulated as Fast Days in the Book of Common Prayer in accordance with long established practice of the Catholic Church. Guidance to the Anglicans of the seventeenth century explained that fasting meant to limit eating to one simple meal a day. In any event fasting at that time was restricted to people between the ages of sixteen and sixty.

What is needed is some clear and authoritative teaching and guidance within the Society to encourage the practice of fasting with prayer. In my experience some approaches to fasting are risible. I once asked an Archdeacon and a Bishop what their Lenten Fast was; one replied ‘ I’ve given up spirits!’ (The alcoholic type) and the Bishop said “I am not having pudding at lunch.’ It was a little cheeky of me to ask, as fasting should be a private and hidden discipline as Jesus taught (Matthew 6:16), nevertheless this fairly typical.

The purpose of fasting is to overcome our confusion of needs. We think we need so much: so much to eat or drink, (‘I really needed that’ we might say), so much sleep, so much recreation of different kinds. We cover up and confuse our fundamental need for God’s love and mercy. Fussing about so many things that are necessary also distracts from the needs of those around us. Fasting opens up a hunger for the things that last forever. 

Effective fasting directs our inner life away from the material and opens up a deeper consciousness of the spiritual. Fasting tests and trains the will to keep looking to God with a deeper experience of dependence. It opens up an experience of poverty, exposing our weaknesses and a reliance on God’s grace. This  grace is the source of all true prayer of any kind.