The Bishops’ Instruction on Fasting and Abstinence

I happen to have in my possession a couple of copies of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Kalendar (as it was called in those days) from the 1990s. I’m interested that they include a section called “A Summary of the Bishops’ Instruction on Fasting and Abstinence”

To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t published anywhere now but I don’t think that I’m aware that it has ever been changed or withdrawn.

Here’s what it says:


Fasting: A reduction in the quantity of food and drink consumed during the day.

Abstinence: Abstaining from some particular kind of food – traditionally meat.

Note. The Bishops consider that changing circumstances and social habits necessitate adjustments from time to time in the practise of these disciplines. Present circusmstances tent to make abstinence from meat unreal, but this ought not to mean that Fasting and Abstinence should cease to be practised.


i.   That Fasting be observed by partaking of only one solid meal in the day; other meals to be of a light character.

ii.  That Abstinence be observed by abstaining from some form of food or drink which is normally enjoyed. It is to be noted that for this purpose tobacco and sweets may be considered as forms of food.

iii. Ash Wednesday and good Friday are to be regarded by members of the Church as of obligation; and as days of Fasting and Abstinence.

iv.  That other days ought to be observed in a spirit of voluntary devotion. These are:
Days of Fasting:
The Vigils of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun.
The Fridays in the four Ember Season.
One of the Rogation Days.

Days of Abstinence:
All other Fridays throughout the year, except Christmas Day, Epiphany and the Fridays in the Octaves of Christmas, Easter and the Ascension of our Lord.

v.  The whole of Lent, except the Sundays, is a time for special self-denial, which should find expression in Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. We encourage all members of the Church to make their own rule of general self-discipline to be observed throughout this season. Such a rule would include additional time for prayer and Bible reading, greater frequency in receiving Holy Communion, and increased giving to the service of Christ by spending less on self.

I’d be interested to know what people think of these, looking at them now.

You can see clearly that circumstances were changing from a time when the church laid down rules to a time when the bishops were trying to get people to make their own decisions about religious devotions.

Is it helpful to see these guidelines? Have we got far enough away from the old rule-based religion to find it helpful to have some guidelines to think about? I’ve no doubt that some people still keep to these guidelines because it was the way that they were taught the faith. However, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone ever mention them to me since I joined the church over 20 years ago.

Does our consciousness of the way others fast through greater awareness of the Muslim faith make us more willing or less willing to have a go nowadays? Does the emergence of the 5:2 diet make us want to go back to look at our spiritual practises afresh?

Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    I think it is helpful – but in our time, abstaining from meat is easy – not particularly a hardship. So much really good veggie food around.

    What also needs said, sadly, is that any practice which makes living a good useful life or showing love to others, or damages your own health is a no no.

    But fasting on Christmas Eve? Far too far out of step with today’s cultural norms.

  2. The Lenten regulations of the (RC) Archdiocese of Dublin used to include the immortal phrase, ‘custom sanctions the use of an egg’.

    More seriously, though, I see little point in imposing rules about the kind of frugal, focussed living that should be characteristic of Christians all the year round.

    • Rosemary Hannah says

      The thing is – ‘we do it all, all the time’ soon becomes ‘we hit a kind of median’. People should rejoice, feast, fast, mourn. We are most helped, I think, when we do these things of different occasions. There is a time to remember we are dust with limited responsibilities and abilities. There is a time to remember the suffering we bring to the world. Another time to remember the utter joy of rebirth. Trying to get them all into one day is beyond our abilities.

  3. Mary Wallace says

    Its a very good reminder of what we should or could do, however, perhaps we should concentrate on the doing rather than the not doing, at Holy Trinity Haddington we are trying something different by following the booklet “Love Life Live Lent” – “Be the change”, with a different small task every day in the hope that after 40 days those things will become a habit and our community a better place for it.

  4. I’m a U.S. Episcopalian. And I belong (vestryman, even!) at the second oldest black Episcopal church in the U.S. –I hear from old members and those that were raised in the Caribbean that none of these edicts are followed or even explained anymore-in our church or the wider church. I’m 49 and I lament the same thing.

    There is no Benediction service at our parish any longer. It was done away with when they were short of staff in the 90’s–although they had an awful lot of staff. People I guess weren’t attending the evening service so it was excised. I’m sorry but showing up on a Sunday for a 1.5 hour service is not enough. And doing ‘good works’ in the world is not either. Where is the discipline? Where is the deep teaching and appreciation for our faith?

    Thanks for posting this, culturally I am very liberal and theologically but liturgically there must be some refusal to stop GUTTING the essence of Christianity. I don’t think most people at our parish understand why the choir genuflects at the St. Elizabeth chapel when they recess out of the church! It’s because the HOST is there. Christ in that little box. Show some respect!

  5. Thomas Rees says

    Ah – Benediction! I used to drive 30 miles to serve as an acolyte on Thursday afternoons, put on a cassock and surplice, and take charge of the thurible. There were rules (rubrics?) about how many times to swing it, but I forget – that was 40 years ago! It was about honouring what Donald Trump calls “the little cracker” and we call the Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And when the Bishop of Los Angeles showed up…

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