Animals, God and Human convenience

Animals, God …and Human convenience.


A sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church, Ewell, Surrey on Sunday 6th July [Trinity 3]


Revd Professor Martin Henig


Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  [Matthew 11:29]


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen


Listen to politicians talking any day and you will hear a range of promises  concerning human ‘progress’, which are designed to appeal to the voters, that is to us. Progress consist in more of everything, more houses, more schools, more hospitals, more roads, more railways, more raw materials, more electricity, all for us human beings. And such promises are nothing new, for the people of  Biblical times, and of other times have  also wanted more of everything, water, food and land.


Where does God, the Creator of all, stand in this selfish desire of one species, or indeed one part of that one species to claim ownership of the world at the expense of others humans and other animals? Listen to the words of  Jesus; they are not about productivity, they are not about material progress, they are about rest, they are about peace, they are above all about love. However, if we are to appreciate the totality of God’s love we must ask ourselves some very hard questions. Are we, as a Church, complicit in depriving our fellow creatures of their rightful inheritance? Are we stealing the world from God, the source of all Wisdom and of all life, and are we consequently in danger of leaving ourselves bereft and alone, having exhausted the finite resources of the earth?


We can begin with Creation. For this purpose, it does not really matter whether our starting point is the long drama played out over eons revealed to us by the researches of Darwin and his many successors,[1] or the poetic myth of the first chapter of Genesis. We were created by God alongside all other beings, every one  of which has particular needs in order to live.  God knows this and, in Genesis at least, he is satisfied that this Creation is ‘very good’ The ecosystem in which we live is predicated on animal life feeding on plants or on other animals and that of course poses difficult questions about God’s relationship to a world in which there is inherent violence; they are best answered by seeing that God is not an outsider in the universe looking in, but deeply involved in the suffering of the  creation he surely came to redeem. For the Father in heaven and Jesus hanging on the Cross  are One. God, present in Jesus, did not put himself first but rather ‘emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’.[2]


Most human beings, given the chance, invariably place themselves first, or rather dominant human beings invariably place themselves first. So-called ‘development’ is virtually always at the expense of other living beings. Every building erected, every road built, every mine sunk is to the detriment of the creatures living there, living that is in God’s acre, not ours. Sometimes (as in the Amazon rain forest) these creatures may be other humans, hunter-gatherers who live off  the few small animals they hunt and the fruit they gather without destroying their environment. But the greed of  developed societies demands more, and so it drives them out.


Nor do humans only blight the natural world. Domesticated animals readily become mere commodities to be exploited most often in factory farms. Chickens are no longer the social birds scratching around the farmyard but a cheap product to be consumed without thought in fast-food outlets. The same of course goes for cattle, pigs and sheep which so often lead miserable lives in cramped conditions, or are transported in horrendous conditions to distant slaughterhouses. We believe in a compassionate God but far too often we lack the compassion and intellectual toughness  ourselves to recognise the grossness of such evil inflicted on our sisters and brothers in creation. Until we get this right, until we align ourselves with Our Lord who tells us that God knows every sparrow brought down by the fowler, how can we live at peace as Christians?[3]


All our thoughts and actions are related. If  we are cruel to animals there is the overwhelming probability amounting to near certainty that we will be desensitised and cruel to our fellow humans too. This has been shown in for example cases where animal abuse has led to child abuse. Killing animals merely for sport, for example bear and badger baiting, cock-fighting; bull-fighting, fox-hunting and the like inevitably blunt compassionate impulses. Even Thomas Aquinas who, nurtured on the pagan Greek philosopher,Aristotle, denied reason to animals was conscious of this link.[4] More positively, on the other hand, saints such as St Basil the Great and St Francis who were conscious of God in all creation, expressed that love in kindness to animals.


As Christians, our entire faith is predicated on the belief that ‘God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God’.[5]  We worship God through that love as revealed in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and I am certain  that we have to make a far greater effort to incorporate animals and animal rights into our faith just as we have already espoused humans and human rights. Over the centuries some Christians of undoubted stature have certainly done so, including amongst others  the Blessed John Henry Newman and much more recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu.[6] Both have seen this as a matter of simple justice, related closely to the ministry, and to the passion and death of  our Lord, who died for us. But distressingly, most often such concerns are not made a priority, as is readily apparent from the dire lack of coverage of such issues in the Church Times or the mission literature put out by dioceses.


I am aware that, just as in other areas of contested morality, there will be differences of opinion. Some Christians are pacifists who believe that warfare is always wrong; others will espouse Just War theory. So some Christians might well take the line taken by Compassion in World Farming which would support animal husbandry and exploitation of animals under the most humane conditions possible, seeing them at all times as creatures not objects. Others who have become vegetarians for moral reasons query our very right to use other creatures as food, for though as already stated many creatures in creation are carnivores, humans are omnivores with the possibility of choice as to what to eat in many but not all environments. What is always indefensible, however, is to treat other creatures merely as commodity; taking a moral stance on that in itself is likely to put one at variance with a purely materialist and unfeeling culture.


Christians are already espousing some important moral causes such as Fairtrade, and in consequence most churches will only serve Fairtrade coffee for example. Such campaigns for justice have to be extended into the realm of animal welfare. It should be equally indefensible for churches to serve factory farmed chicken or sausage rolls where the pigs are reared in intensive units, and indeed some of us would go very much further than that.[7] The Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals proclaims that its aim is ‘putting animals on the agenda of the Christian Church’ and certainly for me it is my main area of mission, an area that defines a faith in which God has a very special care for the  suffering and the oppressed because he was oppressed and suffered for the creation he loves.[8]


Apart from the question of animals as food, there is the contentious question of experimenting on animals. In the 19th century much of the opposition to vivisection in fact came from theologians (including Newman) and although, with honourable exceptions, the Church has been more silent recently, the question remains : ‘By what right is it legitimate to experiment on another creature without that creature’s consent?’ The utilitarian answer, that it may bring about a greater good will not serve, because utilitarianism can never be a Christian doctrine unless one is prepared to align  oneself  with  Caiphas ‘that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’.[9]



Animal Ethics and animal theology are beginning to make an impact, in part  because of an enhanced understanding of animal psychology and the secret lives of animals as a result of observation of animals both domestic and wild. We now appreciate that many creatures including the Great Apes and monkeys, dolphins and whales, elephants, pigs  and of course dogs amongst others are not only intelligent but have complex emotional lives, and there is some evidence of  cognition and self awareness in a vast range of other creatures including rodents, reptiles, fish and even octopi .[10] Philosophers and theologians are beginning to come to terms with what science is telling  us.[11] And, as a consequence, at last academic institutions are springing up in several countries which bring together philosophers, theologians and ethicists as well as scientists and those involved with animal welfare, most notably The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics founded by the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest who has pioneered these concerns.



Finally, and you might think not before time, that leads into the final part of my sermon what might seem to be a safe, non-controversial and even cosy aspect of  our relationship with animals, concerned as it is with companion animals sometimes casually (but wrongly) called pets. Animal blessing services are held in many churches, often as children’s services because it is assumed that children will be especially sensitive to animals; the corollary is that adults, grown ups, have in some way grown out of  such gentle passions. If that is really true, we should be very worried in the light of the Gospel, indeed in the light of  Jesus’ own words: ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’.[12] What we are truly about at any animal service is affirming that we are all, creatures of the same God-incidentally the title of one of Andrew Linzey’s books, [13]and so inevitably we are in active relationship with each other.


That is true of all animals living all around us; I am awoken each morning by a colony of sparrows chirping outside my window, and when I wake I bless them. I cannot think of a more profoundly serious way of beginning the day because in my blessing I am praising God, and indeed one of the canticles set for Morning Prayer is the Benedicite or ‘Song of the three Hebrews’ in which the whole of creation praises the Lord. But we have a very special relationship  with  the animals which share our homes and are part of the family, whether they are stick insects, rabbits or dogs and cats  and we owe them a particular duty of care. Fortunately most people have never wholly  lost the wisdom of childhood and I have seen this again and again in the close relationships which grow up and persist between human and dog, human and cat, human and horse despite all the pressures, temptations and distractions of the world. However even here there are pitfalls: The RSPCA and Animal Sanctuaries throughout Britain and beyond will tell heart-wrenching stories of companion animals mistreated and abandoned, in each and every case implying a relationship broken, a trust betrayed. We are in the same territory, often literally so, of  children or marriage partners battered and rejected by those entrusted with a duty of care.[14]


But where there is true bonding, where we are truly in relationship, we will hopefully be led  back to a far more integrated view of God in nature, so that we may truly love as sisters and brothers not just our friend Fido, our friend Puss and trusty Dobin, but the many cattle, pigs and poultry in the farms and the creatures of the woods and fields whose homes have been desecrated by the hand of man. For on the last day, each and every one of us  will be held responsible for how we have treated others, whether humans or other animals, as stewards of the ‘Lord of heaven and earth’, as God was addressed by Jesus, his Living Word, in today’s Gospel.[15]



+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen





[1] E.A.Johnson, Ask the beasts. Darwin and the God of love (London 2014)

[2] Philippians 2:7

[3] Matt.10:29; Luke 12:6

[4] Cf A.Linzey (ed), The link between animal abuse and human violence (Eastbourne 2009)

[5] 1 John 4:16

[6] J.Newman, sermon preached on Good Friday 1842 in St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Parochial and plain sermons VII (London and New York 1875); D.Tutu, ‘Extending Justice and Compassion’, in A.Linzey (ed), The global guide to animal protection (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield 2013),xv. An excellent overview of Christian attitudes to animals is to be found in Deborah M.Jones, The school of compassion. A Roman Catholic theology of animals (Leominster 2009)

[7] P.Lymbery and I.Oakeshot, Farmageddon. The true cost of cheap meat (London  2014)

[8] There are of course other Christian bodies with similar interests, for example Catholic Concern for Animals and Quaker Concern for Animals and an Ecumenical Retreat is held each year somewhere in Britain. In addition there are societies attached to other faith traditions, and an inter-faith alliance is in the process of being launched

[9] John 11:50

[10] J. Balcombe, Second nature. The inner lives of animals (New York 2010)

[11] R, Bauckham,Bible and ecology. Rediscovering the community of creation (London 2010); idem, Living with other creatures. Green exegesis and theology (Milton Keynes 2012).Also cf M.Barker, Creation. A Biblical vision for the environment(London and New York 2010)

[12] Mark 10:15 and generally vv 13-16

[13] A.Linzey, Creatures of the same God. Explorations in animal theology(Winchester 2007)

[14] Linzey (ed), The link between animal abuse and human violence[see note 4]

[15] Matthew 11:16-19,25-30