CCA Ecumenical Retreat Spring 2014 – Wales

The Naturalist at Prayer: a reflection on Christian love and our relations with the Natural World.

Revd. Professor Martin Henig



This is very much a personal view of  what our  relationship with  nature, the plants around us as well as all the animals, might be. As human beings we tend to see nature as external to us, as being somehow out there, that is outside our houses, outside us. We view it through the window or on our television screens. On the contrary, I try to see myself  as simply part of nature, an animal created by God with all the other creatures. Insofar  as my perceptions as homo sapiens might be different from that of, say, a badger, this is simply the result of  development of  consciousness and hopefully too of a conscience, which tells me that we are affecting nature (including other humans) shockingly badly : the rest of creation suffers as a result of human arrogance in a horrendous way. On a macro level we are causing catastrophic climate change by cutting down and burning the rain forests and burning the fossilised carboniferous forests beneath our feet.[1]


The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away…

The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.[2]


And of course as the most dangerous, perhaps the only truly dangerous, animal in the world, humans are the main threat to wildlife both directly and indirectly, well publicised from the hunting of whales, the clubbing of baby seals, the poaching of rhinos, and polluting and overfishing the seas.  Since the Neolithic we have hacked down the forests and indeed Craig Llwyd above Noddfa, Penmanmawr where this retreat takes place, stone axes were mined, roughed out and exported and doubtless employed to reshape the wilderness. At the same time humans domesticated certain animals in order to use and abuse them, and now we do so on an industrial scale in factory farms, and by discarding   any remaining moral sense that lingers within our species our scientists  experiments on living animals in laboratories, even, perhaps especially, in universities which invoke the name of the Living God. By so doing we strike Heaven in the face and league ourselves with the demonic powers of destruction.  It will be recalled that there was vigorous opposition to vivisection from some of the greatest theological minds in the 19th century, amongst them the Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, but now the Church appears to have fallen silent on such matters.

In this talk I want to focus on more intimate relations with nature, how we might begin to reconnect with other creatures whom St Francis saw as his sisters and brothers. Francis was not a worshipper of nature and nor am I. What bound him to a life which embraced other creatures in this way, was his Creation theology, an awareness that we are all in an intimate relationship with Christ. Francis did not have a pet or companion animal and he discouraged his friars from doing so. Nor do I keep any animal , though I have to admit I possessed tanks of stick insects, fish, newts and lizards when I was a boy. The problem here is that one is setting up an unequal relationship and confining a creature against its will to its almost inevitable detriment. Looking back I feel I was little better than a jailer.

A companion animal is notionally a different matter and I realise I should tread rather gently here. Cats look after themselves, but I am very worried that the population of these small carnivores is very grossly higher than it would be in wild nature with, in consequence,  a deleterious effect on the bird, field mice and vole population. Moreover cats are generally fed on meat or fish, which is derived from other animals most often raised on factory farms or in the case of marine creatures with fish and crustacean which have been captured in great drag nets from the Ocean . Dogs which on the whole do not decimate the wild-life population and do not  actually require  a meat diet, are perhaps another matter, and I have made friends with countless dogs in the course of my life.

So I believe in an entirely equal relationship between myself and another, whether that ‘other’  is the wise churchwarden of  Binsey church (where I serve as Assistant Priest) , who happens to be my best friend, or the squirrel which took up his winter lodging on the windowsill of my house. With regard to the latter, I remember one morning looking out at him and he came out of his dray to look just as quizzically at me. Then there are the sparrows which nest in the ivy and use the garden bushes as their ‘hanging out’ perches. They seem to have a social life every bit as complex as mine and my input is simply to put out grain for them in winter and to pray for them. Of course there are differences between relationships within our own species and those with members of other species. We should avoid those generic ‘animal friendships’ between say cat and pigeon, but all life deserves respect.

I have never succumbed  to a sentimental view of nature and am conscious of the ruthless dynamic often manifest behind it. Throughout evolution predation has been absolutely central to the natural cycle, and a healthy habitat will have a wide range of plant species and a delicate balance between herbivores and carnivores. Human beings when they were entirely dependant on the natural round, were  aware of this especially in  Palaeolithic times, as the wall paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne and Altamira in Northern Spain testify, and amongst hunter-gather tribes in later times, for instance in the Amazon rainforest.  From the Neolithic and increasingly as human society has lost real contact with nature the wild has become ever more vulnerable to greedy exploitation.

Christianity with its stress on creation and its redemption should be attempting to reintegrate us with the rest of creation. Indeed it is clear that some of the Desert Fathers and the insular saints of our own land (for example St Cuthbert in Lindisfarne and the Farnes and St Godric at Finchale ) did so. And of course there are recent poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins for whom ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’. In this poem, God’s Grandeur we find the perceptive line: ‘the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.[3]

Perhaps it is not surprising that the vast preponderance of  theological discourse is centred on humans alone, and that while the shelves of theological departments in bookshops have sections on every variety of  religious life, there is only a scatter of books on our relations to nature. There are of course  theologians who have explored the place of animals in creation and the treatment of animals by humans in the forefront  of their mission  notably Andrew Linzey , an outstanding pioneer and the author of many books on the subject, Richard Bauckham  and Deborah Jones.[4] However they are in a minority, and when in the Anglican Church the Archbishop of Canterbury does not even lend his name as a patron of the RSPCA we are in a sorry state, though of course other Anglican voices, amongst them Archbishop Desmond Tutu  have spoken up boldly on this issue, seeing animals (like so many humans) as victims of injustice.[5] Fortunately Pope Francis, with his attachment to Franciscan ideals, appears to have a more positive attitude to animals than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Part of the problem is surely that too many of us are too urban, too cut off from nature. The Churches in Britain are mostly centred on Urban mission, and packing congregations into rooms and halls in cities where there is no place for any non-human living thing. But is this an appropriate way to worship the Creator God? However, it may certainly be one answer to the question posed by Fr Sean McDonagh, ‘Why are we deaf to the cry of the Earth?’[6]

The response to this urgent question is simply that  Church congregations, both collectively and as individuals,  need to get out there, into the churchyard and beyond. They  need to look, listen and observe the pattern of life both scientifically and as people of prayer. There are pointers to this reconnection with nature fulfilling  a need and reinvigorating faith. At the simplest level this is apparent in those churches which manage their churchyards in a sympathetic manner, with a regime of grass-cutting that encourages bio-diversity, and a generous provision of bird boxes and bat boxes in the trees. Secondly pilgrimages and retreats that  include a real appreciation of nature, have a very important relevance to the stewardship of the earth entrusted to us and in which we have so signally failed. In the last two years this Animal Retreat was based at Holland House, Cropthorne in Worcestershire and there a Retreat House used for retreats of all kinds was very much geared to people appreciating wooded garden and riverside landscapes. Finally, ForestChurch is a movement which aims to put the Church amongst creation. It  is certainly receiving a sympathetic hearing in my own wonderful Oxford diocese, but I do worry that bringing a large congregation into a forest glade might be disruptive to nature. Perhaps a better answer is to pray in Church with nature in mind, and then to take oneself out with one’s prayers, as a solitary individual, into the wilderness. This is what Our Lord did, followed by so many saints who sought solitude with God in deserts, forests, mountains or lonely headlands and islands.

But, of course, when one is there keep one’s eyes open to observe plants and all manner of living creatures, and try to understand what one sees scientifically. Charles Darwin  who introduced us to the mysteries of evolution wrote of a ‘tangled bank’. The plants and living creatures we see around us are survivors from a long history of evolution, with many wrong turns and extinctions along the way. After the moment of creation which is often popularly called the ‘Big Bang’, chance has played a large part, and it is rather hard to affirm with any scientific confidence that evolution leads to or ends with humans, even if in the period when we are living we are the dominant species.

The American theologian Elizabeth Johnson has published an impressive account of Darwin’s theory, which provides in her opinion and indeed in mine, by far the best and most coherent account of  life on earth, and coupled it with an enquiry on how the randomness, and pain associated with the process can be squared with the creation of all that is, by a God of Love.[7] This is a very big question and pat answers will not do. Nature is indeed ‘Red in tooth and claw’, and much of the suffering, eaten, being eaten or violent death through flood, fire or volcanic eruption happened long before mankind was on the scene.[8]

As Christians we have invested in a Creator who is also a God of Love. But  we have to see him as not just a superior part of the created order but as other in every respect, which means even using gendered pronouns to describe the deity is misleading. It is reassuring to find that the writer of Job is intent to exhibit the otherness of God in relation to all creatures.[9] We were not present  when God made the earth, nor do we know the intimate lives of the creatures on this earth as he does. His entire creation can however praise the creator, the theme especially of psalms 104 and 148 and our morning hymn, Song of the Three Jews (the Benedicite). These hymns and other works demonstrate partial knowledge which should be sufficient to encourage proper stewardship on the earth, and  as a brake on the destructive habits of our species.

This afternoon I will talk  about myriads of insects, and the numbers which swarm today let alone the countless generations in the past defy imagination. As soft bodied creatures they leave few fossils but crustacean especially bivalves living in shallow seas have left not only single fossils but layer upon layer of shells which impacted by the movement of the earth’s crust have become limestone. I was baptised in a 13th century limestone font carved fom a block of oolitic limestone within a church built of both oolitic and corallian limestone. Yet the antiquity of these rocks do not take one back to the beginning of life on earth let alone the creation.

And now, when not watching birds flitting through the trees or trying to compose sermons, as an archaeologist, I am engaged in writing a paper on a beautiful statue of an eagle fighting a snake, carved in early Roman London by a Cotswold sculptor from oolitic limestone. The subject encapsulates both the long ages of evolutionary development and the struggles of  various life forms  on earth. So is this all that there is: Creation followed by unremitting struggle? I study the statue intently and, yes, prayerfully because I have faith that it is the will of the creator who made all things that, in fullness of time, indeed when time has ceased to be, he will redeem all things and take them into himself through the power of love:

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.[10]



[1] See Ghillean Prance, The Earth under threat: A Christian perspective (Glasgow 1996)

[2] Isaiah 24:4-5

[3]  Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins(W.H. Gardner (ed.) 1953), p.27 no.8

[4] E.g. A. Linzey, Animal Theology (London 1984); R.Bauckham, Bible and Ecology. Rediscovering the Community of Creation (London 2010); Deborah M.Jones, The School of Compassion. A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Leominster 2009)

[5] Foreword,’Extending Justice and Compassion’, p. xv in A. Linzey (ed), The Global Guide to Animal Protection(Illinois 2013)

[6] Sean McDonagh, Why are we deaf to the cry of the Earth? (Dublin 2001)

[7] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts. Darwin and the God of Love (London 2014)

[8]  Michael J. Murray, Nature red in tooth and claw. Theism and the problem of animal suffering (Oxford 2008)

[9] Job 38-41

[10] Ephesians 1:8-10