Sermon from 2010 Animal Sunday Wokingham

Service of Thanksgiving for Creation: Cruelty and Kindness – All Saints, Wokingham 

Animal Welfare Service – 10th October 2010

Revd Dr Martin Henig – Vice President ASWA


Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times (Numbers 22, 32-3)

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

Last Monday we celebrated Francis, the saint revered everywhere because of his care for and reverence of the Creation in which he saw the hand of God, the Creator. He was by no means the only Christian Saint to be moved by animals nor is he alone in believing they have lives worth living for themselves and without reference to human concerns. Amongst many others we can list St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzen, St Anthony, St Giles, St Cuthbert of Holy Island and St Godric of Finchale .However, it has to be admitted that care for the Natural World and for animals have not been a major preoccupation of the Church either in the past or now. Indeed the Hebrew Bible is richer by far in appreciation of the non-human world than the writings of the New Testament. The story of Baalam and the Ass, like that of Jonah in which God saves the Great City of Nineveh in part because of the animals living there demonstrate how other creatures are not mere incidentals in God’s plan.

Although there is evidence enough that Jesus himself was open to all the life in the countryside around him, there is a problem in the urban background of St Paul and other early fathers of the Church, but more significant is the manner in which the Church imbibed Hellenic influence especially from Aristotle which made Man the ‘Measure of All things’. This was reinforced by such influential philosophers as St Augustine of Hippo, in the Middle Ages by St Thomas Aquinas and in the early modern period, by René Descartes. The last in particular viewed animals as little more than machines so it was regarded as acceptable to treat them in any way one liked, barring the fact that cruelty could have a corrosive affect on the human perpetrator.

Fortunately the Hebraic tradition was always there, even if sometimes muted, and from the time of the Enlightenment, in England especially, there were powerful voices raised against the ill-treatment of animals both within the Church (for example John Wesley and the Blessed John Henry Newman who compared vivisection to the Agony of Christ on the Cross) and outside it (Alexander Pope, William Blake, William Cowper, Christopher Smart and Lord Byron amongst others). Even so, when James Granger, Vicar of Shiplake preached a sermon against cruelty to animals in 1773 his congregation objected, regarding it as ‘a prostitution of the pulpit and as proof of the author’s growing insanity’- I suppose they could have produced in evidence that Christopher Smart was a patient in Bedlam. Nevertheless a period of growing sensibility and gentility had come and the Society- later the Royal Society- for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded by an Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, in 1824, its first secretary, followed as its second secretary by a Jewish philosopher, Lewis Gompertz.

Alas, in our own society, there is still far too much that does not conform with our notion of ourselves as civilized people, there are still horrific acts of violence against defenseless animals, acts we would not like to think we were guilty of abetting but which we allow to be carried out in our name. So, at the risk of you in this congregation branding me insane, I intend to proceed with serious reflections, which are not new and have, indeed, haunted me since my early childhood. For 60 years I have watched animals in a non-systematic, but I hope thoughtful, way, and arrived at conclusions very, very different from those of Aristotle. These have been re-enforced by a book which definitively undermines our previous understanding of animal life as somehow less important than human life and as such seems to me to be one of the most important recent contributions to theology. In contrast to Richard Dawkins with his rather crude attempt to dethrone God, Jonathan Balcombe in Second nature. The Inner Lives of Animals instead dethrones humankind, and that (if truth be told) is much more uncomfortable for our own self-regard. Indeed Balcombe takes issue with Dawkins over the prevalence of selfishness and violence in nature, instead finding such destructiveness as a quality unique to man.

Studies of a great variety of creatures from fish to primates, results in a display of complex social interaction and the shows the development of a range of emotional relationships both within and (more surprisingly) across species. Maybe it is not surprising to find chimpanzees and other great apes growing up along lines not dissimilar to human infants. Studies of whales and elephants, of horses, cattle and pigs, large cats, dogs and rodents, birds including chickens, reptiles and even fish have produced incontrovertible new evidence that they enjoy life, enjoy play, enjoy company and indulge in behaviour which may be altruistic or display powers of reasoning. And yet, is not a great deal in this, what we pet-lovers and amateur naturalists have not all observed and known already, from our own observations of domestic and farmyard animals or from watching monkeys, squirrels, seals and birds. Konrad Lorenz’s classic masterpieces of observation, King Solomon’s Ring and Man meets Dog have been with us for half a century. To take two examples, I remember the warmth and empathy of a dog at a rather bleak moment in my life when the animal was clearly perceptive to my mood. By contrast I was very amused in India seeing young macaque monkeys showing off their climbing skills in front of me just as I have seen human children do. My amusement communicated itself to them and seeing my laughter they ‘showed off’ even more.

One is frequently confronted by the statement that out of all Creation only we have souls and animals do not. In fact the Hebrew Bible tends to use soul, Ruach, as the ‘breath of life’ common to all sentient beings. Greek thought was focused simply on humans having an immortal soul but it is illogical to deny that animals, indeed all beings that have ever existed, also have a part in salvation. Denying that other people (non-believers) or other creatures have a soul, an immortal relationship with God is to make the same mistake as Job in seeing God as far, far too small. There is a consequence in that the meat in the butcher’s shop or on your plate is part of an ensouled being to which a positive evil has been done and for which we are accountable.

Now, of course, although animal-life is not anything like ‘red in tooth and claw’ as often assumed, it is self-evidently not always benign either; and of course some animals are carnivorous but less so than mankind has increasingly become in the growing greed of our species for meat; of course there is cruelty in nature but there is far less deliberate cruelty than exists in human society as manifested in our wars, our genocides, our massive and sustained cruelties of man to man and man to animals. For the most part animals kill other creatures simply in order to eat. It is human beings who invented slavery for subject peoples and tried to justify such practices right up to the nineteenth century and beyond, it is human beings who organized burnings of other living people as ‘acts of faith’; it is human beings who invented the Armenian massacres, the Holocaust ( Shoah) and subsequent genocides, it is human beings who create factory farms in which pigs, poultry and veal-cattle live unbearable and un-natural lives, before being killed in abattoirs – factories of violent death; it is human-beings who vivisect in laboratories thousands of animals without their consent, who harpoon whales and cull elephants, both species of animals with especially intense emotional attachments to each other. And of course there is a price, many prices to pay, as the perpetrators of these abuses become desensitized , for there are also proven links (as explored in a recent Oxford conference) between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people! Richard Dawkins need not blame God or even religion for this. Atheists are every bit as destructive and cruel (notably the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia) But if you are religious, if you are a Christian, there is a growing gulf between the Love incumbent on you and your actions; are you really following Christ, the Lamb of God, the innocent victim of violence if you are violent and if you treat the world as commodity? If you do that you will find the pedestal on which you will have set yourself as one of the Lords of Creation will prove as insubstantial as the Tower of Babel. In short if f you treat Creation as your commodity, if you sanction cruelty, if you treat Creation without pity, and find kindness too difficult, do you not strike Heaven in the face?

For me Balcombe’s book with its many recorded instances of loving relations between animals has very much re-enforced my faith in a loving (but suffering) God than otherwise: Balcombe often uses religious language though I have no idea whether he is a believer or not. But where are we to place mankind in the evolutionary process, which is the way God works in our world? Certainly mankind in all sorts of ways does not seem to be the summit of Creation (as was almost always assumed too readily in the past and still is, I fear, by many, perhaps most ‘religious’ people), if any summit was indeed ever intended by God! He is certainly endowed with a powerful brain but in many respects his senses -sight, smell, speed, manual dexterity and intuition amongst them – are deficient compared with those possessed by other creatures. And what about his moral sense? Was Christ sent to man because mankind was uniquely good or because Homo Sapiens was uniquely in need of a saviour? Events speak louder than words: We crucified Christ as we have crucified many others before and since. Isn’t that the answer?

As Anglicans we are required to hone our scriptural faith to our traditions and , above all, to reason which means our best understanding of the world based on scientific evidence. There is no more important aspect of our scriptural faith than the stewardship laid upon us by God in Genesis and of our Church traditions than Granger, Broome, Newman and Wesley (even though for other reasons the last two were lost to Anglicanism), and in our own time Andrew Linzey amongst others .

What we do about our increasing knowledge and how we respond to the teachings of Holy Wisdom, depends now, as it always has done, on us. Ultimately our response has to be an individual decision, but a decision on which I believe each one of us will ultimately be judged by the most High God, Creator of all that is and will be. A loving approach to Creation at minimum must include the complete proscription of Factory Farming as totally unethical and unchristian, and it should certainly condemn inhumane slaughter methods – though are any methods ‘humane’ – including Muslim (halal) and Jewish (kosher) ones, and it should include a vast reduction of experiments on animals leading quickly to replacement: the telling anathema of John Henry Newman against the practice of vivisection. His sermon preached in the University church, Oxford on Good Friday 1842 still very much stands and it was tellingly echoed in Oxford a year or two ago by Matthew Simpson in a peaceful protest against the Animal Lab, in which like Newman he brought Christ fully into the discussion: For a Christian ends can never justify means. It can never be right for the strong to persecute the weak. Further the Christian response should of necessity include a ban on killing animals for fun, bullfighting, cockfighting and hunting.

How much further should we go? I have made no secret of the fact that we should go considerably further, finding as I do that all exploitation of animals is problematic. One can live perfectly well on a vegetarian, indeed a vegan, diet. I recognize that in a fallen world there are and will be all sorts of consequences if no animals were ever killed by people, some of which would be undesirable for the life of other creatures: Pastoral economies both in lowland and upland Britain for instance nurture unique ecosystems. And of course cats (for example) like many wild animals (foxes, weasels, otters, many birds) demand a carnivorous diet. But at the very least if you keep carnivorous animals you should not meet their needs from meat reared in Factory Farms.

There are ethical problems and I intend to expand on them in another place and at another time. But it is incumbent on all of us, on every one of us, to make care for Creation a real priority for the Church. And when animals suffer, when they are killed in slaughterhouses, maimed in traps or else are the victims of deliberate cruelty, where is Christ? Of course he is with them, he is with the animals, suffering with them, embracing them in his loving arms. And where are we? We are not Lords of Creation but as Genesis tells us merely servants like the rest of created order…and until now, unjust servants in that we feel we have a license to ill-treat our fellow creatures. However the unjust servant, as Matthew tells us (18,23-35), will inevitably be punished for his cruelty and his arrogance.

I do not want to end this reflection here. It is all too easy in a consumerist society to feel gloomy about the cruel treatment which is so often the lot of human beings as well as of other animals. But that is precisely why we are Christians and Anglicans, not because it is the ‘established church’ but because to be meaningful we have to be the truly radical leaven of society…I cannot pay tribute enough to those, many of them children, teenagers or in early adulthood, who are fired by these considerations and wish to make a difference to the legacy of cruelty and it is to them that this sermon is dedicated. Francistide demands of us an audit of how we are living up to the ideals of Christ, espoused by Francis through his adult life. Praise be to God for all the wonders of his glorious Creation.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


1. A.Linzey and D. Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah. Animals and the Liberation of Theology ( London 1997) 58-9, 83-85. This view is not new; it was held by St Basil the Great for example

2. A. Linzey (ed), The link between animal abuse and human violence (Eastbourne 2009)

3. This is not in any way an attack on my natal religion. There is incidentally a considerable amount of ethical vegetarianism amongst enlightened Jews, a final turn of the screw in the prohibition on consuming blood now that we know life does not only reside in blood.