Sermon from Gloucester Cathedral 20.11.10

Humans, other Animals and the Environment: problems for Isaiah’s peaceable Kingdom

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.(see footnote 1)

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Isaiah’s description of the Messianic kingdom, which anticipates the Kingship of Our Lord, envisages a time of total peace and harmony, not only between men but embracing the entire Creation. ‘They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.’ This has been a favourite passage amongst all who believe that animals of all kinds have an important place in that ‘ peaceable kingdom’, and doubtless Mary Elizabeth Wemyss had just such an ideal in mind when she founded the Gloucester and West Gloucestershire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Nevertheless there are problems if we take the passage literally. While wolves, which are canines and hence omnivorous, could doubtless subsist on a vegetarian diet they do not in actuality, while leopards, lions and indeed domestic cats all have to eat meat, despite what it says in Genesis I that to ‘everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food’. Their metabolisms are simply not designed to digest anything else. The same goes for snakes and lizards and birds of prey. We can extend that to fish-eating animals such as seals and many whales and sea-birds. Indeed through the long history of life on earth there have always been carnivores and herbivores. Our own ancestors were probably forced to largely abandon a diet of fruit and leaves (though they probably already ate eggs and the occasional small creature before) when they took up life in the dry savannahs or wandered north to cold and inhospitable lands. Meat was a necessity; not a luxury as its today amongst humans living today in the polar region or in the deserts or in cold and arid lands in central Asia and in the mountainous regions of the earth or on windswept islands in the Atlantic. Where the only source of food is the animals on dry land , the birds in the air and the fish in the sea it is hard to live up to the vision of Isaiah. However among traditional societies, for instance the Kalahari bushmen, Australian Aborigines, the Inuit in the Arctic or the native tribes of the American Great Plains there often evolves a sympathetic and respectful attitude towards the creatures hunted, a sympathy which we with all our pretence to ‘civilization’ often sadly lack.

I want to speak rather more about the moral dilemmas we face, here in England, first as an archaeologist and historian and then -more theologically – addressing the moral choices are open to us. Here, our countryside is, of course, almost entirely artificial. We have farmed it for centuries, nurtured our forests including our woodlands and loosed domestic animals to graze on meadows and uplands. Sheep, kept for wool and meat, create a distinct habitat for a downland fauna. Remove the sheep and many species would disappear. Similarly cattle and horses play a part in the ecology of water-meadows.

Healthy populations of deer in woodland, parkland and moorland would not be maintained unless their populations were kept in check by human culling or as would have happened before mankind was on the scene by predation. Indeed it can be argued that much of the countryside with its varied fauna has been preserved principally by those interested in hunting and shooting, for example covets are intended for foxes and pheasants and moorland for grouse.

Rare breeds of farm animals only continue to exist because they maintain some commercial value, especially amongst those producers of free-range, organic meat. They lead some sort of ‘abundant life’ which may, one could argue, be better than no life at all. However, even ‘free range’ animals are in the end treated with savage and often disturbing cruelty in the abattoir, a cruelty from which the consumer is shielded or pretends not to see.

Those who keep cats or other carnivorous animals have to reflect on how to feed their pets. Do they use tins of often factory farmed meat or, better, free range meat – or leave the cat to forage amongst the local birds, mice and voles? Indeed we should reflect that the domestic cat is an invasive species which massively changes the ecology to the detriment of the local fauna and indeed is only one such species whose presence in the wrong place causes suffering to other species and even extinctions. Rats and grey squirrels everywhere and hedgehogs in the Hebrides are amongst species introduced into Britain by humans with such unfortunate effects.

Finally, even the kindest animal-lovers amongst us are clothed in wool and some doubtless even wear leather shoes or keep their money in a leather wallet? And even if we manage to avoid products derived from animals, countless creatures will have been driven from their homes or even killed in building our houses and in making the land suitable for crops or in harvesting them.

What does all of this questioning amount to? In a fallen world we cannot be free from guilt. We are imperfect; and so is our stewardship. Our faith should, at the very least, suggest some guiding principles and lead us forward to the ideals of a kingdom where we will be fed on the ‘food of angels’, the living presence of the Saviour.

First treating other animals as commodity is without question a continuing and a growing evil in Britain and throughout the world; it is a gross dereliction of the stewardship bestowed on Adam which should rule out the products of Factory Farming as without exception as illegitimate. That means we should not patronize any of those very many food outlets which fill our streets and which purvey cheap, factory farmed meat and poultry derived from creatures which have not been allowed to live natural lives. Such a view accords with that of that excellent organization Compassion in World Farming.

The definition of cruelty may be disputed around the edges. I certainly think that it includes the docking the tails of piglets, de-beaking poultry, and not allowing animals sufficient space to exercise or even to turn. So, in my opinion, are many methods of slaughter including some sanctioned by ethnic communities, notably Jewish (kosher) and Islamic (halal) in which the animal simply has its throat cut. (see footnote 2) Of course I am very much against killing any creature and, as I have already stated, the way many free-range animals are butchered does not bear scrutiny. A much more positive stand against cruelty directed towards the powerless, human or non human, is demanded of us as Christians.

I am a founder-member of an organization, Voice for Ethical Research in Oxford, which opposes the practice of conducting experiments on living animals in Oxford and elsewhere. We are in good company In Oxford with amongst others the Blessed John Henry Newman and John Ruskin as fervent opponents of vivisection. Such experimentation has been largely forced on us by the pharmaceutical industries and there are surely other humane ways of research. But the main basis of the argument has to be that the animals have not given their consent. Of course the same can be said when we kill animals for food or sport.

What then should we do in the spirit of Mary Wemyss? Perhaps the best approach is to anticipate the Kingdom, which is precisely what Christ, as our King, asks us to do. Yes, do not minimize the problems or pretend they don’t exist, but face them fearlessly. Work with those who will only go part of the way, and who only kill very sparingly and judiciously for food. But, really and truly, the character of the kingdom of Christ suggests that, whatever the consequences, we try not to kill any creature. A change in lifestyle may be hard and indeed to some very revolutionary but the kingdom demands from us nothing less; it demands from us everything.

We should be conscious that recent research has demonstrated ‘beyond all question’ that many species of animals enjoy rich social lives, have prodigious powers of memory and can act in emotional and altruistic ways to each other. Jonathan Balcombe’s book, “Second nature. The inner lives of animal” (2010) has an honoured place on my theology shelves. It should be read by every bishop, priest, deacon and layman. It is a seminal work which every theologian has to ponder very deeply. It is not God who is on trial here, but man: it is humankind that is found wanting. When we see how little separates us from other creatures we can begin to live our lives with much more humility. And that has to be a good thing.

If one takes the absolutist line of veganism, it might seem like little more than a gesture to those who regard such a life-style as cranky, but then the whole of our faith rests on Jesus who was prepared again and again to stand apart from the crowd. (see footnote 3) If such extreme animal friendly actions were taken up by large sections of society there could be unforeseen consequences, ecologically, but there would be consequences if our behaviour altered in other ways: if for instance we really were all to love one another as Jesus enjoins us to do, again and again.

Animal Ethics is a major topic which should be addressed by the Church as a central issue, as my mentor in such matters, Father Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, has urged in a number of important books: it is surely far more important than most of the controversies that have racked the Church in recent years! Of course, it should have been a central issue long ago. As Anglicans we have to use our reason to face the problems but ultimately our actions have to be centred on the Cross. Here was no animal victim or even a human being sacrificed to some idol but God incarnate and that astounding fact has be at the centre of our attitude to life on earth. We look back to God’s original contract with both human and animal, and to human dominion (though not domination) over the created order. Societies such as ASWA are centred on such stewardship, but this is a charge all Christians need to ponder. Certainly we all look forward to the fulfillment of the Messianic kingdom first enunciated by Isaiah, and realized in Christ, and to that future existence in which our bodies and souls will be transfigured with the whole creation and no longer have need for earthly food, certainly no need for fleshly food . Such a vision of harmony, peace and love has to be at the heart of any society that is truly Anglican and Christian. Suffering is indivisible. Only when we can face the truth about the costly Grace poured out upon us by a God who suffers intensely with every one of his creatures, will we know ourselves to have been truly redeemed. As Newman pointed out in his 1842 Good Friday sermon preached in St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, there is a stark and disturbing parallel between the suffering inflicted on animals and the overwhelming sacrifice of the Cross.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.




1. Isaiah 11, 6 also vv.7-9
2. An article in the Church Times on 12 November 2010 by rabbi Jonathan Romain placed the importance of good interfaith relations before the requirement of reverence to Creation. An excellent reply by Helen Lewis on 19 November pointed out that within the Jewish community there was a debate as to whether animals can be truly kosher if they have been made to suffer unnecessarily. As a convert from Judaism with a deep and continuing respect for the Jewish tradition, I am proud of this active trend amongst thinking Jews.
3. Note that the Jains in India, have a very strict code which extols reverence for all life, and forbids harming living creatures. Christianity would do well to follow this example.