St Margaret’s Church, Binsey Evensong on Sunday 13th October 2019 [Trinity 17]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 144; Nehemiah 6:1-16; John 15:12 -27.

‘If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’. [John 15:19].

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

A Creation Sermon.

A version of this sermon appears in Animal Spirit, the on-line  Journal of the Animal Interfaith Alliance, issue 11 (Autumn 2019), pp.20-21.

Friday 4th October was devoted to St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Friars Minor , and it is normal in many churches to commemorate the saint, his compassion for the poor and the outcast and his care for creation, on the nearest Sunday, this year last Sunday 6th.  In some churches there is an ‘animal blessing service’, often geared towards children. As I was away on holiday, I am preaching my Francis-tide sermon this Sunday instead, though if I had not been on holiday on 6th I would have been attending the Eucharist sponsored by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals.  Truth to say my theme is one upon  which I pray and preach about throughout the year, and that focus is appropriate theologically because for Francis such love and compassion for Creation was central to his mission, imitatio Christi : Creation is God’s Creation and reflects the hand of the Creator. There is an additional, special reason to preach this sermon today which sees the canonisation of John Henry Newman in Rome by the Holy Father, Pope Francis. St John Henry Newman defended the Christlike innocence of [other] animals beset by the human sinners who caused them suffering. In his sermon in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin preached here in Oxford on Good Friday 1842, he compared the suffering of a vivisected dog with the agony of Christ’s Cross and Passion. That, if nothing else, should make us think (J. H. Newman, ‘The Crucifixion’ (Sermon X), Parochial and Plain Sermons VII (1868), p.138). 

    In the world in which we live, the internet has made us aware of the effects of environmental catastrophe, caused by human agency, pollution on the land and in the sea, the destruction of forests, and of course climate change. Indeed, these are inevitability interrelated. A recent survey has revealed that bird numbers have fallen by no less than twenty-nine percent in North America since 1970, and there have been similar losses with regard to many species in Britain and Continental Europe largely through intensive agriculture, the use of pesticides and herbicides which directly impact food sources and , loss of hedgerows and habitat for nest sites, In addition, we are made aware of the exploitation of many kinds of wild mammals, again  through loss of habitat, and also hunting and trapping for misplaced ‘pleasure’, economic gain or superstitious medicine (in some cases, as for the White Rhino or the inoffensive pangolin to extinction or near extinction). Amphibians and reptiles have fared every bit as badly at human hands, sometimes worse (for instance snakes in our culture, though not in some others, being regarded as forces of evil and killed on sight; and the wetland habitats essential for frogs and newts are everywhere depleted by human needs for water as well as, of course, by human induced climate change). 

  At the same time, the mass slaughter of domesticated animals, amongst them cattle, sheep, goats and pigs but also chickens and ducks. simply treated as commodity and not as creatures like us, that is marvellously made by God. They are often reared through intensive factory farming or else ranched on arid savannahs which were once species-rich rain-forests). 

  Other Animals, mainly rats and mice and rabbits bred for the purpose, though some are wild creatures, are treated as expendable objects for experiments in laboratories; here many clearer-sighted 19th century clerics, amongst them as we have seen John Henry Newman, knew that was intrinsically morally wrong;   they imbibed from their theology the absolute certainty that for the Christian ends can never justify the means. Now plainly a speciesist utilitarianism appears to hold sway, and the Church’s silence has often , to me, been deafening, at least beyond  such compassionate organisations as the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, ASWA and CCA, though Pope Francis’s great Encyclical Laudato si’ marks a real and welcome change back to the Franciscan ideal. The cruelty involved in factory farms, abattoirs and life-science laboratories is both physical and psychological, and in aggregate horrendous, and most of us shudder to dwell on it too much, but it should make us question whether humans can ever truly be considered as God’s stewards. Stewards conserve their master’s sheep; they do not flay them! The great theological conundrum in this situation concerns how we are responding, how we can ever truly respond to God’s love for us? How do we open the channels of repentance leading to forgiveness?

    As Christians, it is a central item of faith that God was incarnate in human form, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As merely one small part of the creation we can never  know precisely why God took the decision to come to us in our own form rather than in that of some other creature- or to come at all, but my guess is that we humans were, and clearly still are morally in deep, deep trouble. How was and is this demonstrated? My answer is stark: we humans nailed Jesus to the Cross, symbolic of  that destruction of innocence of which we humans are so very capable. Jesus as the Christ, the Saviour, showed us how we might, how we should live, in humility and with trust… through his body and blood, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, two of the three foods specified for humans in Psalm 104. The third is (olive) oil, which bring to mind the oils employed in baptism, ordination and anointing of the sick and dying. We are thereby asked to live consecrated lives, and that plea brings us to Francis who gave himself, body and soul. entirely to God. Christ in Jesus, the Wisdom of God, did not come to us to glorify our species, but to attempt to redeem it.

Because if we truly follow him we are not of this world, our mission is to be prepared to confront the forces that rule our world, its rulers and princes, and  even the tyranny of public opinion, of populism, in the cause of doing what is right, what is just, what is  merciful and what is loving to all creation and that will most certainly requite lifestyle changes from us all. One aspect that the Church and indeed our government at least pays lip-service to is climate change. Unfortunately, there is always an aspect of lip-service because at the same time the mantra of ‘Economic growth’ tends to shout with a louder voice. One does not often hear in this supposedly Christian nation, that the world is not ours but God’s and we all need to live much more simply, in a society of economic and social equality. A second aspect is that although the environment is often mentioned we continue to deplete it with roads and other ‘infrastructure’ projects. The creatures with whom we share the land inevitably get short shrift in a philosophy that ‘might is right’: badgers are culled to support the beef industry; seals are killed to support the fish farms which are themselves responsible for polluting areas of sea. All our activities are actually, if not notionally,  about human rights, or strictly speaking the rights of privileged and powerful men. The poor and the defenceless of this world and indigenous tribes are often victims of persecution, poverty, disease and warfare. Most, though not all, of the protests about climate change have been simply about us humans, because we are (quite rightly) scared witless! However, I am greatly encouraged by the Extinction Rebellion movement which in its vision and aims has grasped the seriousness of the situation for life on earth, more than temporising politicians and businessmen angry at the disruption caused to daily life.

   That  leads me to conclude, or come close to concluding, that we are in thrall to Richard Dawkins’s ‘Selfish Gene’ rather than truly following the Christ whom we spat upon and rejected and slew, almost but not quite. Three weeks ago, I participated in a mass demonstration in Oxford; there were other similar protests  in other cities in Britain and, indeed, throughout the world. Following the lead of Greta Thurnberg it was a cause taken up by idealistic schoolchildren and students, thereby showing greater maturity and true wisdom than the generations before them and to say true putting adults to shame. I was delighted that it was clear that concern for other creatures was important to so many of these idealistic youthful protesters too. Simply being there took me back to my own youth many, many years ago and my own burning concern for the animals, and as decade followed decade experiencing a state of isolation in a brutal world where cruelty to other creatures, the casual exploitation of other creatures, the ignoring of other creatures simply did not seem to matter. I have been aware of  an expansion of vegetarian and vegan life-styles especially in the new generations as part of a more holistic and spiritual attitude, not always expressed in Christian or, indeed, any other conventional religious terms though to me that is of little moment. [I have never been much concerned about ‘Church growth’ any more than I am keen on ‘Economic Growth’ which too often runs counter to living the life Our Lord intended and intends us to live].

 Is it, perhaps, too much to hope that in the words of Vergil’s 4th Eclogue , written around 42 B.C. and sometimes (but probably wrongly) considered to be a prophecy  alluding to the birth of Christ, that ‘the cycle of the Ages begins again’? As things stand, we humans have too often been unworthy to be called God’s stewards; rather than being made in God’s image we have besmirched that image.  In the words of Isaiah ( 24:4-5):

The earth mourns and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

If  we as a society throughout the world  fail to heed the warnings, fail to hear the cry of the stricken earth, but continue to lead our arrogant style of life we will inevitably sooner rather than later become as extinct as the dinosaurs and not a single being in creation will mourn our passing. All we can do is to seek God’s mercy and love, because he loves his creation even, that part of it which has gone astray and rejected and slain him.

  The best hope is that the youthful idealism of those who took part in the demonstrations will persists through their lives and help to establish with Christ that visionary  New Jerusalem, a restored Eden, in which all nature, the trees and other plants, all the animals and we so nearly lost human beings can come together, no longer as strangers in a darkening world but as fellow citizens of the future heavenly kingdom.

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

lead thou me on…


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