The Groans of Creation

The  Groans of  Creation

A sermon  preached by the Revd. Professor Martin Henig  at the  church of St Michael and All Angels, Watford on 16th June 2013


We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now

                                                                                                          [Romans 8:22]


The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. [Shakespeare, King Lear Act 5, sc.3]


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


My first text is taken from our second reading from the scriptures this afternoon; it reminds us of  the pains of all creation, of all living creatures beset by evil forces until the final triumph of Christ. The second comes from the end of King Lear,  Shakespeare’s dark, but nevertheless deeply Christian play: those powers of evil all too often lie within us human beings. But there is another point. Doubtless what I ought to say at an Animal Blessing service is simply how very nice it is to see so many contented, well-cared-for pets (or  should I say, more correctly, companion animals),[1] how very nice it is to see people capable of loving other creatures; and of course it is a great pleasure. In my mind, in my heart and soul, I ask for God’s blessing on  animals, indeed I ask for God’s blessing on  all creation, every day, following in the steps of  St Francis of Assisi as well  as so many of our insular saints. The reason why I am a Third Order Franciscan is entirely bound up with Francis’s vision of  the love of God being reflected in every  single creature upon this earth. .


This is very much in accord with the Bible. Genesis I, together with the (probably) earlier psalm 104, make it abundantly clear that we are  all creatures of the one God, like the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals which populate the land.[2] If we have any ‘dominion’ that has to be understood in the nature of stewardship, practicing what any good estate owner, king or governor should do in relation to the land he (or she) controls. And our first reading, taken from Genesis 9, is a re-affirmation of God’s covenant with all living beings. I often recall, in that respect, God’s response(in Psalm 50)  to those who would sacrifice animals to him in order to gain his favour:


For every wild animal of the forest is mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

for the world and all that is in it is mine.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls,

or drink the blood of goats? [Psalm 50:10-13]


And yet how do we still treat other creatures? How do we assist God to maintain that wide and generous covenant? I have already stated that this is a sad time, and it is sad because  society and the churches have woefully failed in what should be a primary duty, sometimes deliberately and sometimes (as in so many of the current debates in the church) by concentrating instead on  trivial issues, instead of on the supreme demands being made upon every us, which should be absolutely central to all ministry, ordained or lay. We stand guilty as a species, and as contemporary societies, of grievous sins both of commission and of omission.


So much of Jesus’ teaching was concerned with humanity’s obsession with wealth  and possessions and power. Everything then becomes commodity, and if we are not careful other creatures (including other people, of course) are treated as such. It is this very commoditisation of life, this assumption that animals only exist for our convenience, which can be seen in the current badger cull and  which prompted my letter in the Church Times last month.[3]  Do those who authorised the cruel Badger cull, do those who are carrying it out, leaving in some instances as we have already seen, animals horribly maimed have any conception of the suffering they are causing and will cause?


Whenever we think lovingly of our companion animals or of the songbirds which we like to attract into our gardens, let us spare a thought for the millions of  animals living short and unhappy lives in Factory Farms: poultry, pigs, and veal-calves amongst others. The cruelty involved should strike us in the face every time we see a fast-food outlet serving the sad remains of  battery chickens or hamburgers, simply as commodities and not as they truly are, the slaughtered corpses of creatures of God, our sisters and brothers; think too of the millions of animals crammed together in lorries and ferries to be exported for slaughter including amongst them sheep, cattle and horses, whose suffering  will only be terminated by a miserable death; consider the fate of  laboratory animals, including monkeys, dogs, cats and rodents, whose vivisection used (in the 19th century, as we shall see) to worry the wisest voices in the Anglican church more than it does now. We have, evidently, moved on from there and embraced a cold utilitarian doctrine against whose pernicious influence,  more often than not, the clergy remain silent. It is no good saying that we have to feed the population; it is no good saying that vivisection leads to miracle cures. Our faith stands resolutely against the heresy that the means justifies the ends;[4] it must always maintain a firm ethical stand  against what is expedient, in the name of the higher truth and love which it is called to proclaim.


Nor is that all: wild animals such as deer, foxes and hares are hunted with hounds ‘for pleasure’; they are killed for their fur like the helpless seal pups  clubbed to death without mercy each year in the Canadian Arctic or in the case of foxes and mink farmed for their fur in bare metal cages and killed at the age of seven months.[5]  Despite admittedly widespread opposition by most states whales are still harpooned and butchered for their blubber by a few nations while tigers, elephants and rhinos are hunted by poachers for their body parts and there are so many other often horrific cases of animal abuse including moon bears caged  for their bile, or the harmless pangolins drowned or even boiled alive in China and other East Asian countries..


We accept a fishing industry which hoovers up fish and other marine life by the ton and without remorse, for food or even as fertiliser and  in the course of trawling activities we ensnare and drown other animals which get in the way of vast nets, dolphins and porpoises, turtles and sea-birds amongst others.


Our pets, then, are the lucky ones: the ones left for us to bless, they are the birds which have escaped the snare of the fowler, they are the kittens, puppies, rats, mice, guinea pigs and rabbits not subjected to destructive experiments. However, even having said this I am aware of the enormous number of animals acquired as pets which are neglected or even ill-treated by those who have a duty of care towards them: I do not use the word ‘owner’ for only God owns these companion animals, just as he owns us! And it is God to whom we – every one of us- will have to render our account.


I am horribly conscious that I have only touched on the sufferings of animals at the hands of our own species, a suffering which in the context of vivisection, the Blessed John Henry Newman in his 1842 Good Friday Sermon as vicar of   the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford , compared with the sufferings of Christ.[6] We prefer to avoid disturbing thoughts such as these. Like the Priest and the Levite we find it expedient to switch off our minds and walk on the other side of the road. We prefer not to tell ourselves that animals suffer pain and experience terror  just like ourselves.


Such are some examples and there are so many more, of our grave sins of commission against our fellow beings, but there are also countless sins of omission too. The Church is beginning to wake up to some aspects of the environment, though this seems to be largely limited to moaning about climate change, and then simply because it might affect us humans. Occasionally churches think of the benefits of turning church land or rather churchyards into miniature nature reserves, but again that is largely so that they may make these spaces more attractive for us, especially for children. But the extent of  systematic exploitation of the land through deforestation and grubbing up hedgerows, mining, exploitation of scarce water resources and building  on habitats, not to speak of polluting the land with dangerous chemicals   have resulted in a crisis for biodiversity throughout the world and even in Britain worrying declines in pollinating insects and in song birds. We  persist in using the seas as a rubbish dump as any walk along a deserted beach anywhere on the planet will show, while discharges from ships result in countless oiled and suffering birds. The disregard of the world as sacred space, as belonging to God is a  blatant  abdication of our covenanted duty as stewards and  in consequence highly sinful. Studies of the human past show that we have been behaving with the same careless arrogance for millennia, at least since the Neolithic, but the exploitation of the earth’s dwindling resources has become far worse in recent centuries, and we are close to the mass extinction of many species. We should not imagine for a moment that we, our children or our children’s children will escape the consequences. If we are not careful we too will eventually join the list of doomed species. I often ponder those apocalyptic verses in Isaiah:


The earth dries up 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 laws,

                    violated the statutes,

                    broken the everlasting covenant.

                    Therefore a curse devours the earth,

                    and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.[7]


If we are serious, what we have been  thinking about and praying about today cannot be a once-in-a -year lip service to acknowledging a vague (and unfulfilled) duty of care for creation. It should be absolutely central to our mission as Christians, and our readings today suggest there is nothing more important for us to do. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry opposing the commoditisation of everything, the worship of wealth, the exploitation of  the weak by the strong, of  the outcast by the respectable members of society. And yet God, and that of course means Christ, sees everything differently. He cares for the sparrows and ravens just as he cares for all living creatures, even as he cares for each of us.[8]


We wish to be thought ‘humane’, though what does that word actually mean? If it means behaving like a human being, the history of our species is not exactly encouraging. Human beings have persistently exploited creation for selfish ends, and treated other creatures as commodity. It is, indeed, a moot point considering the massive exploitation of animals in our own day whether we have progressed very far from the days of the Romans, despite the savagery and brutality of their arenas, or even become all that more compassionate than our medieval and more recent forebears.[9]  Of course the evil does not end with animal abuse, for human beings are unique in the systematic way they have exploited their own species, especially the weak amongst us. Our species has increasingly developed the art of warfare rendering it ever more refined and destructive; our species has enslaved other humans on a vast scale and committed acts of horrendous genocide of which some of the most chilling examples have been in the very recent past, and may even be taking place as I speak. We Christians surely do not need to be told that, for we have the suffering of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ on the Cross ever before us.


And if there is just a small glimmer of hope it is there. Our Lord was incarnate in order  to try to redeem us from our folly and, through grace, and to bring us with all creation to salvation. By forming relationships with animals, companion animals and wild animals, as well as with human beings we may begin to mend what is so terribly broken in our lives. A changed relationship with God and his creation will inevitably demand very radical changes in our lives and lifestyles.


I have heard people dismiss Animal services, often in a patronising tone, as being ‘for the children’. Yes, in one sense they are. Didn’t Jesus tell us that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we had to become as little children?[10] And then so often it is children who have spoken out most eloquently and truthfully about the great religious values of love and compassion. And it is children who most readily take to heart that great hymn, the Benedicite, in which all creatures (including ourselves) join in praising the living God. [11]


Bless the Lord, you whales and all

      that swim in the waters;

sing praise to him and highly exalt

         him forever


Bless the Lord, all birds of the air;

sing praise to him and highly exalt

         him forever


Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle;

sing praise to him and highly exalt

         him forever


Bless the Lord, all people on earth;

sing praise to him and highly exalt

         him forever .[12]


And so let us ask for God’s blessing on those companion animals we have brought along with us today. And let us ask, too, for God’s blessing on ASWA, and on all individuals and organisations, trying to live the life of the Kingdom in which the harmony of creation will be restored.



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








[1] The word Pettis ,first recorded in 1539 is probably derived from the Gaelic, peata meaning a tame animal. See K.Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets (Woodbridge 2012), 1 and n.1.

[2] Hence the title of Andrew Linzey’s book Creatures of the Same God (Winchester 2007)

[3] Church Times 31 May 2013, p.29

[4] After all that was the argument of Caiaphas (John 11:50) that it was expedient to have an innocent  man killed in order to save others.

[5] See Andrew Linzey, Why Animal Suffering Matters. Philosophy, Theology and Practical Ethics (Oxford, New York 2009) especially chapters 3-5

[6] John Henry Newman, ‘The crucifixion’, Sermon X in  Parochial and Plain Sermonsvol.2(London 1868), , pp.133-45

[7] Isaiah 24:4-6

[8] As Luke  12: 6  and 24

[9] For the Roman period see J.M.C.Toynbee, Animals in Roman Life and Art  (London 1973) and  the reprint (Barnsley 2013) with a new introduction  by Martin Henig, pp.i-xxi making this point. On the treatment of animals over the past millennium in Britain see Arthur MacGregor, Animal Encounters. Human and Animal interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One (London 2012)

[10] Mark 10:13-16

[11] Otherwise known as the Song of the Three Jews in the Apocrypha

[12]  Verses 57-60