Animal Padre's
Christians Against All Animal Abuse
"Christ’s redemption is for the whole of creation!"

From Autumn 2009 Issue

Episode 3
The Flock That Christendom Forgot:
Or an animal padre’s uphill pilgrimage

John Taylor, Bishop of Sheffield and former principal of my last college: Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, had certainly shown marked kindness to me. Here I was, in the late 1960s, being transported from living in the midst of a veritable slum into a most picturesque rural setting where it was suggested I take life easier and keep an eye on the spacious rectory garden and small orchard.

Indeed, Trixie, the mongrel dog whom I’d prayerfully singled out, many years previously, from the Bradford RSPCA kennels would be in her element; and so, indeed, would our four children; particularly the youngest child, so seriously deformed yet encouraged to play by the lovely half-Asian child we battled to adopt: our beloved Anne Yes, I remember it well. That large, weird and spacious rectory; a spiral staircase which went down into a fully flooded cellar and upwards to the top of the building into a separated granny flat, once a servant’s quarters.

If ever there were a rectory suited for a horror story then Letwell rectory was. Indeed, within the granny flat was a room covered in cobwebs and to one side a massive tank. On lifting the dusty cover of it I was horrified to discover the largest fungi I'd ever witnessed which was partly submerged in the water. Need one wonder that I emptied a whole bottle of Dettol within it! But then worse suspicions were confirmed the next morning. On partaking of an early morning drink of water, from our bedroom washbasin, the water came out rather white and scented!

As for my first church council meeting within this rural parish, it too sticks in my mind as if only yesterday. Indeed, several weeks before my curacy in Doncaster ended - during the three months' notice served there - an extremely self- opinionated lady (a veterinary surgeon!) called to drive us across to meet the assembled church council as they were all very anxious to meet their rector- designate along with his wife.

If I remember correctly, the lady looked round at our humble curate’s dining room - in the midst of an almost slum-like mining locality - as if to non-verbally imply that she was wondering what the bishop was thinking about in offering me the post of rector within her rural, affluent setting. Her car was a bright red new Jaguar, the number plate of which was Vet 2. Indeed, her husband's car, I was to discover, was identical except for number plate. His was Vet I! Indeed, I was later to get the impression that both of them, who had trained at Liverpool together, had risen from quite humble backgrounds and that affluence had seemingly gone to their heads. Nevertheless, I may well have been quite wrong!

Meeting Vet Number One

It needs to be said that Vet 1 was a most cordial fellow at our first meeting of the church council. Though forced to use two sticks because of a creeping paralysis that he bravely fought against - the perspiration often appearing on his forehead - he hinted of how the parish had been left to some-what decay under the previous Incumbent’s reign. The past cleric had received some criticism for sucking up to the more affluent clientele of the parish and ignoring the less prosperous members.

Indeed I assured both him and the rest of the gathered parochial church council that evening that they had no need to fear! The Vet also mentioned to the gathering, which'd turned out to assess us, that a parish magazine needed to be started; and though this venture would be run by them (the church council), a letter from myself, once I’d been duly installed as their rector, would also be welcome! ‘Big deal!’ I said to myself, smiled and remained mute.

However, after being duly inducted in to the benefice, and in consultation with my bishop the next month, I was advised to the contrary. ‘As rector you would be very wise to hold the editorship in your own hands; this is part of your commission and responsibility as priest of the parish!’ Consequently, once inducted - and having learnt much from far-off days as an apprentice printer - I soon brought out an attractive parish magazine; and, in a sense, I suppose, over their heads! Nevertheless, I had learned from the past never to become a puppet to a few but rather a prophet to the masses. I determined to publish - after much prayer - what God wanted me to say rather than man.

It was, indeed, round about this time that I visited a young couple; the husband having been largely left a smallish farm. “Come round. I’ve something to show you!” he said, and we made our way to an outhouse very much like a garage. ‘I know!’ I said to myself; ‘when he opens this door – pulling it up on the top hinges - he’ll have a flashy new, low built open sports car!’ Well, what a shock confronted me, because ‘out of the pitch darkness’ peering up at me from the end of long straggly necks were birds literally crammed together.

A strange humming kind of sound; and a feeling that I was witnessing something from a horror movie took hold of me. “What do you think?”, he excitedly asked as he looked towards my eyes. “Well – no disrespects – but don’t you think it’s rather a bit cruel?” I asked; “- and particularly, as you’ve said, your birds were previously outside?” He shrugged off my comment as hardly worthy of a second thought. “No. It’s the latest up to date innovation, and I’m in on it!” he said: “The Vet assures me that everything is OK; Come and meet my Wife; have a cup of tea, or something stronger!” Well, such was the gist of that conversation as I seek to review and recall it from the late nineteen sixties.

Later that afternoon, I said goodbye to such a most affable young couple, and it would not have been without a prayer for their home and their business. But during at least four days that followed – I remember it as if yesterday! - a battle was waging in my mind and eventually, on a sunny afternoon, I returned when the young husband was out and – after discussing the possibility of them returning to their previous practice of rearing turkeys out of doors – seemed to have very much won the support of the young and vivacious farmer’s wife. However, within a fortnight and repercussions followed that reverberated throughout - what outwardly appeared - a peaceful and most idyllic parish. It began with a horrific visit from ‘Vet Number: 1’ .

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