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A Publication of


From The Ark, Number 184

Animal Blessing Service


In this ancient church in central Oxford, in which John Wesley had onced preached, and William Shakespeare had acted at the font as a godfather, the annual animal service took place in September, 1999. The Vicar took the service, with Ark Chairman, Mervyn Bocking, accompanying the singing on the organ, and Ark Editor, Deborah Jones, giving the address. This is the text of that address, with one of the preceding readings. The Gospel passage was Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes).

A reading from Hosea 2:16-20

And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’
And no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’

For I will remove the names of Baals from her mouth,
And they shall be mentioned by name no more.

And I will make for them
A covenant on that day
With the beasts of the field, the birds of the air,
And the creeping things of the ground;
And I will abolish the bow, the sword
And war from the land;
And I will make you lie down in safety.

And I will betroth you to me for ever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
In steadfast love, and in mercy.

I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
And you will know the Lord

The Address

We’re here today in this place because we’re lovers. First – of God, the God of love – who loved all that exists into being. Then, because we’ve been graced with a tiny particle of that ability to love, so we love (or at least we try to) all that God loves – all of it – without distinction of species, of race, of any artificial barriers. Of course, this raises complications – when God said in the beginning that it was Good, God was looking at everything from a point of view that isn’t ours: it’s quite hard for us to love life-forms hostile to the human race – but that just shows our limitations.

What nonsense it is to say, as many do, that you can love only one element, the human for example, but not the animal; or should be compassionate only for the human poor but not for the animal victims of human cruelty. Love cannot be boxed up like that, not the sort of love God demonstrates through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we say that that love is boundless, we mean it is for all that has been given life. The more we love God, and so open ourselves to that boundlessness of love – the more our love for all creation increases.

Two brick walls

However, we’re are not talking about love in the sense of religious ‘comfort-blankets’, although for those who really need to be comforted, they can look to religion. No, we’re talking love as in ‘life and death’. And now we come up against two huge brick walls, two powerful sources of pain and frustration: one is that everybody does not ‘love a lover’, whatever the silly song says. There are many, many vested and powerful interests opposed to any love for creation that goes beyond sentiment. (Sentiment and sentimentality can help to motivate, but must never be turned into an end in itself – that’s the Enemy’s way of seeing that love goes no further than feelings.) There are also many people so deprived of love and of loving that they have no energy or interest or sympathy with those who can and do. You know them and have heard their incomprehension and their mockery… We have only to remember the fate of the prophets of Israel who loved God and the people so much that they paid, very often, with their lives in the cause of what was right and just – unlike the institutional prophets who spoke comfortable words which people like to hear but which do no good.

The second ‘brick wall’ is one within ourselves. It’s so much easier not to love, or to love only when there is a return for it, or only when it is safe to do so. But to love when there is pain, real emotional pain involved (and who can read a report by the RSPCA or Compassion in World Farming, or by any of the other agencies – or even the daily newspapers – without being torn open with sorrow and anger and horror?).

There is much more support given to those whose active love extends to only human victims – these people are thought to be humane and honourable; but to those who try to relieve both human and animal suffering (and I’ve yet to meet a genuine animal welfarist who was not also active in human welfare in some way) there is the accusation that the activity for animals is misplaced.

Services like this are good, prayer of course is central. The saints can give encouragement – the Celtic saints, St Francis, of course, St Philip Neri, St Martin de Porres – there are many. Organisations and agencies are critical, with their active workers and their supporting members. But we must never forget that there are also quiet sympathisers, or potential sympathisers out there: people who are making up their minds, or who are on the brink of supporting, but perhaps have never been asked. People whom we must never put off simply because they are not as committed as we would like. They may ‘love a lover’ yet! They won’t ever love aggressive, rude or arrogant people, however committed they may be to a just cause.

We have hope

More people than ever before are aware of the spectrum of animal concerns, there is more TV and news coverage: animal concerns are fashionable – it is our responsibility to see that they do not fall out of fashion.

Churches are making tiny steps in right direction – I know, they're taking up the rear instead of leading the way – but there are discernible signs of movement at leadership level in most of mainstream churches.

This brings us back to the Hosea reading (above). We all know the story of how the prophet Hosea used the motif of the unfaithful wife to symbolise Israel's unfaithfulness to her God, a cultic infidelity: turning towards the fertility cults (the Baals), of the neighbouring tribes. Theextract above occurs within a legal-type passage, in it Israel stands accused and is urged three times to return. The first time she is threatened with the prevention of her wandering off, the second threat (it gets worse) that her good harvests will fail (to show who is actually responsible for them – and it’s not the so-called fertility gods!). For the third threat, even as Israel prepares to 'seduce her lovers', so that you’d imagine this would lead to the harshest punishment, we come to the passage we heard earlier: God 'seduces' Israel. God offers a new betrothal, a new covenant with creation, a new time of peace. The centre of the passage, the linking of peace-making with the new covenant with the animals, birds and ‘creeping things’, makes perfect sense. How can violence, oppression and cruelty ever be eliminated in human society if people are to remain insensitive to the suffering caused to animals? There is a school of cruelty that practices wing-pulling on flies, stamping on insects, then progresses to kicking mammals and shooting birds and then graduates to rape and domestic violence, or the planting of land-mines and civil war. Conversely, a child taught to respect wild-life and be kind to their pets, will become considerate to other people. Justice and peace are inseparable from 'the integrity of creation'. All is painted on the same canvas.

New Covenant with all creatures - and peace

The images of warfare in this passage can also be taken to refer to God starting over again with creation: not just renewing a covenant, but making a wholly new three-sided one - between God, humans and animals. In ancient Israelite and neighbouring mythology, the creator-God fought against the primeval powers of chaos at the beginning of time, slaying the Leviathan monster with a mighty sword and letting fly arrows as lightning-bolts. Hanging up his bow in the sky, as at Noah's covenant, is a sign that the cosmic war is over and creation established in security and sabbath-peace. In this new creation the beasts, the birds and the creeping things will be brought into a new covenant relationship with the people, and they shall all dwell in righteousness and justice.

Although this is to be brought about by God's initiative, the Beatitudes passage, teaches us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, and peacemaking will be blessed.

So, courage, my friends, our cause is a just one and our hope is in God. So despite the disappointments and frustrations, the tears of compassion and the chokings of rage, we know that, ultimately, we shall prevail and that all the animals so abused and suffering yesterday and today have each been noticed by their divine Creator and I am sure have been drawn into the infinity of God's healing love.


l. For further reading on this topic, see The Ecological Challenge: ethical, liturgical, and spiritual responses, edited by Richard N Fragomeni and John T Pawlikowski.(The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota).

Return to The Ark No. 184

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