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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 217 - Spring 2011


On 20 November, the Saturday Choral Evensong at Gloucester cathedral was dedicated to a lady whose life was devoted to justice for animals. The day before, your Editor was invited to give the Thought for the Day on Radio Winchcombe, a small Cotswold town in Gloucestershire. She naturally used it to talk about Mary Elizabeth Wemyss. This is that Thought, followed by [a reduced version of] the sermon preached at the well-attended service in the cathedral by the Revd Dr Martin Henig, a former Professor at the University of Oxford.


I’d like to tell you about a church service being held tomorrow afternoon, at 4.30, at Gloucester cathedral. It is a choral evensong, with the cathedral choir, but this one has a special animal theme. Why animal? Because it is the centenary anniversary of the death of a lady who ‘devoted her life and means to righting the wrongs of helpless dumb creatures’. This is what it says on a brass plaque in the cathedral, on the north wall, opposite the entrance. It adds that her righting wrongs involved the setting up of the Gloucester and West Gloucestershire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1869. Who was she? Her name is Mary Elizabeth Wemyss, born in 1816 and died in November, 1910. Apart from this, we know very little about her, although maybe somebody listening knows something. Do let us know if you do.

But what a memorial! Here was someone who lived at a time when women played virtually no part in political or commercial life, and whose finances were generally controlled by their fathers or their husbands. Yet there is an honourable tradition in this country of strong, principled women spending their energies, time, and resources in caring for others who were not able to protect themselves. We need only think of Mary Carpenter, Florence Nightingale, and the social reformer Josephine Butler, but there were thousands of others less well-known. Incidentally, while Josephine Butler’s husband was head of Cheltenham College in the mid-nineteenth century, she and he received much hostility from the people of Cheltenham for their opposition to slavery. It’s not easy being a righter of wrongs. And now to the list of slaves, prisoners, the sick, and the poor are added helpless dumb creatures, animals, as victims whose sufferings needed to be addressed by one of these doughty ladies. Several of the causes they fought for have been taken up into the mainstream of social concerns. No-one now deprives girls of education or supports slavery, poor sanitation or thinks of the poor as deserving their station in life.

Yet somehow the cause for which Mary Elizabeth Wemyss fought is still not won. In fact in many ways it has deteriorated. Helpless dumb creatures face living in conditions far worse than their Victorian ancestors. Millions spend their short lives in battery cages and vast factory sheds with no outdoor grazing, unable even to turn round. Our animal rescue shelters are overflowing with discarded cats and dogs, mainly of the bull-dog breeds. Our laboratories experiment on millions of animals every year despite there being humane, and more effective, alternatives available. Just think of the lives of the ducks, turkeys and geese whose corpses are about to deck the tables of our Christmas festivities – unless free-range, they will have been subject to unspeakably unnatural conditions.

So while we celebrate the life of a remarkable Victorian lady with an uplifting and inspiring cathedral service tomorrow, let us not forget that righting the wrongs of helpless dumb creatures is still an active need. One that has to be taken up by all the Churches – none of which has been leading the way in this field. In learning to care for animals we are simply following the moral bases of all the major religions – to be compassionate, merciful and unselfish. In the Scriptures common to both Jews and Christians we see God making covenants with all his creatures. To God the creator, we are all creatures, and all beloved. St Francis of Assisi expressed this by calling each created thing, living or not, his brother or sister. We are closer to the animals than people in the past ever realised, feeling pain and suffering in much the same way. So the best way to honour Mary Elizabeth Wemyss will be not just in singing and praying, but in continuing her work, in whatever ways we can, to make this a better world for all the creatures who live upon it, human and animal alike.


Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times (Numbers 22, 32-3)

Last Monday we celebrated Francis, the saint revered everywhere because of his care for and reverence of the Creation in which he saw the hand of God, the Creator. He was by no means the only Christian saint to be moved by animals nor is he alone in believing they have lives worth living for themselves and without reference to human concerns. Amongst many others we can list St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzen, St Anthony, St Giles, St Cuthbert of Holy Island and St Godric of Finchale .However, it has to be admitted that care for the natural world and for animals have not been a major preoccupation of the Church either in the past or now. Indeed the Hebrew Bible is richer by far in appreciation of the non-human world than the writings of the New Testament. The story of Baalam and the Ass, like that of Jonah in which God saves the great city of Nineveh in part because of the animals living there demonstrate how other creatures are not mere incidentals in God’s plan.

Although there is evidence enough that Jesus himself was open to all the life in the countryside around him, there is a problem in the urban background of St Paul and other early Fathers of the Church, but more significant is the manner in which the Church imbibed Hellenic influence especially from Aristotle which made man the ‘measure of all things’. This was reinforced by such influential philosophers as St Augustine of Hippo, in the Middle Ages by St Thomas Aquinas and in the early modern period, by René Descartes. The last in particular viewed animals as little more than machines so it was regarded as acceptable to treat them in any way one liked, barring the fact that cruelty could have a corrosive affect on the human perpetrator.

RSPCA founded

Fortunately the Hebraic tradition was always there, even if sometimes muted, and from the time of the Enlightenment, in England especially, there were powerful voices raised against the ill-treatment of animals both within the Church (for example John Wesley and the Blessed John Henry Newman who compared vivisection to the agony of Christ on the cross) and outside it (Alexander Pope, William Blake, William Cowper, Christopher Smart and Lord Byron amongst others). Even so, when James Granger, Vicar of Shiplake preached a sermon against cruelty to animals in 1773 his congregation objected, regarding it as ‘a prostitution of the pulpit and as proof of the author’s growing insanity’ – I suppose they could have produced in evidence that Christopher Smart was a patient in Bedlam. Nevertheless a period of growing sensibility and gentility had come and the Society – later the Royal Society – for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded by an Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, in 1824, its first secretary, followed as its second secretary by a Jewish philosopher, Lewis Gompertz.

Alas, in our own society, there is still far too much that does not conform with our notion of ourselves as civilized people, there are still horrific acts of violence against defenseless animals, acts we would not like to think we were guilty of abetting but which we allow to be carried out in our name...

For 60 years I have watched animals in a non-systematic, but I hope thoughtful, way, and arrived at conclusions very different from those of Aristotle. These have been re-enforced by a book which definitively undermines our previous understanding of animal life as somehow less important than human life and as such seems to me to be one of the most important recent contributions to theology. In contrast to Richard Dawkins with his rather crude attempt to dethrone God, Jonathan Balcombe in Second Nature: the inner lives of animals [see The Ark 216] instead dethrones humankind, and that is much more uncomfortable for our own self-regard. Indeed Balcombe takes issue with Dawkins over the prevalence of selfishness and violence in nature, instead finding such destructiveness as a quality unique to man...

One is frequently confronted by the statement that out of all Creation only we have souls and animals do not. In fact the Hebrew Bible tends to use soul, Ruach, as the ‘breath of life’ common to all sentient beings. Greek thought was focused simply on humans having an immortal soul but it is illogical to deny that animals, indeed all beings that have ever existed, also have a part in salvation. [It] is to make the same mistake as Job did in seeing God as far, far too small. There is a consequence in that the meat in the butcher’s shop or on your plate is part of an ensouled being to which a positive evil has been done and for which we are accountable...

Of course there is cruelty in nature but there is far less deliberate cruelty than exists in human society as manifested in our wars, our genocides, our massive and sustained cruelties of man to man and man to animals... And of course there is a price to pay, as the perpetrators of these abuses become desensitized, for there are also proven links (as explored in a recent Oxford conference) between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people. Richard Dawkins need not blame God or even religion for this. Atheists are every bit as destructive and cruel – notably the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia. But if you are religious, if you are a Christian, there is a growing gulf between the Love incumbent on you and your actions; are you really following Christ, the Lamb of God, the innocent victim of violence if you are violent and if you treat the world as commodity? If you do that you will find the pedestal on which you will have set yourself as one of the Lords of Creation will prove as insubstantial as the Tower of Babel. In short if you treat Creation as your commodity, if you sanction cruelty, if you treat Creation without pity, and find kindness too difficult, do you not strike Heaven in the face?

For me Balcombe’s book with its many recorded instances of loving relations between animals has very much re-enforced my faith in a loving ( but suffering) God than otherwise... But where are we to place mankind in the evolutionary process, which is the way God works in our world? Certainly mankind in all sorts of ways does not seem to be the summit of Creation ... if any summit was indeed ever intended by God! Man is certainly endowed with a powerful brain but in many respects his senses – sight, smell, speed, manual dexterity and intuition amongst them – are deficient compared with those possessed by other creatures. And what about his moral sense? Was Christ sent to man because mankind was uniquely good or because Homo Sapiens was uniquely in need of a saviour? Events speak louder than words: we crucified Christ as we have crucified many others before and since. Isn’t that the answer?

As [Christians] we are required to hone our scriptural faith to our traditions and, above all, to reason – which means our best understanding of the world based on scientific evidence... What we do about our increasing knowledge and how we respond to the teachings of Holy Wisdom, depends now, as it always has done, on us. ... A loving approach to Creation at minimum must include the complete proscription of factory farming as totally unethical and unchristian, and ... condemn inhumane slaughter methods – though are any methods ‘humane’? – including Muslim (halal) and Jewish (kosher) ones, and it should include a vast reduction of experiments on animals leading quickly to replacement. The anathema of John Henry Newman against the practice of vivisection in his sermon preached in Oxford, on Good Friday 1842, still very much stands and it was tellingly echoed in Oxford a year or two ago by Matthew Simpson in a peaceful protest against the Animal Lab in which, like Newman, he brought Christ fully into the discussion: for a Christian, ends can never justify means. It can never be right for the strong to persecute the weak. Further the Christian response should of necessity include a ban on killing animals for fun, bullfighting, cockfighting and hunting... It is incumbent on all of us, on every one of us, to make care for Creation a real priority for the Church. And when animals suffer, when they are killed in slaughterhouses, maimed in traps or else are the victims of deliberate cruelty, where is Christ? Of course he is with them, he is with the animals, suffering with them, embracing them in his loving arms. And where are we? We are not Lords of Creation but as Genesis tells us merely servants like the rest of created order…and until now, unjust servants in that we feel we have a license to ill-treat our fellow creatures. However the unjust servant, as Matthew tells us (18:23-35), will inevitably be punished for his cruelty and his arrogance.…

I cannot pay tribute enough to those, many of them children, teenagers or in early adulthood, who are fired by these considerations and wish to make a difference to the legacy of cruelty and it is to them that this sermon is dedicated. Francistide demands of us an audit of how we are living up to the ideals of Christ, espoused by Francis through his adult life. Praise be to God for all the wonders of his glorious Creation .

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