An Open Letter to the Bishops on Hunting
By Andrew Linzey
Please forgive this unusual form of communication,
but the matter has now become urgent, and there is little time
left. The Government has now published its Bill on Hunting,
and shortly both Houses in Parliament will have an opportunity
to make their views known. I have read carefully the contributions
made by the bishops in the Lords, and I believe that there
are important theological and ethical considerations that have
yet to be articulated.
The bishops who have spoken so far are concerned
about the welfare of the rural communities they represent,
and also about the social and cultural aspects of hunting.
Some feel, quite understandably, that rural concerns have been
marginalised, and that farmers are experiencing unique difficulties.
It is less clear, however, that these bishops have heard those
who regard the issue of cruelty as central to this debate.
While some bishops have made references to animal welfare,
very few have fully addressed the issue of cruelty.
I define ‘cruelty’ as the deliberate infliction
of suffering upon a sentient creature – when it is not performed
for that individual animal’s own benefit (for example, in a
veterinary operation). That hunting with dogs is ‘cruel’ is
uncontestable. There is ample scientific evidence that all
mammals experience, stress, terror, shock, anxiety, fear, trauma,
foreboding, as well as physical pain. It is also ‘deliberate’ in
that those who hunt do so with the express aim of pursuing
a creature to its death. Not all may witness the death, but
those who participate can be in no doubt about the result,
at least, for most of the hunted species.
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Humans are moral agents with the freedom to
make moral decisions. That consideration is of central relevance
to the debate about hunting. What is so objectionable is that
moral beings, who should know better, choose to engage in an
activity that results in cruelty. There is all the difference
in the world between the accidental or instinctual infliction
of harm by non-moral things or agents, and the volitional infliction
of suffering by moral agents. In short: it is the difference
between an ‘accident’, or a ‘misfortune’, and a morally evil
It therefore will not do, as some bishops have
attempted, to justify hunting by reference to the facts that ‘foxes
are not kindly in their ways’, or that, ‘the natural world is
not a kindly place’, as if nature was a moral textbook, or
capable of relieving us of our obligations as moral agents.
speaking, cruelty is a wholly human act; it presupposes freedom
There are good theological grounds for regarding
such acts as intrinsically objectionable. Human beings are
made in the ‘image of God’ and given ‘dominion’ over animals. It is
true that, in the past, both notions have been used to defend
an exploitative attitude toward animals, but there are almost
no scholars today who endorse that implication. Rather, we are
to act as God’s deputies – made in the image of God who is holy,
loving and just, and uniquely commissioned to care for creation
as God cares. To the question, ‘Why should we care for animals?’ there
is only one biblical answer: ‘We are given that duty of care’.
From this standpoint, the deliberate infliction
of suffering on ‘lesser creatures’ who are wholly in our power,
and who are, strictly speaking, morally innocent, is a gross
betrayal of our God-given responsibility. It is Christologically
unenlightened for one bishop to defend hunting by arguing that, ‘there
is in the tradition of the three Abrahamic faiths a gulf fixed
between the human race and the rest of the created order’ – as
if power was its own justification. That ‘gulf’ should, at
least in part, be filled up by the exercise of moral solicitude.
C. S. Lewis observed, our superiority over animals partly consists
in our acknowledging obligations to them which they cannot
acknowledge to us.
But cruelty is not just an intrinsically objectionable
act; it is a token of moral meanness; a practical example of
our failure to live generously after the example of Jesus.
There is, as Cardinal Newman indicated, ‘something so very dreadful,
so satanic in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and
who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power [and]
who have weapons neither of offence or defence …’. And he concludes
his consideration of the Christ-like innocence of animals with
this appeal: ‘Think, then, my brethren of your feelings at cruelty
practised on brute animals, and you will gain one sort of feeling
which the history of Christ’s Cross and Passion ought to excite
But there is more. Hunting is not undertaken
(as all killing should be) as a regrettable act sometimes made
necessary in a sinful and fallen world, rather it is celebrated
as a ‘sport’. It is here, most of all, that we should glimpse
its utter incompatibility with the Gospel of God’s free, generous
love in Jesus Christ. People hunt because they enjoy it. In the
words of Baroness Mallalieu: ‘Hunting is our music, it is our
poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure …’. Thousands have
not marched in London simply to defend the ‘most efficient’ means
of killing foxes.
It is crucial to understand why the taking of
pleasure in the infliction of suffering is so morally deplorable.
It may be morally permissible to smack a child when performed
with the intention of rectifying regressive behaviour. But all
should properly recoil at parents who enjoy this act.
The taking of pleasure renders what might, conceivably, be a
morally licit act into one that is disturbed, even depraved.
A ban on hunting (any more than a ban on smacking) will not by
itself prevent such depravity, but it will, at least, limit the
number of victims.
Specifically, there is a Christian dimension
which deserves to be articulated. It is we – the species to whom
so much power has been given - who should faithfully reflect
that trust by acts of care and generosity to the animal world.
If God’s power in Christ was manifest in acts of sacrifical
love, and a special solicitude exhibited towards the poor,
vulnerable, should not our power be so similarly directed?
And are all those Christian virtues to be solely exercised
I fear not only the judgment of God, but also
the judgment of history. Is hunting now to be counted among the
long list of moral issues, including capital punishment, votes
for women, or the protection of children, on which bishops have
either frustrated, or voted against, reform? There is no more
desultory experience than reading the past record of Anglican
bishops on moral issues.
Specifically, it is odd to see bishops so apparently
uncomprehending of the anti-cruelty cause since our Christian
forebears pioneered it. Many luminaries of the nineteenth-century – William
Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Fowell Buxton – to take only
three examples, saw it as their Christian duty to oppose cruelty
in all its forms. Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, founded the
SPCA (as it then was) in 1824 as a Christian organisation.
In 1909, the Bishop of Hereford sponsored -
with the support of five other members of the bench of bishops
- a bill to outlaw deer hunting, pigeon shooting, and rabbit
coursing. Speaking in support, the, then, Archbishop of Canterbury
commented that, ‘I firmly believe that fifty years hence it will
be found as impossible for the then members of your Lordships’s
House to realise why we refrained from taking exception to rabbit-coursing
as it is pursued today as we now find it difficult to understand
why a hundred years ago exception was not taken to things like
bull-baiting’. Almost one hundred years later, it appears that
the sensibilities of (at least the most vocal) Christian bishops
are no more advanced about hunting and coursing than they were
The hunting debate is at a critical juncture.
The Government is now proposing a fudged piece of legislation,
which will allow the hunting of foxes, mink, and hares, to
continue under license. Licensing will imbue these ‘sports’ with a kind
of legitimacy, which they do not possess morally, and ought not
to have legally. Indeed, the whole notion of ‘licensing’ cruel
acts is an affront to moral theology.
The so-called principles of ‘utility’ and ‘cruelty’ (like
the question-begging formula ‘necessary cruelty’) presuppose
a wholly utilitarian (and secular) justification for cruelty.
There are times when some measure of compromise may be morally
laudable, but this is not one of them. Hunting mammals with
dogs for sport belongs to that class of always morally impermissible
acts along with rape, child abuse, and torture. Whatever else
is true, the Christian Gospel and cruelty are incompatible.
In the debates so far, the bench of bishops
have voted for the continuance of hunting. But I do not believe
that these bishops represent the mind of the Church in England,
or of the wider Anglican Church in this country. I appeal to
those many bishops who are opposed to hunting, whether in the
Lords or not, to make their voices known – and I would be grateful
to hear from them. It would be tragic if the Church utterly
wrong-footed itself in this debate to which it has so much
I wish you – and all God’s creatures – a peaceful
The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey is a member
of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford, and
holds the world’s first post in theology and animal welfare – the
Bede Jarrett Senior Research Fellowship – at Blackfriars Hall,
Oxford. He is Honorary Professor of Theology at the University
of Birmingham. His books on animals include: Animal Theology (SCM
Press, 1994), After Noah (Mowbray, 1997), Animals
on the Agenda (SCM Press, 1998), Animal Gospel (Hodder
and Stoughton, 1998) and Animal Rites (SCM Press, 1999).
In 2001 he was awarded a DD by the Archbishop of Canterbury
for his ‘unique and massive pioneering contribution in the
area of the theology of creation, with particular reference
to the rights and welfare of God’s sentient creatures’.
Text of a full page advertisement which appeared
in the Church Times, 20 December, 2002, sponsored by the
Campaign to Protect the Hunted Animal, an umbrella group consisting
of the League Against Cruel Sports, the International Fund for
Animal Welfare, and the RSPCA.
© Copyright, Andrew Linzey 2002.