By John Gilheany
Chapter 11 from his book
Familiar Strangers: The Church and the Vegetarian Movement in Britain
The Animal Padre's Christians Against All Animal Abuse website.
In the late 1940’s James Thompson (1930 – 2015) began to investigate
the local Christian denominations and sects within the vicinity of his
hometown of Holywell in Clwyd. He left North Wales in 1948, in response
to the call of ministerial life and enrolled in full-time study at
Glasgow’s Bible Training Institute. The building seemed like “…a large
and eerie Victorian edifice,” with no less dismal an internal existence
that partly stemmed from the post-war rationing of fuel and food (1).
Yet the period of austerity and intense study brought its own benefits
whilst further back-street investigation unveiled native Christian
fellowship in all its forms. However the young student’s attendance at
the college lasted but a term due to concern for his recently bereaved
mother, financial difficulties and reservations that were expressed
about his coursework. Upon returning to Holywell, it was difficult for
the future clergyman to avoid a sense of religious attainment while
pondering his next move. And as he sat on a park bench and thumbed
through his Bible for inspiration, the young man was joined by an inmate
from the local workhouse, Mr Norberry:
He was not the cleanest of sights, salivating and conspicuous with
his hairy workhouse suit…With slaver running from his mouth through
stubs of black teeth, he spoke to me: ‘I see you are reading the Bible.’
I hardly replied. It was obvious! Then with piercing, kindly eyes, which
seemed to convey much past sorrow, he turned to me and said, ‘God is
love, you know!’ He repeated the phrase and it seemed as if he became
intensely excited. Somehow, joy seemed to flow through that sad face as
he told me to look around at the trees. ‘God is love and He is
everywhere,’ he affirmed. ‘In the grass, the sky, the fields, there is
God;’ and then pointing to himself he said: ‘and God is in me!’ Yes, and
such truth was being expressed through the radiance of his face”(2).
The encounter may have lasted no more than a minute but it was to be
of lifelong inspiration to the future theology of James Thompson:
This inhabitant of the workhouse – not quite compos mentis – was
intensely in tune with God. He was undoubtedly, to use religious jargon,
‘baptised in the Spirit…’ Three months in a Bible institute and I was
fast becoming a spiritual snob, convinced that I knew the ABC of
It was during 1954 that James Thompson first became the subject of
fascination in the national press. Whilst working full-time as pastor at
a Baptist Chapel in Bradford, he eloped with a seventeen year-old
girlfriend who was to become his first wife. Their pursuit by pressmen
led them to Newcastle and London with front page tabloid coverage
ensuing along the way (3). Indeed, from earlier employment as a cinema
projectionist, James was particularly aware that their elopement “…was
more romantic than most of the Hollywood romances I’d screened!” (4).
James and Katie eventually departed the national limelight after the
full story behind their marriage was sold to the 1950’s equivalent of
Hello! (5). The couple experienced vegetarian cookery for the first time
whilst visiting the halls of an American Christian sect, in London
during 1954 (6). However, James’ outspoken support for animal liberation
would take decades to ferment and largely emerged from everyday
experience of human chauvinism within Christian culture. Indeed the
extraordinary nature of clerical concern for animal plight has
undoubtedly ushered the radical cleric towards dozens of press and wider
media reports since the late1960’s. In 1962 James Thompson entered the
Congregational ministry after four years of full-time seminary study
(7). It was during his third year as a student pastor in a small
Yorkshire village that James encountered an old hut with boarded-up
windows: “The stench from it was awful and I could hear the noise of
hens inside” (8).
He soon learned that the location contained battery hens and
naturally considered embarking upon a local protest. However the
community was closely-knit and the congregation – the source of his
wages – even smaller. Consequently, James kept quiet and would
“I felt a worm but I was in an impossible situation.”
situation eventually became intolerable and he set his ambitions on an
Anglican curacy. It was the obvious way for the clergyman to honour his
conscience having briefly tasted every Christian denomination of the
For: “The C of E gives its ministers security under a system of
‘parson’s privilege’ which was brought in to allow the minister to be
free from the dictates of the local squire” (9).
In 1966 he received further training at Oxford University and
subsequent placement at a parish in Doncaster, where he soon appeared on
the cover of a local newspaper in relation to animal welfare. The story
featured the behaviour of local youths who had attacked birds with air
rifles and left a cat hung from a tree in nearby woodland. James
It is surely high time that the law tightened its penalties against
the young thugs and layabouts who are responsible for such vile
Although public sentiment would typically tend to vindicate such an
assessment there was acute division within the vicarage:
Soon the curate’s vicar was ‘up in arms’ because young people within
the parish were being shown up for their barbarism! The mothers of these
vandals were being consoled by their vicar who was strongly opposed to
this curate’s militance (11).
The dispute precipitated his transfer to the small but affluent
parish of Firbeck-cum-Letwell, on the border of South Yorkshire and
Nottinghamshire during 1969. It was there that Rev Thompson began to
experience the influence of hunting and factory farming upon Church of
…it was hinted that if I did not cause trouble I could have a very
comfortable life there.” But instead; “I spoke out against foxhunting,
battery farming and vivisection because I believe that no good can come
from evil (12).
It was not a popular stance and the local vet became the unofficial
representative of hurt feelings among his best clients! Their grievances
stemmed from some of the Rector’s articles in the parish magazine which
perhaps predictably, led to a withdrawal of covenants and a tense
encounter with the elderly parish critic:
As this prominent vet raged, holding his two sticks, I affirmed that
I would not have the audacity to tell him how to run his veterinary
practice; so neither would I have him tell me how to run my church…I
told the vet that ‘God helping me’, I would be as fearless in
proclaiming the truth as had been John the Baptist. Whereupon, on
leaving the rectory, his parting words were: ‘Watch that your head is
not knocked off as the Baptist’s was!’ (13).
There followed a series of; “…soul destroying, backbiting, power
seeking church council meetings” – most of which were fermented by the
churchwarden of 21 years standing whose “character and style” would
eventually reverberate through an uncanny rendition in The Vicar of
Dibley! (14) On one particular occasion; “…he did the unforgivable; he
turned up at divine worship leaving his rifle in the church porch, so as
to continue his blood sports when the Sunday service was finished” (15).
The ‘ways of the country’ even invaded the Rectory when the Vicar
received a brace of pheasants from a local aristocrat:
I offered a
short and silent prayer for guidance; and then handed back the birds to
his gamekeeper – along with appropriate words to convey! I wasn’t at
that stage a vegetarian but my opposition to any calculated form of
animal cruelty had been well aired, and I had no intention to hobnob or
possibly ease the conscience of those whose life-styles clashed so
openly with my own (16).
The young Vicar was certainly a match for individual shooting
enthusiasts and their performance at parish council meetings (17).
However, field sports enthusiasts were already adept at orchestrated
entryism wherever significant opposition to their recreation arose (18).
His second annual parish meeting was particularly well attended with
unfamiliar Anglican faces that were nonetheless entirely eligible to
vote! The ex-Churchwarden was promptly appointed People’s warden and the
Rector essentially lost control of parish affairs. Throughout the
meeting, Rev Thompson’s two main churchgoing enemies could be seen;
“…sniggering across to each other, while they’d constantly sought to
trip me up on trumped up ‘points of order’” (19). It was a defeat for
Rev. Thompson’s ministry during which some of the worst tendencies of
human nature were revealed through the nonetheless devastating expertise
of his opponents. However there was little time for the young Rector to
become dejected, for the next morning there was the offer of an
incumbency in an industrial Anglo-Catholic parish which went with the
chaplaincy of a newly-opened hospital (20).
In 1971, Rev. Thompson became the Vicar of Milnsbridge, in the
suburbs of Huddersfield. As the winter approached there was growing
concern among animal lovers over the neglect of sheepdogs on the Pennine
moor-land which led to local press coverage. James recalls:
…in contrast with their daily feeding and befriending of these dogs,
my efforts were minimal. I simply visited the sites. And knowing that
‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ I wrote to the paper, commending
the compassion and care they had shown to defenceless creatures.
Consequently, the publicity that followed proved enough to terminate the
whole nasty business (21).
His natural investigative tendency led the priest to request a tour
of a factory farming complex which was run by a Methodist lay preacher
at around this time:
…what I saw there quite horrified me: calves tethered in stalls where
they couldn’t even turn sideways; where they were constantly kept in
semi-darkness, and no doubt fed on an iron deficient diet so as to
whiten their flesh for the gourmets. Pigs were tethered in iron maidens
resulting in bleeding nipples. And hens were crammed in animal Belsens
for speeded egg production” (22).
Perhaps it should not be surprising that within a few years the
parish grounds had become home to several liberated battery hens! That a
born advocate of animal rights should only embrace vegetarianism
relatively late in life is nonetheless indicative of the lack of
influence that ‘food reformation’ ever really exerted upon post-war
Britons. In his retirement the Pastor would eventually reflect upon the
meat-eating custom, in a booklet of contemplative memoirs that was
published in 1996:
…we’ve been horribly conditioned over the years to see no harm in it.
In fact, up to two decades ago, without meat on the plate I considered
my dinner was void of the essential nutrients; and all the doctors
around – excluding castigated ‘quacks’! – were only too keen to further
this fallacy (23).
James became a vegetarian through cooking his own meals in the years
that followed the break-up of his first marriage in 1978. He was
transferred to another Yorkshire parish in 1980 where he met Doreen, who
was to become his present wife. Their first encounter was at a Christian
Friendship Fellowship meeting in Wakefield during November 1980 and
During the next two years I saw James on and off, usually at CFF
meetings which were held in Leeds and then Bradford, and occasionally
he’d ask me out for the day. Both of us had a turbulent end to our
marriages against our will and were a bit shell shocked, so were loathe
to form any deep relationship (24).
However after a visit to the Isle
of Wight with friends in 1982:
We had such a wonderful time and got on so well he suggested on the
way home it would be nice to make a go of it. We married fourteen months
later in November 1983.
For four years, James was the priest within a newly formed Team
Ministry in Dewsbury and became more outspoken in his support for animal
rights activism during this period. Whilst collecting signatures for the
main political animal welfare lobby prior to the 1983 general election,
James used his position to condemn the wearing of fur coats, in a local
newspaper. He proclaimed:
Cruelty to animals is far worse than eating meat on a Friday used to
be, or getting drunk on a Sunday…I think it is a worse evil than any
blasphemy or obscene word. How dare the Christian Church speak about the
Holy Spirit’s renewal in the churches when the fruits of the Spirit are
either completely absent or else limited to homo sapiens (25).
It should therefore be of little surprise that by 1983, the clergyman
was a leading local figure within a rapidly growing movement (26). It
was a period when direct action and mass protest combined through raids
which were intended to gather intelligence, rescue animals and exploit
media sensationalism. Consequently, Rev. Thompson made local headlines
in 1983 because of his support for illegal forms of protest:
As a Christian I would not advocate anarchy or violence, but at the
same time I realise even the Lord upturned the money-changers’ tables in
the temple (27).
In the same year, Rev Thompson led a funeral-themed protest at
Bradford University and attacked the churches during a speech at a
Like the Pharisees at the time of Christ, clergy, bishops,
archbishops, cardinals and the Pope are obsessed with relatively minor
issues like sexual morality and four letter words while ignoring animal
It may not have been a recipe for promotion but the Pastor felt at
home within a movement where thirst for justice appeared to be pursued
within an absence of preoccupation with eternal reward or punishment.
James and Doreen moved to Aberdeen in November 1984 and adopted a more
conventional though no less notable approach to activism within a hectic
parish ministry. As Doreen recalls:
His work was busy with a church, four hospitals to cover for the
Episcopal Church, marking for St. John’s College students and being the
representative on the Aberdeen Council for all churches including the
Jewish community; except Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic who had
In the summer of 1985 they visited an infamous monument and source of
Scottish folklore which was to prove particularly inspirational to
One of my most moving experiences was not on a pilgrimage to a
shrine, but, - believe it or not – to visit a little dog’s grave:I have
been to Greyfriar’s Churchyard in Edinburgh to pray at the side of
little Bobby’s headstone; and I have considered how that little dog
returned each night and day to its master’s grave – and received the
freedom of the city. Call me a fool, if you will, but at the side of
that grave I made a vow to speak up on behalf of dumb creatures and
include them in my prayers and hymns (29).
It may not be obvious
today but the only known hymn that dealt with animals in 1987 was ‘All
Things Bright and Beautiful’(30). The Thompsons’ appeal for Scottish
Christians to compose their own animal- inspired hymns led to an
inundation of submissions from which 31 were compiled as Praise For
Creatures Great and Small in 1988. The publication was reviewed in
national newspapers and there was a taste of the television coverage
that would become a familiar feature of the pastor’s animal- inclusive
ministry (31).There was an increase in media coverage of his animal
blessing services whilst Rev. Thompson was the Priest in charge of St.
Clements church and Episcopal chaplain at Aberdeen’s Royal Infirmary
(32). A retired army officer of senior rank and a patient at the
hospital greeted him as ‘The Animals’ Padre,’ on a particular occasion
and the nickname has been adopted throughout the media over the years.
In May 1989 Rev Thompson became the Rector of All Saints Scottish
Episcopal Church, in Buckie on the Moray Firth. Perhaps the remoteness
of his final parish would imply a Father Ted – style relationship
between the priest and more senior Kirk hierarchy! For in a feature
length interview which appeared in The Northern Scot during 1990, Rev
My job has been on the line several times, but, at least when the
time comes, I can look my Maker straight in the face and say that I
tried my best to do something to make things better (33).
In 1992 he
produced a tract that provided a religious dimension to secular
campaigns against cruelty during the Christmas season. A Clerics
Contempt of a Carnivorous Christmas was probably the first pamphlet of
its kind to receive national press coverage in nearly a century. However
such headings as “Thou Shalt not stuff Turkey” were perhaps indicative
of a marginal cause that had inevitably resurfaced within a marginalised
religion. There was nonetheless genuine interest in the tract which was
heavily excerpted in press reports during the early 1990’s (34).
Upon retiring in September1994, The Animals’ Padre became a full-time
animal activist and began publishing a regular newsletter for Christians
Against All Animal Abuse (35). One of the first self-published titles to
emerge from the Ty Coch Publishing imprint presented a resolute
indictment of the Christian record of animal stewardship when it was
released in early 1994. If the title and subheading of Cast out of the
Ark – The Churches’ Abuse & Rejection Of God’s Animal Kingdom left any
doubt as to the author’s case; the cover photograph of a live goat being
thrown from a Spanish belfry brought the worst excesses of animal
exclusion from Christian concern into sharp focus. The nature of
religious anthropocentricity tends to suggest a dormant conscience which
only becomes aroused through the collision of traditional and radical
theology towards animals. Rev Thompson recounts one such occasion from
the 1980’s during an address at an evangelical gathering to whom he had:
…touched upon animal cruelty and the churches’ need to reclaim the
spirit of St. Francis. My utterance was followed by a chuckle which
reverberated. One cleric rose up to express the feeling of the rest:
‘What on earth has the Holy Spirit to do with animals!’ Yes, it was
obvious. They were only concerned with ‘speaking in tongues’ or swaying
in unison with jiggy tunes… (36).
As much an ardent controversialist as an astute clerical thinker, the
Animal Padre concludes Cast out of the Ark with a provocative assertion:
…Yes, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when many clerics
bearing crooks, and aligned in soft raiment, are turned away from the
gates of the heavenly Jerusalem; and many a balaclavad activist is
James Thompson has proven to be as much a symbol of Christian witness
to forsaken forms of cruelty, as a media curiosity and perennial thorn
in the side of the ecclesiastical establishment. Yet to those who would
merely dismiss him as a ‘crank’ the pastor has but one stock answer: “I
am quite flattered because is not a crank a vital part of an engine?”
The Animals’ Padre has often been the subject of derision for
his high- profile advocacy of vegetarianism. However, the late twentieth
century produced several outspoken clergymen whose involvement in the
animal rights movement has ranged from occasional symbolic support to
professional furtherance of the cause.
- See James Thompson’s autobiography of his early life: Young
Spiritual Tramp, Ty Coch Publishing, 2005, pp 86-87. The title is a
take on an accusation of inter-denominational vagrancy that was put
to him by a senior Baptist pastor during the early 1950’s!
- ibid, p106.
- ‘Marry? – Soon as we can. Pastor elopes with girl, 17’, Daily
Sketch and Daily Graphic, Wednesday, March 10 1954.
- Young Spiritual Tramp (op cit) p 247.
- The Illustrated, 3rd July 1954 – ‘My Runaway Marriage.’
- I am grateful to James for a further account of his visits to
the Pillar of Fire Christian Centre and Alma White Bible College at
Hendon, in London. In correspondence of 20th July 2004 he recalls:
“They all wore a kind of Puritan style attire, and not only did they
run a printing press but also a private school. Indeed, I felt I’d
gone back to the time of the Pilgrim Father settlements in America!
There was a lovely sanctity about the place, and much of their food
was home grown. They did not wish to enforce their vegetarianism on
us, but they felt truly strong about such a stand which, to my mind
then, appeared quite strange. I visited the place merely two years
ago but it had dwindled, their Puritan style attire had been
discarded and the one pastor I met was not anxious to push
- The Congregationalist course was affiliated to the University
of Nottingham and included a part-time pastorate position.
- From a detailed profile which appeared in The Banffshire
Advertiser, Tuesday, November 28th, 1989 – ‘Minister who fights for
- “‘Hit young thugs harder’ call by curate” - Doncaster Gazette,
Thursday, February 22 1968, p1.
- Cast Out of the Ark, James Thompson, Ty Coch Publishing, 1994
- The Banffshire Advertiser (op cit).
- ‘Speaking out for God’s helpless (Part II) by The
Rev(olutionary) James Thompson’ Animalprints, Summer 2001 (Issue 8),
Worthing Animal Aid.
- Reflections of a Spiritual Tramp, James Thompson, Ty Coch
Publishing, 1996, p40 (48-page booklet).
- A more suitable replacement was found in “…a farm labourer with
a heart of gold.” Animalprints, Issue 8 (op cit).
- Reflections of a Spiritual Tramp, p31 (op cit).
- James recounts: “At a highly charged and aerated meeting –
where one could have cut the atmosphere with a knife – I affirmed
that evil was coming in the meeting from one quarter alone;
whereupon I turned to the ex-churchwarden and said: ‘the evil is
coming from you sir!’” The incident led to threats of legal action
for defamation which were eventually abandoned. See: ‘Speaking out
for God’s helpless (Part III)’ – Animalprints, Autumn 2001 (Issue
- A prominent anti-hunt campaigner became informed of a “ten year
campaign to influence the RSPCA in the interests of blood sports”
between 1961-70. See My Head Against the Wall: A Decade in the Fight
Against Bloodsports, Vera Sheppard, Moonraker Press, 1979, pp 12,
58, 90-95,100-105. A more modern example of the strategy occurred in
1988 after a decision by the National Trust to ban stag hunting on
their land. See: ‘Entryism in National Trust vote’, The Independent,
5th September, 1988 – Cited in Animal Revolution, p.265 (op cit).
- Animalprints, Issue 9 (op cit).
- ‘Speaking out for God’s helpless (Part IV)’, Animalprints,
Winter 2001 (Issue 10).
- Rev. Thompson found a certain amount of episcopal favour during
1970 for conducting a lone protest against pornography in Sheffield
town centre. See: Animalprints, Issue 9 (op cit)
- “Retreat” from Responsibility – Christian Apathy and the Animal
Cause, Ty Coch Publishing, 1989, p5 (14-page booklet).
- Reflections of a Spiritual Tramp, p.32 (op cit).
- I am very grateful to Doreen Thompson for her recollections
which have afforded a deeper understanding of events.
- Yorkshire Evening Post – undated cutting from 1982. The
‘General Election Co-ordinating Committee for Animal Welfare’ was
originally active during 1978/79; as part of the ‘Putting Animals
into Politics Campaign’ which began a year earlier. The aim was to
elicit basic policy statements on animal welfare from the main
political parties. The concerted efforts of campaigners secured
piecemeal manifesto pledges on animal welfare during the 1979 and
1983 elections and the issue was relegated from the political agenda
during the early 1980’s. See: Animal Revolution: changing attitudes
towards speciesism, Richard D. Ryder, Berg, 2000, pp 182-188; the
RSPCA sponsored newspaper advert which appeared in The Universe,
March 9, 1979, and later electoral appeal from the separate ‘Animal
Protection Alliance’ in The Catholic Herald dated 26th November,
- There was a further influx of activists in 1982 when the
harrowing documentary The Animals Film was broadcast among the debut
programmes on Channel 4. The major survey of animal exploitation
throughout Western society was recently released on DVD to mark the
25th Anniversary of the film: www.theanimalsfilm.com
- “‘Break the law’ urges vicar” – (Bradford) Telegraph and Argus,
Thursday, March 24th 1983, p1. The occasional reference by animal
liberationists to Jesus’ behaviour in the temple may have unexplored
theological significance: “Because this is the only incident
recorded in the Bible of Jesus taking direct action against the
system, it makes a powerful statement regarding his opposition to
sacrificial worship. But because Christian exegetes have paid little
attention to the Old Testament condemnation of animal sacrifice –
either ignoring or rationalizing it – they have lacked any sense of
the profanity that its continuation represented to Jesus.” The
Slaughter of Terrified Beasts, J.R. Hyland, Viatoris Ministries,
- ‘Animal rights rap for churches’ – (Bradford) Telegraph and
Argus, Monday, August 8th 1983, p1.
- In 1961 the film Greyfriar’s Bobby: The True Story of a dog was
released and based on the (reputedly) embellished book Greyfriar’s
Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson. A further film with the same title was
released in 2005 which starred Christopher Lee and Oliver Golding.
In 1981 the Dog Aid Society of Scotland replaced an earlier statue
that had been damaged by a car. An inscription currently contains
the words: “Greyfriars Bobby – died 14th January 1872 – aged 16
years – Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.”
- James has acknowledged earlier booklets which were produced by
the Society of United Prayer for Animals: see Cast Out of the Ark,
pp71-72. The Society published A Collection of Prayers for Animal
Welfare in 1934 which was reprinted in 1957. An enlarged edition was
issued in 1968 as Hymns and Prayers for Animal Welfare.
- Some of The Animal Padre’s more high-profile appearances on
British television have included a guest appearance on Channel
Four’s The Big Breakfast in 1993 and contributions to debate on
Kilroy and The Heaven and Earth Show (BBC 1). There was also
coverage at the end of BBC1’s ‘Six O’Clock News’ following the
publication of Praise for Creatures Great and Small and an earlier
slot on The Animal Road Show.
- It was whilst Vicar of St. Luke’s in Milnbridge during 1971 that
Rev Thompson began to hold animal blessing services. He acknowledges
the role of Animals’ Vigilantes (laterally Animals’ Voice) in
propagating such services after their formation in 1965 (see: Cast
Out of the Ark, p79). When the Thompson’s moved to Aberdeen the
introduction of animal blessings was a welcome novelty which still
remains a part of the life of their former parish.
- op cit.
- Including; The Sun, December 11th, 1993, The Northern Scot,
December 17th, 1993, The (Aberdeen) Press and Journal, December
11th, 1992 and The (Chester) Chronicle, 22nd December, 1995.
Similarly, the Pastor’s blessing of a cow during the B.S.E. outbreak
was featured in a Scottish tabloid with the heading ‘Holy Cow!’ See
the Weekend Times, 15th May 1993.
- The first quarterly newsletter appeared in the Autumn of 1994
and many editions are available to view at: www.animalpadre.org
- Cast Out of the Ark, p35.
- ‘Cleric who works for animal kingdom of God’ – The Northern
Scot, Friday, October 5th 1990.
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