CHRISTIANS whose love and concern for animals had left them on the fringes of churches, or feeling like “kooks”, found solidarity in numbers last weekend, at a conference in Waterloo, London.
The auditorium of the Oasis Centre was packed with a crowd devoted to animal welfare, keen to explore the question posed by the organisers, the Christian animal-welfare charity Sarx: “Is Christianity good news for animals?” For some, this was their first Christian conference; for others, it was an opportunity to voice the concerns that had caused them to turn away from the Church.
A panel of theologians drew on scripture and church history to make the case for a resounding “Yes”. But there was a warning, too, that absolutism, a demand for “moral purity”, was to be avoided.
David Clough, Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester, argued that “things are changing in the Church”, which was now at a “tipping point”. Those in attendance could be “at the vanguard for providing a new understanding about the place of animals in Christianity”. Despite the fact that many Christians loved and cared for animals, there had been a failure to connect this to faith, he argued.
The concern had been “disenfranchised. . . It is there, but we do not think we have permission for it from our faith or the Church we belong to. For some, that puts them on the fringes of the Church, or makes them give up on the Church altogether.” This was “odd”, he said, as there were “strong biblical and theological reasons” to care.
In addition to scripture, he drew on accounts of the saints’ concern for animals, such as the legend of the resurrection of a goose by St Werburgh.
Not enough Christians were aware, he feared, of the 19th-century Christians who were at the forefront of campaigning for animal welfare. CreatureKind, the organisation which he launched two years ago to restore this connection, with a specific focus on the “unprecedented scale of unnecessary cruelty” in modern farming, has this week launched a free six-week online course for churches (www.becreaturekind.org).
The keynote speaker was Dr Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University, Philadelphia, who is a patron of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals. In a talk that contained both scripture and personal anecdote, he described how John Wesley knew who had been touched by the Holy Spirit “because the way they treated the dogs on the street was different”; and how C. S.Lewis had argued that something of humanity was transmitted to animals who were in deep relationship with humans, resulting in their salvation.
There was, Dr Campolo said, something “sacramental” in his wife’s “spiritual connectedness” to their poodle, Jamie. And whales had been shown to sing a new song every year, “which is more than you can say for most Evangelical churches. . . Whenever a species of whale becomes extinct, a hymn to God has been silenced.”
“People who love an animal are made to feel like kooks or weirdos,” he said. Yet animals often delivered people from loneliness, including residents of his retirement community.
Dr Margaret Adam, a visiting tutor of ethics at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, argued that Christians should care about animals “because of who and how Christians are called to be”.
As members of the “peaceable Kingdom of reconciled creation” Christians could show “glimpses of the difference [that] Christ makes” through their own acts, showing “immoderate showers of comfort” to the world around them by choosing a bean burger, or refraining from stepping on a snail.
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS, a former Bishop of Monmouth, vice-president of the RSPCA and president of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, gave examples of what an animal-friendly congregation might look like, which included allowing people to bring their dogs to church. Many people felt a “sense of betrayal” in leaving them at home, he said. There was “something quite natural, spiritual, even sacramental about animals’ being there in worship”.
He spoke of the failure to recognise the bereavement that people experienced on the death of a companion animal, and gave examples of memorial services that had been popular.
The global advocacy and influencing director at Tearfund, Dr Ruth Valerio, described how all creatures had the breath of God in them, and said that it should be “humbling” to note that man was not given his own day in the order of creation set out in Genesis, but shared it with other creatures. She translated Proverbs 12.10 as “The righteous person knows the soul of their animals.”
There were questions from the audience: Why did Jesus eat fish? Why did God demand animal sacrifice? One woman described herself as a “lapsed Catholic” who was “offended by Jesus” because of his teaching as it related to animals, which seemed to imply that humans were of greater significance. There were queries about the “red in tooth and claw” nature of evolutionary theory, and whether Jesus would have been a vegan.
In a workshop, “It’s not a competition: how to love human and animal neighbours”, many people described the hostility they had encountered from others for supporting animal charities. One woman described a cat sanctuary in Aleppo; another the difficulty she had had with calls from Oxfam to “give a goat”.
There was a challenge from Dr Adam to consider what might be an “extreme” care for animals, and an understanding that passion could turn to self-righteouness, but many seemed to be wary of adopting “human-centric” ideas, or apologising for their passion.
On the main stage, Dr Campolo warned of “an air of ‘holier than thou’ among many vegetarians, a level of judgmentalism around many animal people”. He confessed that he still ate meat “occasionally” owing to its “seductiveness — it tastes so good”.
The fact that only one member of the panel was a vegan appeared to trouble many in the audience. Professor Clough hoped for a “non-absolutism” to characterise the Christian response to the issue rather than an attitude of “We think we are obtaining absolute moral purity” by becoming vegan. “We are not going to make the Church vegan in a decade or two”, he said.
Dr Campolo warned that demands for consistency were “the hobgoblin of small minds. . . I hope that nobody goes away from this conference thinking ‘I am righteous,’ but there is this reverence for animals that has been missing in Christianity.”
One woman described how, on becoming a Christian as an adult, she immediately made the connection to her desire, as a four-year-old, to be out in the woods with nature — she sensed that God was there. A man who had been a vegetarian for 50 years described his love of animals as a child, before showing his socks, made from the wool of rescue sheep.
The founder of Sarx, Daryl Booth, regards the conference as “proof positive” that a “growing tide of people are eager to engage with animals’ issues as prime faith issues”. He said that he looks forward to a “rekindling of our connection and concern for all living creatures in God’s creation”.