Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3 October 2010: Creation Series: Animal Welfare Sunday

3 October 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

At this time of year all around Britain parish churches will be celebrating their Harvest Festivals, giving thanks to God for the provision of food and often turning their thoughts to the wider subject of God’s creation and our stewardship of it.

So during this month in my sermons at Matins I will be looking at the way we as human beings interact with the created order, including thinking about our attitude to food, to water, to justice for the world’s poor and to living a balanced way of life.

Today has been designated Animal Welfare Sunday, chosen on this date because of the close proximity of the feast day of St Francis, who is particularly remembered for his care and love of animals.

So I would like us this morning to think about the part animals play in our lives and consider the question of whether we as Christians should have a particular attitude towards them.

I have to confess that I am myself an animal lover.

I come from a family which has always kept pets, which means from time to time, visiting a pet shop and it’s interesting that over the past few years the pet industry has grown amazingly.

Years ago you might have come across a small pet shop on the High Street selling a limited range of items. Now, one can visit pet super-stores where you can purchase every conceivable accessory for your pet ~ toys for the hamster, luxury beds and scratch-poles for cats, all manner of devices to help train your dog, and more recently the most incredible range of outfits for cats & dogs.

It’s not at all difficult these days when you acquire a pet, to spend many hundreds of pounds kitting it out.
In addition to this, most pet owners in the western world will find themselves under some pressure to insure their pet, because vet bills can run into thousands of pounds.

I believe all this faces us with some challenging ethical questions inasmuch as we in the western world can spend very much more on an animal than people in the developing world have available to care for themselves and their children. Last year for example, over two billion pounds in this country was spent on pet food alone.

So we might be said to spoil our animals and treat them as if they are human beings, yet at the other end of the scale animals are also subject to cruelty in our society, exploited for commercial reasons and treated as commodities rather than living creatures.

There are frequent reports in the media about cruelty to animals e.g. of dogs being trained to fight and sustaining horrific injuries, and of animals being found half starved and in over-crowded and foul conditions.

It isn’t only in the lives of domestic animals that cruelty occurs. Through documentaries and increased publicity about the production of processed meat we are made aware of the ghastly conditions animals are sometimes kept in within our farming industry.
So our ready supply of cheap meat in the western world often comes at the price of other living creatures being kept in miserable conditions.

As well as animals being exploited for our culinary needs, others are exploited in order to test cosmetic products and for medical research.
Worldwide it’s estimated that between 50 and 100 million vertebrates are used each year, from rats & mice to monkeys and chimpanzees. Most of these animals are killed when the experiment is finished.

This is a hugely controversial area, with a great deal of opposition to testing for the cosmetic industry in particular, but also to scientific experiments conducted other than for medical purposes. 

So as Christians what should our attitude be towards the treatment of animals in our society?

If we turn to the bible, as with most areas of life we don’t find direct guidance on this question, but we can discover in the texts certain principles which can help us in our thinking.

In the book of Genesis, in the first account of creation in Chapter 1, when God has completed the creation of the animals, the writer records: “and God saw that it was good”. Human beings though are viewed in this account as the crown of creation with responsibility for the care of other creatures. So the writer speaks of human beings having dominion over all the other living creatures.

In other parts of the O.T. there are contrasting pictures of the relationship between human beings and animals. Animal sacrifice was central to the religious practices of the Israelites and we hear of them killing thousands of animals in the hope of pleasing God; whereas in other places animals are viewed as helpers and companions for human beings.

In Psalm 148 the animals are called upon to praise God along with the rest of creation, and the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 11 uses a image of animals living together ~ wolves & lambs, leopards and kids, cows and bears, lions and oxen, to prophecy about  God’s kingdom of peace.

When we turn to the New Testament there is not much attention given to animals specifically. Although Jesus uses them to illustrate some of his teaching, referring to the lost sheep; to camels and needles; dogs eating the crumbs under the table; and God knowing every sparrow which falls to the ground.

What we know from the gospels is that Jesus always cared for the vulnerable and downtrodden and it’s difficult to imagine him being anything other than kind to animals.

I think the conclusions we can draw about our attitude towards animals is that they, like us, are God’s creatures, but we as human beings, made in God’s image have far greater responsibilities in our world, especially towards them.

We have a duty to protect them from cruelty and exploitation. And we might want to go even further than that and say that it’s possible to have a special relationship with them.

This is illustrated in this year’s theme for Animal Welfare Sunday ~ “Animals in War”.
If you visit the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals website you will find stories of the companionship that animals give to people caught up in theatres of conflict. These provide some amazingly moving images and accounts of really tough men relying on their horse or a stray dog to share their fear and their troubles.

So today in our prayers I invite you to give thanks to God that he created such a diverse variety of creatures and for the companionship we share with them; and to pray for a world in which all kinds of cruelty may be banished and where all people and animals can share in an appropriate way the resources God has entrusted to our care.

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