Should Churches Bless Animals?
At St Mary’s on 4th October, we shall have our first Blessing of Pets service. We hold in on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, whose theology seemed to have a special place for other aspects of creation apart from the human.
But is there a justification in Christian thinking? Isn’t it just sloppy sentimentalism? In this article Canon Scott Cowdell, an Australian Anglican theologian, makes the case for blessing animals.
Why do a number of our parishes bless animals in church around St Francis’ Day? Why indeed, if the Christian vision involves human beings only—our search for meaning, our actions, our values in life, and our destiny?
If the Christian religion is solely about our human drama, then there’s only one justification for blessing animals—only one purpose for the whole external world, really. And that’s in terms of how it serves us. This is why traditional blessings speak only in terms of an animal’s use to us: as food, as a beast of burden, or for its practical contribution to the domestic environment.
But what if our Christian vision were bigger than this? What if God in Christ invites us to a view of life as big as the whole teeming creation, as old as our fifteen-billion year cosmos, as venerable as our ancient earth? What if humanity is not the whole picture; what if our private religious and ethical dramas make more sense as part of the story, but not the whole story? Paradoxically, if we saw things like this, we’d be less anxious, since we wouldn’t be at the centre of everything, we wouldn’t feel so exposed, and we wouldn’t take ourselves so seriously, either—all with positive consequences for the rest of God’s creation, suffering so much thanks to human beings’ preoccupation with themselves.
Blessing animals is a reminder that God is bigger than our own hearts, and that God’s purposes take in all creatures. We bless them in church to recognise their importance in their own right—that their being and their end is God’s to give and part of God’s plan. Blessing animals is a sign of humility and respect on our part, and an admission that humans aren’t the centre of everything.
Moreover, the animals we bless are our companions. They’re part of our lives, they share our homes; the mammals among them may even share our joys and sorrows. They sit expectantly by our dinner tables, they take an eager interest in our activities, and some of them no doubt share our beds. I’m always glad to see my cat, who I find endlessly watchable. I tolerate his eccentricities, and I must confess I wept over the death of his predecessors.
Because they’re our companions, our friends, we’re reminded that friends aren’t there to be used; they’re not part of any calculation of our own benefit.
Friendship is one of life’s great, unmerited gifts, and a sign of God’s care for us. Friends are the tonic of life, and our animal friends are no exception. So blessing them in church is also an act of love, of friendship and of thankfulness. Which is why when I was Rector of a parish I used to do it in the context of the Sunday Eucharist for St Francis’ Day, highlighting the great sacramental celebration of God’s friendship. And of course if the Eucharistic assembly is a foretaste of heaven, of the new creation, then those Eucharists with our animal friends were a reminder that heaven is for all creation, not just humans. The peace of all God’s creation is a wonderful image, beyond the agony and travail of natural history and the great bloodbath of evolution. If it’s true that we’ll be made one again with all who we’ve loved and lost in the Kingdom of God, then I can’t think of one compelling theological reason why our animal friends of past times won’t be with us as well.
It’s fitting that I mention this great travail of life. We can’t be sentimental about ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, as Tennyson put it. The path to human evolution was across the bodies of innumerable species and animal individuals now extinct and obliterated. Many creatures we bless in church have the instincts of killers, their bodies and behaviours evolved for the purpose. Indeed, we ourselves are locked into a way of life that involves killing animals for food and, occasionally still, for our own protection. Even vegetarians can’t escape responsibility for the carnage, since our whole way of life is at the expense of much destruction in the natural world.
We humans don’t know what we’d be like if we weren’t the predatory product of evolutionary struggle, after all—we’re marked by it; we belong to it. So as we seek to reflect God’s new creation in our respect for all creatures, insisting on the decent treatment of animals used for food, nevertheless we can’t step outside the old creation just because we love and long for the new one. God’s answer to the whole horror of natural and human history is not sentimental or escapist, after all. Rather, God embraces the travail of all life in the person of Jesus, who took responsibility, who lived and died in symbolic conflict with the brute facts of reality to establish God’s way of hope and transformation—a process that’s not over yet.
Yet as our pets worship with us around St Francistide, our love for them shows that the tide of a harsh creation is turning. God cares for us through the struggles of life, and sends dear ones to encourage us on our way—animal as well as human. So in blessing our pets we give thanks for the richness of life in God’s world. We spare ourselves none of its bitterness, but we praise and thank God for the wonder of it nonetheless.
Diocese of Canberra-Goulbourn