On Animal Welfare Sunday, the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA) held their annual animal service at Newport Cathedral. Here, ASWA President, Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS (former Bishop of Monmouth) gave the following sermon:
ASWA Service – Newport Cathedral
I don’t suppose the name of Jack Swart will be known to many of you, but Jack Swart was a South African prison guard who worked at the prison on Robbin Island, off the coast of Cape Town. Robbin Island was used as a prison to house many who opposed apartheid and were deemed to be terrorists and enemies of the State. Among the prisoners that Jack Swart guarded was one, Nelson Mandela. As far as Jack was concerned, Mandela was just another dangerous prisoner and trouble maker. For him, being a prison guard was just a job and he wasn’t interested in the prisoners as people and had certainly never listened to their stories.
But all that changed in 1988, when Jack was assigned to cook for Mandela. He saw it as something of a demotion but in the two years that they were together, something happened. The change was so profound that Jack Swart and Nelson Mandela became close friends and Mandela joked that people only came to see him because the meals were so good. Jack came to describe Nelson Mandela as his brother and was proud to be photographed with him.
I tell you this story because the readings today are about relationships and how we sometimes fail to reverence one another as brothers and sisters of the same heavenly Father. In the Epistle, St Paul describes his Jewish background and how he regarded Christians – in fact, he regarded them not unlike Jack Swart regarded the prisoners on Robbin Island – they were inferior because they belonged to a different group. And the Gospel reading shows how the wicked tenants regarded the landlord’s servants – the tenants were so preoccupied with self interest that they did not regard the landlord’s servants or even his son as deserving respect and reverence as fellow human beings.
And yet, and yet, the Christian faith is all about relationships. At the heart of our faith is the belief in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit bound together in a dynamic unity of love. Much of the teaching in the Bible is about how to have a right relationship with God, with one another and with creation.
At this Eucharist we shall follow the ancient custom of sharing the Peace with one another because if we cannot recognise Christ in one another, we don’t have a chance of recognising the risen Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. But it is not just a matter of recognising God’s presence in one another, we also need to recognise his presence in all his creation for ‘God so loved the world’ – the cosmos – and not just human beings. At this time of year, the Church celebrates the Feast of St Francis of Assisi who is remembered for his love for the poor and for animals and all creation.
This is also the time of year when many churches celebrate Harvest Festival, but I have lost count of the number of Harvest Festival services I have attended where the congregation has been invited to thank God for the farmers and the fruits of the earth but animals are never mentioned – not even at Harvest Festival let alone in the prayers on ordinary Sundays throughout the year – and yet Jesus teaches us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without his heavenly Father’s knowledge.
About 20 years ago, I was asked to be chairman of the ASWA – I was told that there was a young, new enthusiastic secretary and a new treasurer and a recent legacy would help to make the Society better known among Anglicans. I was told that its mission was to put animals on the Church’s agenda because they had been sadly neglected. Thanks to the amazing work and dedication of others, the ASWA has grown and grown and now produces publications, speakers and events to encourage Christians to have a proper relationship with the environment and in particular with other sentient beings – God’s animals.
But there is still a long way to go. It is fine to have pet blessing services and to give thanks for companion animals, although I am always cautious of small boys who come up with cardboard boxes with air holes and which might contain a pet snake or a tropical spider. Companion animals are a great blessing to many and are usually treated with kindness – but so much suffering takes place elsewhere where animals are intensively ‘factory farmed’ in unnatural environments and out of sight, where animals are transported huge distances in cramped conditions, where animals are used in laboratory experiments or where wild animals are used to entertain human beings.
I said that the Christian faith is about relationships – our relationship with God, with one another and with all creation, and of course they are interlinked. The Book of Genesis reminds us that we are stewards of creation and yet we often abuse that trust and let God down – and at the same time we put our own survival at risk.
Did you know that half of all antibiotics used worldwide are routinely given to industrially farmed animals which scientists warn us is contributing to the emergence of deadly antibiotic resistant superbugs.
Did you know that the use of chemicals in some parts of the world have destroyed the bee population needed to pollinate fruit trees? Bees are having to be trucked across the United States and air freighted from Australia to replace the bees that have been killed in the vast orchards of California.
Did you know that cereals that could feed billions of people are being given to animals – soya and grain that could nourish the world’s poorest people is grown as animal fodder.
The increasing demand for meat from countries like India and China cannot be met without enormous animal cruelty and even in this country people often pay more for bottled water than for milk and it costs the farmers more to produce it than they can sell it for.
So what as Christians can we do about this? You can of course join the ASWA and be kept informed of animal welfare issues and you can join in the debates and protests – write letters to MPs and others – but there is also another way.
As I often say, each time we go shopping we make moral choices by what we buy. So much food that is produced will have exploited poor people or animals. If you choose ‘Fair Trade’ alternatives you are helping poor people, not by paying a little extra as some kind of charity, but by giving them justice and a fair price for their goods.
Similarly, when it comes to animal welfare you have choices. Many people are choosing to eat less meat – either for reasons of health, cost or animal welfare. Some are choosing to eat less meat but better meat. And if you do buy meat, the RSPCA monitors the Freedom Food scheme to assure us of higher standards of animal welfare.
You can choose organic milk, free range eggs and free range chickens that are likely to taste very much better than those that are slaughtered at just six weeks old. Wild salmon has up to 60% less fat than farmed salmon, and buy local – most supermarkets now sell locally produced products and that helps the environment and local farmers.
Anglicans are committed to the Five Marks of Mission and from time to time we need to be reminded of what they are! They are – 1. To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, 2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers, 3. To respond to human need by loving service, 4. To seek to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation and, last but not least, 5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
So following the example of St Francis, let us give thanks to God for all his creatures with which we share this planet. Let us pray for forgiveness for the ways in which we have misused and abused our world – especially the animals and let each one of us all do something, no matter how small, because together we can make a big difference.