All creatures great and small
Baptist minister Andy Goodliff reflects on a service where pets were invited
Over the summer I suggested to my deacons that I wanted to hold a service in which we’d welcome people to bring their pets.
There were some who were a little nervous,
some who needed a little convincing,
others who thought this was a brilliant idea.
Minister friends thought I was crazy – working with children can be hard enough, why make it doubly hard by including animals!
Some suggested it would be sentimental, that I’d end up getting asked a lot of questions about whether a person’s pet was in heaven.
Lots of people of course mentioned the famous episode of the Vicar of Dibley.
I like doing worship differently. I take it as a compliment when some folk in the church I serve can be heard to comment that every Sunday can be a surprise. I am fortunate to have a congregation who are generous to allow me to play and experiment in worship.
I’m an unashamed advocate of the liturgical calendar, because it gives so much potential to do creative worship. So when I realised that this year October 4 was going to be a Sunday, I felt I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a service which included the blessing of animals. October 4 is associated with St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
What a morning we had. We read scripture, we prayed, we blessed, we sung and we’ve never laughed so much.
Churches are good at doing the serious, the formal, the reverent. We’re less comfortable with fun, informality, laughter.
Although preachers are good sometimes at the gimmick, the sentimental or the entertaining performance and our congregations have no problem with that.
I like to say to the church there is no subject that I’m not willing to address on a Sunday. In the last year I’ve preached on immigration, education, the NHS, gender based violence, race.
I believe all of life should come under the gaze of the gospel. That there is no area of life which faith does not address.
There must be a place to talk about animals.
Animals are a huge part of our lives and yet we never, or hardly ever, ask the question of how they relate to our being disciples of Jesus.
My reflections on animals have been helped immensely by the work of Richard Bauckham, Andrew Linzey, and David Clough, who recently published On Animals: Volume 1: Systematic Theology.
What did we do in our service?
Well we watched two clips from the Vicar of Dibley, and particularly the conversation between David and Hugo Horton, with Hugo's explanation of why doing such a service might be appropriate. There are perhaps too many David Hortons in our churches!
We sung the obligatory All things bright and beautiful, but only two verses - as we sung the first few lines, many in the congregation, including myself, succumbed to uncontrollable laughing as we were joined by a dog chorus. Of course we should have probably expected it, but it was a wonderful moment of laughter and praise.
We met the animals who had come to our service – a collection of dogs, fish and tortoises (and a few cuddly animal toys!) and later at the end we bless each one and those that looked after them.
We listened in on an imaginary conversation between Jesus and Peter on the subject of animals, in which Jesus drew Peter’s attention to the story of creation, the story of Noah and the ark, the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms.
We prayed prayers of thanksgiving, of confession and intercession. Confession reminding us of how human-centred we have made the world, the prayers of intercession asking God for mercy on those animals ill-treated and mis-treated.
We sung a fantastic hymn called O God your creatures fill the earth by Carolyn Gillette and ended with a wonderful folk song All God’s creatures got a place in the choir.
We listened to Isaiah 11.6-9 and then I reflected briefly on Mark 1.13 and the six words ‘Jesus was with the wild animals’ (helped by Richard Bauckham’s interpretation).
I think everyone enjoyed themselves and it was certainly different sharing worship with animals. We were also joined by those from outside and on the fringes of our church community and to them hopefully we were saying something of the kind of church we seek to be.
I hope we went away, whether we are especially animal lovers or not, thinking about what it means to live alongside other creatures and that it seems to me that a reading of scripture finds an honoured place for all creatures in both creation and the promise of new creation.
Will we do it again? I think we might. There is certainly more than one service could do in exploring the relation between God, animals and faith.
The Revd Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea