Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat 07.05.11

Address from Ecumenical Animal Retreat May 2011 by Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President, run by Catholic Concern for Animals

There were two talks, The mouse of the Lord and Fish Talk (which follows below)


The mouse of the Lord


And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouse of the Lord hath spoken it.


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Words  from Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 5. No, not a misprint, but an inspired slip of the tongue. My friend Katie was reading as we prayed the morning office together ' in St Mary Magdalen Church, Oxford on 22nd November last year and that is  the word that came out - 'mouse' instead of 'mouth'. After our initial laughter we thought about the words and were inspired and I have not ceased to meditate on it. In the Kingdom season, looking forward to Advent  the great words of Isaiah so memorably set by Handel speak of the beneficence of our God who will:


Feed his flock like a shepherd' he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young (verse 11).


In actuality as well as metaphorically God will sustain all his creatures, sheep and goats, cattle and horses, pigs and deer . Redemption will not merely touch large animals and domestic animals but for example the little creatures mice, voles, shrews and bats. This thought had already crossed my mind when I was blessing mice, gerbils and hamsters at a service in All Saints, Wokingham. I thought in particular of the little creatures in our hedgerows, the rustle of leaves that signals perhaps a wood-mouse or field mouse, tiny harvest mice in the fields and our familiar house mouse. All of nature praises God.


   There is an unfortunate tendency for Christian environmentalists to speak long and often about the environment but treat the non-human creatures in it as though they were merely an incidental rather than a central part of Creation. Thus trying to ameliorate Climate Change is viewed as being primarily for the benefit of the human species. Conversely too many animal rights and animal ethics people focus attention entirely on domestic animals such as cattle and sheep or more often on companion animals dogs and cats. If they think about wild animals they tend to focus on dramatic large and powerful species,  tigers and whales and elephants or on species that look like us, primates and especially the Great Apes. In narrowing our sights too much we miss the God of the  vastnesses of space which are entirely incomprehensible to us mortals, and the full awe-fulness [in its true sense] Lord of Ages whose living word, the Logos, the very Wisdom of God was there from the beginning. That God is also the God of every sparrow that falls (Matt.10,29; Luke 12,6); he is the God of small things.


 To a predator like a cat or a sparrow-hawk, a mouse or a sparrow is simply regarded as  a meal. Carnivorous animals have to kill for their food because their metabolisms leave them no other option. Human beings too have often trapped  sparrows and other songbirds for food (as happens today in Cyprus, Malta or Italy), though as omnivores they have the power of choice at least in many environments. Mice too are often trapped and killed as 'vermin'- but vermin to whom, to humankind or to the Creator God? Observe these creatures, the exquisite beauty of their forms, their capacity to feel desire for their mates; their creaturely capacity to experience pleasure and pain; their own mysterious relationship with the God who created them, forever hidden from us, if we lack eyes to see or ears to hear.


  We can ignore the mouse, shrug off any fellow feeling as mere sentimentality, assure ourselves that we are the summit of creation and in so doing dodge the very charge laid on us by God:


See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil...I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life...(Deuteronomy 30, 15 and 19).


Human beings can, indeed, choose, that is choose to work in and with nature as a friend or against nature as a foe. We were made to choose, with the knowledge of good and evil. So  we can work with love to all living creatures or against living creatures; we can work with God or against God! It has always seemed to me that learning about creation as an observational naturalist, is a vocation, a holy calling and it was certainly the ideal of my childhood as it was and has been to so many other children before and since long before (as a little Jewish child playing in the still preserved ancient woodlands of north-west Middlesex) I had any notion that I would be called by God to be an Anglican priest . Children, as Jesus knew, have fewer inhibitions and are more likely to simply know the rightness of things. Some retain this capacity much later and it is most certainly a gift to be jealously guarded. It is children who often readily empathize with small creatures and in doing so show real wisdom . As Christians we should all endeavour to remain childlike and do so too.


    If I concentrate in this talk on rodents, mainly those native to or long established in Britain, I will also consider other creatures, insectivores, shrews, hedgehogs, moles and bats and indeed small carnivores. Unlike songbirds, and with the partial exception of dormice, red squirrels, bats, badgers and otters, most small mammals lack the ardent advocacy  of the countless people who cherish our avian fauna. That does not mean that songbirds are not persecuted by man in vast numbers in parts of Europe and many parts of the world, as we have seen, but with RSPB membership of well over a million in Great Britain the situation here is reasonable, though even here there are problems such as loss of habitat and over-predation by a vastly over-large population of cats!


  In the case of small mammals these also apply perhaps to an enhanced degree. Predation is a natural part of the cycle of nature. Without voles and hares we could not have owls and buzzards, foxes and stoats. If we are concerned with bio-diversity we may have cause to be thankful for those engaged in responsible arable husbandry who preserve field with hedgerows and to the fox-hunting lobby maintaining isolated covets for foxes and their natural prey. Indeed a vegan lifestyle, if generally adopted, could lead to large fields and prairies intensively farmed and largely inimical to healthy populations of small birds and mammals.


  However, if we consider the small creatures, with their individual emotional lives, capable of feeling pain and fear, our instinct is to avoid  actions that threaten and harm them. That is certainly what lies behind  the legal bans on hare coursing and badger baiting. However hares are shot for food as are non indigenous rabbits in some numbers, and there are active threats to badgers as spreaders of bovine tuberculosis, real or supposed.


 Rabbits and especially house mice and brown rats unlike the other creatures have been encouraged by the presence of human activities. They are called  'vermin' not in the sense that they are cursed by God, but on the speciesist grounds that they are incidental to the purposes of God rather than part of it. If human beings have taken the hint to 'increase and multiply' beyond the capacity of the world to feed them (celibate lifestyles have not had too many takers), we cannot blame rats for doing the same. Whereas some species of native animal exist in their thousands the rat population may well equal that of human beings.


  There may not seem to be a moral debate here but let us pursue other lines of approach. First certain species of animals are hunted for their skins and fur including the cubs of fur-seals hideously clubbed to death in front of their mothers; other creatures  especially chinchillas, foxes and mink are farmed for their fur , living unnatural lives and suffering unpleasant deaths. It is quite unnecessary, certainly in most climatic conditions, to wear fur, and here cruelty is supported on fashion, luxury and blatant lack of regard for one's fellow creatures.


  Hunting should, I think, detain us a little longer not because I feel any inclination to hunt but because  it has become such an emotive issue. Blood-lust, which may be linked to gambling, is obviously an evil and so we have rightly outlawed hare-coursing but I think we should at least honour the reasoning of some of those who hunt (especially foxes) who claim to be and often are in their way great lovers of animals, but believe they are at one with the natural cycle and that theirs is the best way of controlling the only substantial predator in the British countryside, stating that what they do is more humane than poisoning, gassing or shooting. 'Animal-lovers' who keep a posse of cats may not be exactly supportive of the local small mammal and small bird populations and by buying tinned pet-food are frequently supporting factory-farming (no less!) Certainly the idea of natural balance, working with nature is often lacking even amongst enthusiasts for Animal Rights. Some of the opposition to fox-hunting undoubtedly had rather more to do with class warfare than animal protection or why, instead of centering their anger on the killing of relatively few foxes, was not the weight of the protest flung instead against the much more extensive evils of factory farming?


 It can be unnerving and thought-provoking to find that some of the hunters devote so much thought to animal welfare. I admit to having friends who hunt; indeed amongst my fellow ordinands, one of those I felt closest to on the animal issue was the only one who hunted, and it was he who ensured that factory farmed meat was banned from our excellent theological college. Doubtless some of the people who hunt  are simply cruel; but those I know  are, to a very marked degree, animal lovers who think more about animal welfare than thoughtless people who consume vast quantities of meat from factory farms taken from animals killed with incredible callousness. I admit to finding it very hard to keep my temper in church functions which cater with such products as mass-produced sausage rolls. Ultimately there has to be an element of paradox here.


   However, that said,  when we turn from human motivation to the fact of the infliction of suffering,  the pro-hunting arguments don't really stand up for me. Should we not be preserving the countryside for its own sake, not simply for the sake of  the hunt? Indeed, should mankind be in the business of controlling nature at all?  Surely the principle of stewardship is something very different. Ultimately I am once again on the same side as Andrew Linzey. It is a dangerous path to take, because it is not rational to link one's enjoyment of the natural world with an urge to master it, killing the thing one loves, and it is too easy to surrender to a 'pack mentality' which is inevitably tinged with 'bloodlust'. That, after all is why the clergy were not supposed to hunt. The danger is not just to the fox but to oneself, in that one risks being desensitized to cruelty, and warped in one's moral responses.  The same desensitization is apparent from accounts of those who work in abattoirs, to an even more sickening degree of course.  Killing animals is certainly not an activity which leads us to what is best and highest in our faith!


    However, while I could never  bring myself to  hunt, at the same time, I am not always sure that living creatures always benefit from my grain, fruit and cereal life style. Those who produce vegetables and wheat, may stand guilty of grubbing  up hedgerows, killing  'vermin' or otherwise excluding wild-life. No tropical fruit is entirely 'rain-forest friendly' and the lorries that bring food to our shops and tables and the cars we drive about in  crush many innocent creatures on the roads. The Buddha, we are told, wept to see all the creatures killed by the plough. That was a key moment in his enlightenment; so the same realization of  suffering in creation has to be a key component in our Christian enlightenment.


 Domesticated forms of the house mouse, brown rat and the rabbit- creatures classed as 'vermin' in the wild-are, together with Guinea Pigs, the major victims in terms of numbers of animal experimentation, vivisection in animal laboratories. They are bred for this purpose and essentially considered by the 'scientists' merely as living objects. And yet we have to see them as part of creation. By what right can we take their lives for our own, perhaps specious, ends without their consent? This is a key question in ethics, and it needs to be answered with truth by anyone in favour of such practices, who believes we are part of the same creation as indeed all experimenters must, because vivisection is only practiced because the researchers believe there are valid resemblances between us and other creatures. To a far greater extent than primates, dogs and cats they are regarded as expendable and there are fewer safeguards than exist in the case of more 'advanced' creatures though a great number of these are likewise tortured and killed. Yet as we have seen, as is apparent to any child with pet rats or gerbils these are animals with great intelligence. Moreover the more fortunate cousins of these laboratory animals, kept as pets are loved by their owners and are often  blessed by us clergy in Animal Blessing services. If these services mean anything they imply a sensitivity toward the feelings of animals as well as of their owners. Is it not strange to ask for the blessing of  Almighty God for some creatures and adopt an entirely instrumentalist approach towards other rodents?


   The Christian approach has to be predicated on the belief that dubious means never justify an advantageous end. Even if Caiaphas  was right from his instrumentalist viewpoint that in order to defuse a difficult political situation in a troublesome Roman province like Judea, 'it was better to have one person die for the people'  (John 18,14) -the exposition of a principle we call scapegoating, after the practice of the ancient Hebrews on the Day of Atonement- we know that it is an abhorrent approach from the standpoint of our faith. That should not just apply to (in this case) the position of Jesus but to any situation whatsoever.


 If one could notionally cure a disease does it matter a great deal if many (or even a few) animals suffer on the way? This approach is dangerous because without too much difficulty we could substitute brain-damaged human beings, or prisoners  and some instrumentalists would find no problem in that. However if one maintains the view that ethical principles can never be violated one has to reject such reasoning entirely. We have to do so for the sake of  the creatures over which one is exercising tyrannical and cruel power, but one also has to do so because the exercise of  arrogant might inevitably desensitizes the experimenter and that for Christians is a terrible, terrible thing, the sin against the Holy Spirit which creates a gulf between the human being and God. That is why a few years ago I and a group of friends led by Sharon Howe founded VERO -Voice for Ethical Research in Oxford- to oppose Oxford's new vivisection laboratory. For me it was very much a case that the mouse cowering  in its cage was the 'mouse of the Lord'.


   It is very tempting to close the Christian storywith the completion of the New Testament or the writings of the Church Fathers. But  that is not what Our Lord told us to do. Loving one another is a continuing and ever expanding process. It is telling to turn to the early lives of St Francis which  not only show him preaching to the birds but rescuing a hare. The theme of loving other creatures as our brothers and sisters is a logical development of faith in God as Creator. It is by no means a quaint aberration of Medieval thought but accords with modern scientific knowledge of our kinship with other animals. As we learn more about animal behaviour we must change our attitudes. Instead of regressing, as is the case with the way we now farm cattle, pigs and poultry  or in conducting cruel experiments in laboratories, even in Cardinal Newman's old university, in defiance of God, we should be advancing  towards minimizing and, indeed, outlawing suffering everywhere. A mouse or a rat can very easily be seen as something 'other' but 'otherness' is a feature of the way we distance ourselves from fellow humans too. And we need look no further than the way Our Lord was rejected and murdered as 'other', though throughout history pogroms, persecutions, genocides and (in the world of nature) eradications, extinctions and deliberate acts of cruelty which  have blotted the Divine image in humankind and reduced it to its Satanic parody.


   Animal ethics, an ethical system embracing all creatures, even the smallest, a rustle in the hedgerow, a squeak from a well loved gerbil, a scream of pain from a tortured rat in the laboratory  is no mere by-way of Ethics. The subject has engaged some of the most formative minds in the Church from St Basil the Great, to St Francis, and the Blessed John Henry Newman. Nor does the subject of Animal suffering been passed over in modern times, engaging as it has the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVIth and  as one can read in the lists of those who support  Catholic Concern for Animals and the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals amongst whom a good number number of British clergy, both Roman Catholic and Anglican are involved.  Father Andrew Linzey in his many books and, indeed, our own Deborah Jones with her excellent School of Compassion have provided important texts at the service of the entire church. But how seldom, in reading Christian literature, devotional books and magazines, do we find this subject given the attention it truly deserves. It is  my fervent belief that this is a central issue for Christians, central that is both to theology and its 'liberation' from obscurantist prejudice. We as a speciesist species, to use Richard Ryder's word seem blind to 'the mouse of the Lord' as of old we were blind to the prophets. But let us remember our forebears  remained blind to the prophets to their peril.


The earth dries up and withers,

the world languishes and withers;

the heavens languish together with the earth.

The earth lies polluted

under its inhabitants;

for they have transgressed laws,

violated the statutes,

broken the everlasting covenant.

                                  (Isaiah 24,4-5)


God's covenant here is, as Jennifer Brown  has reminded us in her talk,  the covenant he made not just with human beings but with all creation. If most readily we consider the animals of Nineveh  for whom, along with the populace,  God spared the city  (Jonah 4,11)  remember also the 'coneys' , probably rock hyraxes in Psalm 104 (verse18). Famously St Francis did understand the relationship very clearly as we can see in the delightful episode recounted by Julian of Speyer. The saint rescued a rabbit from a snare regarding the creature as a brother, and the rabbit responded with love for its rescuer.


'The mouse of the Lord has spoken!'



+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President


Cf A.Linzey, Why animal suffering matters (Oxford  2009),97-114


Andrew Linzey, The link between animal abuse and human violence (Eastbourne 2009) especially chs. 25 (by John Cooper) and 26 (by Priscilla Cohn and Andrew Linzey).

cf Andrew Linzey, The link between animal abuse and human violence (Eastbourne 2009), passim

A. Linzey, Creatures of the Same God. Explorations in Animal Theology (Winchester 2007) should be essential reading for theologians.

R.J.Armstrong, J.A.Wayne Hellmann, W.J.Short,Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. I.The Saint(New York 1999),397



All the Fish in the Sea



Have you entered into the springs of the sea,

 or walked in the recesses of the deep?

                                         (Job 38,12)




+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.




In some ways this is the most difficult subject to discuss at this Ecumenical Animal Welfare Gathering and Retreat.; it is difficult precisely because of the very important place that  fish hold in the Christian story. Indeed Our Lord is even symbolized in art as a fish, in Greek  ΙΧΘΥC its initial letters standing for Ίησοΰς Χριστòς Θεοΰ υιòς  σωτήρ  that is, 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.. Thus, from early times fish were portrayed in early Greek art for example  on engraved gems used for sealing. Indeed they were recommended as signet devices by  Bishop Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200) as were images of fishermen.


   Of course several of the earliest Apostles, amongst them  St Peter, were fishermen and they are portrayed in the Gospels net-fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and they are even helped by Our Lord to land large catches  . Fish appear as food for the 5,000 hungry people who come to hear Jesus (e.g.John 6,1-13) and for the fish-supper shared by Jesus after the Resurrection (e.g. John 21, 1-14). While other meats are barred to Christians during the holy season of Lent (see below), the flesh of fish is regarded as different from the meat of land animals. Indeed, this attitude has seeped into our secular culture. When invited out to dinner and informing my hosts that I am a vegetarian (easier when eating out than saying one is a vegan!) I am often brightly offered fish by my hosts. The implication is that fish are qualitatively different from other life forms.


   I will show that  fish deserve to be located in the same moral perspective as other (mainly terrestrial) creatures, but first I need to place Our Lord's life as a fish eater into some sort of  historical context. The Incarnation means that the Christ had of necessity to be born into a specific society at a specific time; and he was indeed conceived, born and nurtured into a monotheistic people who had  recognized God for a long time. His story was part of the story of the Hebrew or Jewish people who, lived in a land which had a remarkable range of environments -despite the small extent  of  the territories comprising ancient Israel and Judea. The people were primarily pastoralists and agriculturalists though variable rainfall and crop failure meant famine was endemic and so fishing wherever possible was a valuable adjunct to the economy . As Galilee was dominated by a lake, the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberias,  it is not surprising that the last of these activities had a major role or that  many of Jesus' followers were fishermen, men of relative affluence in a peasant society. Although in Antiquity, as now, fish were caught on a minor scale with rod and line, for sport and , indeed, for eating, as they had been since at least the Mesolithic, commercial fishing  from boats and employing nets had long been practiced in the Mediterranean world and the Gospel narratives, indeed,  give some of the best descriptions of net fishing  that we have from early the Roman period.  Fish clearly comprised a major part of the local diet as they were everywhere on the Mediterranean littoral, not just amongst Jews but amongst Greek and Roman populations. Both Greek and Latin literature and the testimonies of ancient art in all media (wall paintings, mosaics, silver-plate and signet rings amongst them). Indeed the representation of fish and bread basket in the 3rd century fresco from the Catacomb of Callixtus, in Rome which is in the tradition of  a 'Pompeian' still-life, of course alludes to the miracle of the Multiplication of the loaves and fishes. If Jesus was to be 'true man' as well as 'true God' and if he were to be  born in a Galilean family (as he was) he would inevitably have been part of  a society which ate fish, probably on a relatively large scale. Incidentally as the religion practiced by his people involved the sacrifice of birds and mammals at the Jerusalem temple that too was part of his world (see Luke 2,24), and indeed his story which culminated in the subversion of the sacrificial cult in the self-offering of himself. For certain Gnostics the  humanity of Jesus was only apparent, and if one were to follow the logic of such a view of Jesus he need not have been involved in such practices, but that would be to step outside the bounds of  recognizable Christian theology of the historical Jesus , and is certainly not our faith. We cannot locate the historical Jesus in a vegetarian, still less a  vegan society (as some would like us to do) , in the face of the evidence we have, but that does not mean that the logic of Jesus' teaching does not lead us towards the restoration of such a society as expounded in the first book of Genesis and in the famous vision of Isaiah (11,6-9)..


   Fish eating has continued to be a major feature of human diet, especially amongst Christians. Indeed traditionally there have been limitations on the consumption of red meat, permanent for some religious communities (probably largely because red meat was meant to excite the passions rather than for reasons of animal welfare) and for all Christians during Lent and indeed on Fridays, a mini-Lent on which we remember Our Lord's Passion. At these times fish is traditionally eaten, partly as penance in that meat and dairy products were regarded as rich foods and partly no doubt as a reminder of the  Christian symbolism  of the fish. What was a fish and what was not a fish might be disputed and alas dolphins and whales, although we know they are mammals, looked fish-like and could be consumed at these times.

   There is, however, a counter-tradition which is as old as anything in the Bible, and indeed may date back  to at least the second millennium BC. It is represented by the very remarkable Psalm 104 which is not only my favourite psalm but my 'fall-back 'psalm:


 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

  creeping things innumerable are there,

  living things both small and great.

  There go the ships,

  and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

     (Psalm 104, 25 and 26)


John Day suggests there may be some connection with the Pharoah Akhenaten's hymn to Aton  and that it even  precedes  the account of the fifth day of Creation as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis:


 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

            (Genesis 1, 20-23).


The main thing to note is that this Creation is in no way for the benefit of humans who are themselves 'creatures', indeed about to be created with, or just after, other animals. The Creation is an act of God and entirely for God. As God proclaims in Psalm 50:


For all the beasts of the forest are mine,

the cattle upon a thousand hills.

I know every bird of the mountains

and the insect of the field is mine

                                          (Psalm 50,10-11)


The  tradition  is sometimes found in earlier Christian writings for instance in the work of St Basil the Great but in the present context is best represented by the early Franciscan  saint, Anthony of Padua (c. 1195-1231) who famously preaches to the fish at Rimini seeing them as being just as much  part of the Divine providence as human beings, their meaning being not to serve humans (as food) but to praise God! Imitatio Christi in this respect leads us  back to Genesis I and Psalm 104, as well it might, for Christ is indeed an aspect of the Creator God.


  Other people with access to the sea, rivers, lakes and ponds inevitably eat a great deal of fish whether wild or farmed and archaeology proves how universal fish eating is, throughout the world. For some tribes, such as the Inuit in polar regions, and the inhabitants of wind-swept  islands in the Atlantic and other oceans, there may be little else to eat apart from fish and crustaceans and other marine creatures.


   Like the small rodents I mentioned in my previous talk fish face predation from numerous other creatures, including and perhaps first and foremost other fish. Anyone who has watched a pike in a river lurking amongst the weeds to dart out on a hapless minnow or dace will recognize that. In South American rivers there is the fearsome piranha  and of course the sharks in the sea make other fish their staple diet. Many birds are fish-eaters including our own grey heron and kingfisher. Cormorants, puffins and other auks as well as pelicans subsist on fish.  And amongst mammals otters in the rivers, seals, porpoises and other whales have an almost exclusively piscatorial diet.


   Fish [and as Helen Hall has reminded us  other denizens of the sea including members of the octopus family, also creatures of considerable intelligence] raise some very large questions for animal ethicists, indeed for all ethicists. In Britain, at least, it is quite easy to tell people one does not eat meat or poultry and many people who are not vegetarians will empathize. Those  who think about  such matters and who eat animals  try to avoid factory-farmed meat. What happens in practice is another matter and is at the heart of so much of our campaigning for a more compassionate world. As I stated at the beginning of this talk, it is surprising how often it is assumed one eats fish. Or perhaps it is not surprising seeing how much fish is a commodity, eaten in bulk not just by human societies, but by an enormous range of animal societies. Is one denying one's natural history as well as one's history if one abstains from eating fish, and even going against an aspect  of the story of Christian  faith if not the faith itself?


   First I will address this in terms of  the position as it stands today. This is very much the ground on which virtually all environmental campaigners would stand alongside me as well. This is the extent to which human beings are a threat to the watery environment in which fish and other living creatures have their being. In brief, the present rate of  consumption of fish and marine life is unsustainable.


 Uniquely human beings  pollute the waters with sewage and chemical effluent, inimical to life. With regard to rivers and lakes, they draw off too much water for agricultural and industrial purposes so that rivers become a trickle and lakes even as large as the Sea of Azov  dry up. This affects not just fish but many other creatures, and in particular I want to draw attention to other fauna of wetlands, especially amphibians, frogs, toads and newts. The main threat to these comes from environmental degradation, though frogs are caught for food, often killed very cruelly, and used experimentally in laboratories


   Uniquely human beings trawl the seas so thoroughly and brutally that 'fish stocks' run dangerously low and the viability of some species even the once ubiquitous cod is endangered. Deep sea trawling can also irrevocably damage the sea-bed and coral reefs (which are very vulnerable to pollution). And of course there is considerable  'collateral damage' in that many other marine creatures notably small whales such as dolphins and porpoises and sea-birds such as albatrosses which have been following the fish are drowned in fishing operations. There are obvious moral questions to be asked about catching fish as fertilizer, catching fish in large numbers and throwing them back dead because they are the wrong size. Using the Creation in this way, wastefully and with cruelty, is surely wrong, both for the creatures themselves and also because the large number of fish removed from the sea weakens the sustainability of the entire ecosystem. This is a long way from the natural history of  homo sapiens  as fisherman and  indeed, even further from  what other fish-eating creatures do. Amongst other palpable abuses is the very cruel practice of cutting off  the fins of living sharks and throwing the maimed creatures back into the sea to die.


  Secondly, and here we enter newer and perhaps more contentious ground, we come to fish as individuals. Actually I  am not sure it is entirely new. Evidence from the fish-loving and fish-eating Romans in the work of  Cicero, Varro and Jesus' near contemporary the Older Pliny tells us of pet fish, beloved by their owners, and there is a history of people keeping fish for their beauty even domesticating them especially in China and Japan (think of goldfish and koi carp), likewise ambivalent in their attitude to fish. Much more scientific studies some of which are described in Jonathan Balcombe's book Second Nature  detail studies of fish cognition, their ability to  show curiosity about their surroundings, to  form relationships with other individuals and to distinguish between friend and foe. Fish undoubtedly can feel fear, suffer shock and dieing of suffocation and being crushed in a drag net is undoubtedly an unpleasant death. However much we distance ourselves from this, there is no getting away from it.


 Of course as the plentiful fossil evidence shows us that long before human-kind appeared on the earth fish were trapped in natural disasters, in lagoons that dried up and in mud slides and every day as already mentioned fish must have been  caught and swallowed alive by  many other animals,  suffering  a not dissimilar end to those which are today victims of human predation. The moral problem for us is to decide the position of ourselves in the natural order.  I went to my Bishop's Advisory Panel which recommended me for ordination at Shallowford near Stafford where the only building apart from the conference centre was a cottage used by Izaak Walton (1593-1683), the author of the Compleat Angler, a book first published in   1653. Walton was a good Christian, related by marriage to Bishop Ken, and whose tomb is to be found in North transept of Winchester Cathedral, in what has become virtually a memorial chapel to his memory. The book is a masterpiece, revealing a love of nature and acute observation, but it is largely a manual about catching and cooking fish.


 Angling has an even longer history of being an acceptable, even genteel, occupation, catching fish for food or sometimes for sport (often to be returned to the river). Anglers, for their own  self interest coupled with a love for rivers and lakes, can be a powerful lobby for the conservation of  inland waterways threatened by pollution or water extraction. Maitland and Campbell aim their book on freshwater fish in part at anglers, seeing them as a necessary support in preserving the fish in the rivers. Nevertheless catching fish with a hook undoubtedly causes them distress and pain, as has been  pointed out  do the natural and instinctive fishing techniques of  kingfishers, herons and otters. The position is akin to that  of  hunting, discussed in my last talk, and as in that case  I am rather loathe to single out angling as especially heinous behaviour, when other forms of exploitation and damage to habitat are undoubtedly very much worse. But it does raise very serious moral and ethical questions.


 Fish-farming can be simply a continuation of the age old practice of stocking ponds, but under modern conditions it has taken on a more sinister aspect as fish (especially salmon and trout) are farmed commercially, more or less under factory conditions in crates suspended in the water; they are fed artificial food (sometimes composed of processed fish and crustaceans) and spend their entire lives as un-naturally and uncomfortably  in many ways as broiler chickens. The life cycle of the Atlantic salmon reduced to a few months in a cage in a sea-loch, packed together with other fish has to be a sad thing...and as with chickens , pigs and other factory farmed animals the end is mass slaughter by electrocution or some such method.


  I  have deliberately attempted to present a dispassionate picture, of  natural predation and the means adopted by our species from very early times (when we could argue humankind was acting in much the same way as for example a bear or a member of the cat family to take the odd fish) to the commercial operations of the last century or so.


 As we have seen some fish  have been to all intents domesticated, for instance by wealthy Romans,  and their intelligence and complex emotional lives known by their  owners who, at the same time, gladly consumed large amounts of fish. We have also seen that modern research has been able to establish that fish and some crustaceans share emotional and cognitive responses on a par with many other creatures. Such knowledge should certainly not be ignored by Christians, for example on the specious grounds that it accords neither with Thomist or Cartesian ideas. Rather we should remember that Aquinas and Descartes were philosophers of their own times; the lazy approach of  ridiculing those who press the case for animal rights and cling to outmoded patterns of thought is, in my opinion, not a Christian option


   A better model for Stewardship is, as stated above, to be found in Chapter 1 of Genesis, re-inforced by the enlarged view of nature, ancient and in origin perhaps, not even Hebraic. If we are to look after Creation this can hardly be done by dredging the seas, and taking as many fish as possible for food or fertilizer. It cannot be done by discarding dead fish, leaving other maimed fish to die and allowing collateral damage of other marine creatures, and sea birds and despoiling the environment.


    Jesus' own graphic parable of the owner of a vineyard who lets it out to stewards who proceed to exploit it for their own ends and then kill his messengers and finally his son (Luke  20, 9-16)has many resonances, and not merely the most obvious one. We always need to ask ourselves whether we are good stewards. For me there is room to ponder on the fact that the Apostles are called from their fishing to become fishers of men (Matthew 4,18-22; Mark 1, 16-20;Luke 5, 1-11), so that fishing becomes metaphor,  moving  from the actual to the symbolic. So the  'miraculous draught of fishes' acquires a symbolic meaning; all of us are adjured to be 'fishers of men' but  no sane person would take to be an instruction to suffocate and eat  our sisters and brothers!


  While exploitative fishing is clearly to be avoided, can one or should one regard oneself as being like the predatory animals which prey on fish? What might distinguish us from them? Surely it might be our very power to reason,  and it does make a difference when one finds out that an action causes pain to another creature. A toddler  will pull the hair of another infant  or of an adult because it creates an effect. When it becomes older s/he comes to realize that  a sentient being is being hurt and the normal child will desist. St Paul writes 'when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways'. (I Corinthians 13,11). In my opinion infancy often grows into the wisdom of childhood which is all too often lost in the cynicism of growing up but the tenor of Paul's statement is plain. Knowledge of the pain one might cause to other creatures should   be capable of changing one's behaviour. I maintain that it can be no more right to hook a fish for sport than, as I have said above, to chase a hare around a field for sport. But it is no more praiseworthy to condemn hunting, shooting and fishing and to purchase, eat -or let one's pets eat- animals killed in abattoirs, caught by trawlers or reared in fish-farms.


  It will certainly be necessary for some societies to take fish in order to subsist as it is for seals or cormorants to take fish in order to flourish but what should be the ideal in over-fed Britain? There are various factors to take into account, as already hinted. An agricultural monoculture destroys the environment and often the creatures we aim to protect. In the present instance, lowering the water-table for irrigation and run off of potentially damaging substances like nitrates from the field will be toxic to water-life. We certainly cannot smugly fold our arms while feeding our beloved cats on tuna and pilchards together with the local population of songbirds.


   I can be conscious of, and try to uphold, my own Franciscan ideals of living lightly on the earth but at the same time realize that there are consequences to the Fall which only our God, Creator and Victim, can ever reconcile. Our faith leads us onwards and upwards to a time when trout and ospreys, pike and minnows, seals and shoals of herring, human being and the runs of salmon can live in harmony.


  It is not possible for any of us to provide complete solutions or any solutions in fact. We need to confront every problem in a compassionate manner. What is best for individual creatures? What is best for a species, what is best for a rare breed? Will a totally vegetable and cereal economy help the natural world? We need to ponder the infinite complexity of ecosystems. 


   Each of us has to take moral decisions for her/his self. Any lifestyle decision will have consequences. Should one take a purist line of not eating fish and what is one's  attitude to natural predators? Presumably as an animal-lover it has to be positive, and it is always a joy to see a kingfisher, engaged very probably in catching a fish.  And does one  extend one's  indulgence to anglers taking one or two fish to eat but helping to protect the water-course and the fish-stocks? I am personally very much more critical of commercial fishing and also of fish-farming, in both of which any organization concerned with animal welfare should make a stand, but are the fields that grow my vegetables fertilized with fish and if my cat-loving friends buy  pilchards or food containing fish for the cat they are surely  just as culpableas the patrons of a fish-restaurant? And  if anglers  catch and eat fish from a stream or river or sea while working hard to protect the watery environment are they not to be praised rather than censured? And what do we think about communities throughout the world who have no other viable livelihood other than fishing?


 All choices in a fallen world are, inevitably, hard choices. I don't think it is the place in a Retreat such as this to preach to the converted and provide easy, pat answers where none exist. My personal choice is to take to heart the implications of the early Franciscan ideals and that means that, as far as possible, I should not take life or participate in taking life. As a novice in the Anglican Franciscan Third Order, it has to be absolutely central tenet in to my 'Rule of Life', and certainly it conforms with the key principle of our faith which stresses  that we should always  be on the side of compassion and love. Franciscans  see God's hand in all Creation and so do not regard  it as something  to own or even (as Benedictines do) to exploit. LikeFrancis, who rescued worms in his path, so should we always be conscious of our kinship with other creatures and our stewardship of the created order. I realize that does not answer all the problems. It is however an ideal which centres our own flourishing on the sacramental;  it is focused on our spiritual economy not on the material economy, it looks up to heaven and not down on earth.


   This is the Easter Season when we are enjoined to think about what it is like to live a Resurrection life in which death, and pain are banished. As St Francis realized it is an impossible aim, impossible that is without the Grace of God, and a love of the entire created order. Francis's famous Canticle of the Creatures sometimes seems to me to fall short because the Creatures seem to be merely the physical elements, sun and moon, water, fire and earth, but we are surely to see them as the homes of all that live including us, and when we consider the waters surely we are meant to think of the fish (and other creatures) which dwell in them. If I have shown that there are problems to ponder about fish in relation to the flourishing of  all life on this planet, both as one category of wild animal and as fitting symbols of the central mystery of our faith, this talk will have served its purpose...It is dedicated to the Glory of Ichthys - Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President


Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden 2007)41-49; idem, Picturing the Bible. The earliest Christian art (Fort Worth 2007),196-7 pl.26

Spier, Picturing the Bible, 195-6 pl.25

J.Day, Psalms (1992),41-42

Julian of Speyer quoted in A.Linzey and D.Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah. Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London 1997), 73-4; and see D. M.Jones, The School of Compassion. A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Leominster 2009),71

J.M.C.Toynbee, Animals in Roman Life and Art (London 1973),210-11

Jonathan Balcombe, Second Nature (2010),39-42

Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, The Compleat Angler (Oxford World Classics paperback edition 1982). Charles Cotton (1630-87) added a second part on fly-fishing for trout and grayling.

Cf, P.S.Maitland and R.N. Campbell, Freshwater Fishes of the British Isles (1992) is an excellent introduction to the subject.




Other Services

Sermon - Animal Welfare Sunday - 4 Oct 2017 - Revd Jennifer Brown - Nottingham Service

Evensong on Sunday - Evensong on Sunday June 25th 2017 Trinity 2 Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Margaret’s Church, Binsey

Evensong Sermon - St Margaret's, Binsey and then at St Giles,Oxford

Evensong Sermon - Evensong on Sunday 9th April 2017 [Palm Sunday], St Margaret’s Church, Binsey

Eucharist - Eucharist on Sunday January 8th 2017 at St Fridewide's, Osney - Revd Professor Martin Henig

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity - Parish Eucharist sermon by Lay Preacher, John Clements in The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Botley in North Hinxey Parish. Text - Psalm 111 and the Gospel Luke 17:11-19

Animal Welfare Sunday 2016 - Sermon at St Cross, Winchester by the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS

Trinity 16 Service - Sermon by Revd Prof Martin Henig - ASWA Vice President

Service for Animal Welfare - Sermon by Revd Mandy Young, Curate, All saint's Snodland Kent

Passion Sunday - 2016 - St Frideswide’s , Osney Eucharist on Sunday 13th March 2016 [Passion Sunday] - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

ASWA Annual Service 2015 - Sermon from The Right Reverend James Jones former Bishop of Liverpool

Harvest Festival Sermon - Sermon from Eucharist Service held on Sunday 27th September [Harvest Festival] at St Frideswide's Church, Osney - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Animal Welfare Service - Watford 31 May 2015 - Animal Welfare Service - Watford

Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat - Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat, Penmaenmawr in North Wales from Monday 18th May to Friday 22nd May 2015

Sermon from Harvest Evensong - The Harvest is for the Animals too! Sermon from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Sermon for 2014 Annual Service - The Sermon given by the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS at St Woolos Cathedral, Newport accompanied by Intercessions from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Sermon at St Margaret's, Binsey - A sermon from Revd Professor Martin Henig

Animals, God and Human convenience - A sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church, Ewell, Surrey by Revd Professor Martin Henig

St Michael & All Angels Watford - Reverend Professor Martin Henig - Watford

CCA Ecumenical Retreat Spring 2014 - Wales - The first of two Sermons presented by Revd Professor Martin Henig

CCA Retreat Spring 2014 - Wales 2 - The second of two sermons presented by the Revd Professor Martin Henig

Dominion - A sermon preached Reverend Jennifer Brown (ASWA) at St Mary’s, Kidlington, Oxfordshire

Eucharist for Advent II - Revd Professor Martin Henig, ASWA vice president - "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.."

Sermon for 2013 Annual Service - Sermon by Reverend Hugh Broadbent, ASWA Committee Member, at ASWA Annual Service on Animal Welfare Sunday

The Groans of Creation - A Sermon preached by the Revd. Professor Martin Henig - Vice President of ASWA

Whitsun Creation Service - Revd. Professor Martin Henig at St Frideswide’s , Osney

Whitsun Evensong - Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Margaret’s, Binsey

Sermon for Lent IV - Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Sermon from 2012 Annual Service - Chelmsford - Sermon by Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell at ASWA Annual Service on Animal Welfare Sunday

Eucharist & Evensong Sunday 7th October 2012 - St Margaret’s, Binsey Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Animal Welfare Sunday Sermon - Sermon - St Mary’s, Kidlington on Animal Welfare Sunday - Reverend Jennifer Brown

Eucharist - Dogs & Cats - Sermon from Revd. Professor Martin Henig - St Frideswide’s, Oseney.

The birds of the air: From Holy Ghost to fall - The Birds of the Air: From Holy Ghost to fallen sparrow - Revd. Professor Martin Henig

A Sin against the Holy Spirit - Sermon for Trinity 1 by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Sermon for Lent II - Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent by Revd Dr Martin Henig - Vice Chairman of ASWA

Sermon for Lent - Into the Wilderness - a Sermon from Martin Henig - one of a series during Lent - 29.02.12

Lent Sermon - Salvation for All - Sermon by Reverend Jennifer Brown - Sunday 12th February 2012

Sermon from 2011 Annual Service - Sermon by Rt Revd Richard Llewellin, ASWA Chairman, at Kings Norton

Sermon - Creation Sunday, Oxford - Sermon from our Vice President, Professor Martin Henig - Creation Sunday 2011 - St Frideswide's, Oxford

Sermon from Gloucester Cathedral 20.11.10 - Sermon from Evensong at Gloucester Cathedral 20th November 2010 Revd Dr Martin Henig, ASWA Vice President

Sermon from 2010 Animal Service - ASWA President, Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS delivered the Sermon at St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Sermon for Animal Welfare Sunday 2010 - Sermon preached at St Mary's Church, Kidlington by Reverend Jennifer Brown

Sermon from 2010 Animal Sunday Wokingham - Revd Dr Martin Henig spoke at Wokingham Parish Church

Sermon from 2008 Annual Service - Sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali at the 2008 Rochester Cathedral service

Sermon from 2009 Annual Service - Durham Cathedral Saturday 26th September 2009 Steven Shakespeare

Sermon from 2007 Annual Service - Sermon delivered by Brother Samuel at the 2007 St Michael’s Church, Watford service

Lambeth Conference - ASWA attended the Lambeth Conference with a fringe meeting on Wednesday 30th July.

Dr Tony Campolo Service 2007 - Dr Campolo speaks on Christian responsibilty for the Animal Kingdom.

Sermon from 2002 - Liverpool Cathedral - Rt Revd James Jones's Sermon from the ASWA Annual Service in 2002

< back to Sermons main page