Belfast Telegraph

Cathedral's pets service may ruffle a few feathers with some churchgoers

By Alf McCreary

Whatever the state of the weather tomorrow, it's certain to be raining cats and dogs in St Anne's Cathedral during the afternoon.

To put it more politely, Canon Mark Niblock will be conducting the cathedral's first Pets Service, during which a blessing will be given to each individual pet.

Apparently there will also be appropriate music, including perhaps the old favourite How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?.

The mind boggles at the possible outcome when an expectedly large number of people converge on the cathedral with their pets.

The range could vary from a hamster to a large dog, or even a piglet or a lamb, and if birds are allowed, there could be many a parrot or a canary adorning the pews.

Canon Niblock is obviously a realist with a sense of humour. Earlier this week he told our newspaper: "We will need a few water-bowls around the place, and probably a few mops and buckets.

"My fear is that if someone has tarantulas or snakes, I might pass them on to someone else."

On a more serious note, Canon Niblock underlined the rationale for such a service.

He said: "It is inspired by St Francis of Assisi's love for animals. This is also the time of year when churches celebrate the harvest, and we want to reflect on the important place which animals play in our lives, at this service of thanksgiving and blessing."

This seems a fair approach, but there will be some people who may see no sense in holding such a service and will question the theology of giving a Christian blessing to an animal, a bird or a fish.

I am no theologian, but this is a tricky subject.

If you read the Bible selectively, you will find that the ancient Israelites and other nations and tribes spent a great deal of their time killing animals as part of a religious sacrifice. In my travels in the Arab world I have noticed that in many places animals are treated badly, and poor scrawny mules and other beasts suffer cruelly at the hands of their owners.

The attitudes to animals are completely different in our part of the world, if you are willing to ignore the cruelty to animals in the production of our food, and also in medical experiments which are justified with the argument that the results can be beneficial to human beings.

Many people here are extremely kind to animals, while others merely tolerate them, but it is a big step to move to a level where they are given a Christian blessing.

This also raises the question as to whether animals have feelings not unlike some of those experienced by human beings - such as loyalty, affection, and a sense of right and wrong.

A writer in a recent Sunday Times colour magazine claimed that researchers have proved that some animals do have these feelings, but I believe that he was going a little too far by claiming that they may also have souls.

Much depends on what you mean by a soul, and whether or not human beings, never mind animals, have souls. I believe that people do have souls, but that is a complex subject in itself.

Recently, we held a solemn burial service in our back garden, when much younger family members laid to rest the ashes of our much loved cat, but I kept it strictly secular!

In the meantime, there is an argument for giving thanks in church for the part which many animals play in the lives of their owners.

We have all seen those people who treat dogs better almost than they treat their fellow-human beings, and that is not to be recommended.

However, we all know situations where an animal is the subject of great affection for an entire family, and other cases where a cat or a dog can be great company for people living on their own.

The service in St Anne's tomorrow is further evidence of the place which the Church can play in ordinary people's lives, right from birth to childhood, adulthood and death.

This Church role is conveniently overlooked by its critics, who concentrate only on its many shortcomings.

Therefore, leaving theology aside, I hope that tomorrow's Pets Service goes well, and that the cathedral authorities will not find themselves barking up the wrong tree.

Belfast Telegraph

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