Did any cathedral or parish church hold a service to celebrate animals before the Vicar of Dibley did so on 15th December 1994? The Rev’d Geraldine Granger was visited by a distraught villager whose had been bereaved at the death of her much-loved Carl at the tender age of three. “Dear Lord,” she said at the graveside. “You have seen fit to take Karl from us. We commend his soul to You, and we pray that You welcome him into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s hard to understand exactly why Felix felt it necessary to eat Karl, especially since Felix had just devoured an entire tin of Whiskas.”
“It’s mad, isn’t it Alice?” she mused back in the rectory. “People genuinely love their animals more than they love each other.”
“Animals are nicer than humans,” Alice explained in a moment of creation-relational insight. And so the Rev’d Geraldine set about organising a special service for the animals of Dibley, and she planned for St Barnabus’ (sic) Church to became an ark for a morning. But not without some opposition. “Are you absolutely and totally bollocking crazy,” asked the Chairman of the Parish Council, David Horton MBE, MA (Cantab), FRCS. “Are you seriously going to let animals into our church?” he probed, before musing philosophically about the order of beasts and the sanctity of life: “Do nits get a blessing? Are fleas to be excluded? Should we bring along our free-range eggs to have the unborn chickens blessed – before we go home and scramble them?”
But her animal service turns out to be a huge success: St Barnabus’ is full to overflowing (literally) not only with pigs and goats and lambs and rabbits and dogs, but with people who don’t usually attend church on a Sunday – or even Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. As a mission strategy, it worked on the telly. But does it work in a real-life parish church or cathedral?
Is there a place for blessing the hairy and furry, or for worshipping alongside the feathery and scaly? Or is it absolutely and totally bollocking crazy to syncretise sentimental animal mush with the unique presence of God with man and the first fruits of creation?
Perhaps a few pictures from Ely Cathedral’s Animal Service might speak louder than words: