Animals should matter to the church because they are given life by the same God who makes every person live. The climate crisis teaches us how our intentional ignorance of animals of every size and complexity, has brought the earth near to ruin. What can our relations with companion animals teach us?
Older people and companion animals
Our ageing population means that more older people end up isolated. Pastorally we see older people lose friends and confidants again and again. Companion animals are recipients of attachment and affection and can stimulate spirituality in unexpected ways. Christine spoke about the death of her dog ‘It hit me really hard then… The spirituality side surprised me, believing he’s gone to doggy heaven when I didn’t think I believed in heaven.’ She went on to describe one way she dealt with grief ‘We have made a little grave for him, with a plaque and plants, and say good morning and good night to him’.
Spirituality breaking out around us
Spirituality of many different kinds seems close to the surface in our parishes. As churches we are here to point the way to a Godward view of the world in all respects: human, animal and in every part of the ecology of this earth. It would be a deeply unbalanced concept of God and creation which obsessed about people to the exclusion of all else. That’s one reason why we try to be sustainable as churches, because God is interested in the good of all the earth. In the context of companion animals we are looking in two directions: Firstly we are thinking again about companion animal or pet services so that what we pray, say and do genuinely reflects the importance of animals and ecology. Secondly we want to make sure that our church and team respond as well as possible to experiences grief after loss of a companion animal.
Animals valued by God in themselves
Companion animals often get given people centred descriptions. Cilla from North Baddesley put it this way ‘when you haven’t got another family, I haven’t got children so I think my pets are a little bit like my children ’. That’s a view mirrored in many studies where older people describe their co-living animals in very human terms, one saying: ‘Much better than a man, much more faithful and certainly cleaner ’. The risk of this view of animals that assumes animal and human needs or relations are equivalent . That’s not entirely compatible with understanding that animals are themselves are valued by God differently to, and independent of, how God values people .
Is it ok to have a memorial for animal?
The impulse to bury, or memorialise the death of animal is, from a Christian point of view perfectly ok. That’s both because of redemptions call, and because the mystery of relating to an animal opens our eyes to the earth. Redemption calls, at least that’s the impulse of one of the Apostle Paul’s writings where he says that all creation is longing for liberation while groaning as decay strangles it . Redemption for animals who lack moral freedom to choose is substantially different to that required for humans. The mysterious bond many develop with companion animals may relate to their constant uncomplicated affections. That stands in contrast to the complexity of human relationship which are marked by sin and decay. Perhaps it is that contrast which means bereavement after animal death can be as significant as that after the loss of a relation.