July 2002

The Church compassionate

Joanna Lumley

Joanna Lumley is one of Britain’s best-known and most popular actresses. What she is less well known for is her passion for a more compassionate treatment of animals, particularly farm animals. She sees this as an issue in which the Church could take a lead as we are ‘still at the beginning of a long road’.

We don’t always do what we’re told, do we? As the nuns at St Mary’s Anglican Convent in Hastings would no doubt have agreed, I was anything but a dutiful pupil during my time there. But then I wouldn’t be writing for Priests & People today if I’d taken the advice given to most actors — never appear with animals! In my time, I’ve been upstaged by a veritable farmyard of creatures, among them a very photogenic pig and lamb. Not in Patsy’s Absolutely Fabulous world, of course. I’m thinking more of roles embarked on as a patron of Compassion in World Farming,1 the farm animal welfare campaign and lobbying group. Then again, here’s to being upstaged (and, anyway, who’s acting now, sweetie?) if it focuses some attention on intensively farmed animals.

Church’s part to play
Fine so far, you may think, but what has this got to do with readers of Priests & People? My answer is that I believe that the Church has a part to play, locally and globally, in influencing a more humane concern for the lives and deaths of our fellow creatures. If such concern should sound, to quote theologian Andrew Linzey in his introduction to Animals on the Agenda, ‘like the most ludicrous latest expression of political correctness to those who hold fast to “historical Christianity”’, then we can backtrack 800 years to the words of St Francis: ‘Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission — to be of service to them whenever they require it.’2 Earlier this year, also in Assisi, Pope John Paul II made his post-September 11 appeal for an end to world conflict. In this, he evoked Francis, remarking: ‘He is loved not only by Christians, but by many other believers and by people who, though far-removed from religion, identify with his ideals of justice, reconciliation and peace.’ How true. I would add only that Francis’ ability to unite apparently irreconcilable forces — people of all religions and none — springs precisely from his unique grasp of creation as an indivisible whole in which all creatures matter. We must begin to rethink our approach to our humble brethren if we hope to do better at the level of world peace. Research findings confirm that those who inflict violence and abuse upon other human beings first practise on animals. This link now informs the work of social services and the veterinary profession.

Long road
But despite creditable efforts by many concerned Christians to advance the well-being of animals — as the Church’s own Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare3 will no doubt testify — we are still at the beginning of a long road. Along with the animals that provide our food and clothing, there are those used in vivisection, circuses, so-called sporting enterprises, and in cloning and genetic engineering experiments. The list goes on and on. But intensive farming poses its own particular dilemma for animal and human health because of the huge numbers of animals involved, the barrenness of their antibiotic-fuelled existence and the fact that most of us in the West are, in the most literal of senses, consumers. Also, factory farming is a greedy giant, gobbling up more than one-third of the world’s grain harvest and vast quantities of its precious water, while hundreds of millions of people hunger and thirst. The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (Cafod) notes that the World Trade Organisation penalises small farmers from developing countries, not only because they have little financial clout but also because the rules of ‘free’ trade are devised by established countries such as the USA. But factory farming further bankrupts smallholders because it is capital-intensive rather than labour-led. Not only the animals suffer.

Awareness about animal sentience is growing, but factory farming distances us from our consciences. It distances us from the animals themselves by banishing them from sight — into windowless broiler houses and cramped battery cages here in the UK, or, via long-distance transport, to the veal crates and sow stalls of Europe. The relentless grind of slaughter is now as inevitable as breathing in and out. It is this hugely mechanised, out-of-sight process that permits us to forget the creatures involved, and the bland, bloodless item on the supermarket shelf only adds to the oversight. It is as if animals do not exist. Except as we call them into being, for our use and pleasure. Sadly, the Church has not yet found a truly dissenting voice with the power to accord to animals real bodily visibility, let alone viability as creatures of spirit, or ‘soul’. Not only are we not singing from the same hymn sheet, but many of us are not even aware that there are hymns to be sung.

I spent my childhood years in India, Hong Kong and Malaya, before the family returned to England when I was eight, and there were always animals around. My mother grew up in India, and developed an early appreciation of all creatures, and she taught me to value them as friends needing our help. Horse riding became a great enthusiasm for me once back in England, and even during my early years as a St Mary’s boarder, I never wanted for animal company, keeping a pet mouse in my pockets by day and in the dresser drawer at night! Being a vegetarian, it was perhaps a natural progression for me to direct unease about farm animals towards a forging of links with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF); first as a ‘celebrity’ face, and then as a patron during the 1990s. One of the joys of being recognised is that one can use it to bring issues that matter to the public’s attention. So it was that I came to play my cameo role in a star performance by ‘Babe’ the pig outside the Houses of Parliament in 1996, when we appealed for recognition of animal sentience. Again in 2000, Lawrie the lamb and I called on MPs to ban live animal exports from the UK. There have been many other photocalls for CIWF causes over the years, but getting live exports banned remains close to my heart. So, what joy to address the ‘Live Exports — Never Again!’ march and rally, held on a sunny February day in London this year. Hundreds of CIWF supporters gathered, walking from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, in a compelling expression of concern about the threatened return of the live export trade, now that foot and mouth disease (FMD) had finally come under control.

Foot and mouth disease
Who can forget last year’s images of tented slaughter? Surely the hellish ballet of upturned legs on blazing carcases has stamped itself for ever on our consciousness? People everywhere were rightly shocked to read about, and in some cases witness, questionable slaughter methods in the Government’s unseemly haste to dispose of condemned animals. And yet, who knows or cares to remember that just before the onset of FMD, the UK had been exporting around 800,000 lambs and sheep a year for slaughter on the Continent? Slaughter that is not the quiet fading away of life many of us might like to imagine — those who give it any thought — but often a brutal ending for the animals, which flouts the European Union’s slaughter rules and every law attaching to human decency.

I believe the exportation of live animals to be one of the most cruel and unnecessary aspects of modern farming and would like to concentrate on it for a time. Ironically, the trade scored an own goal in that, as a major suspect in the spread of FMD, it was itself closed down by the outbreak. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been making noises for some time now about restarting the traffic in animals for slaughter abroad, and the European Union has sanctioned the move. CIWF remains vigilant.

Abandon for ever
Should Britain return to such a trade? Economics and ethics say no. Around 75 per cent of the export market in sheep, for example, is in meat. Why not all? Similarly, if animals were slaughtered here instead of being sent abroad, new jobs and extra profits would be created in UK abattoirs and allied industries. In short, we would actually benefit from the added value derived from processing animals in this country rather than exporting them. As the taxpayer subsidises the UK sheep sector to the tune of around £350,000,000 a year, we at CIWF believe this buys the public a say, and we ask for the pitiless live export trade to be abandoned for ever. CIWF is not anti-farmer; it is anti-exploitation of farm animals. And exportation equals exploitation.

Many animals first endure exhausting, heat-seared journeys to places as far away as Spain, Italy and Greece — journeys that can last for up to forty hours, though some may take twice as long. This happens because the EU Directive-based UK Transport Order, which ought to provide effective protection for these living cargoes, instead permits loopholes. Most vehicles, except those with the most rudimentary facilities, can therefore carry sheep for twenty-eight hours, with a mid-journey break of one hour, followed by twenty-four hours’ rest, before then beginning another twenty-eight-hour cycle. Disturbingly, this one-day rest period is often ignored.

Video footage shows animals given no opportunity to rest, or take food and water. Worse follows, for on arrival at the slaughterhouse, they may be inadequately stunned, returning to consciousness as their throats are cut. Some workers are observed not even attempting to stun the animals as they shackle and kill them. All of this is in direct contravention of EU transport and slaughter rules, which state that all animals for non-religious slaughter should be stunned into unconsciousness immediately prior to slaughter. It also makes a cruel mockery of the 1997 Treaty of Rome’s recognition of animals as ‘sentient beings’. Although a massive victory at the time for CIWF and supporters, who fought long and hard for the reclassification of farm animals (before this they were described as ‘goods’), this seems somewhat Pyrrhic in the light of continuing animal suffering.

Breeding pigs
The trade in breeding pigs (100,000 annually, pre-FMD) has returned. This consigns British animals to European sow stalls similar to those that have been banned in the UK since 1999. Wedged into individual stalls that permit standing/slumping room only, these sows remain on concrete floors, without bedding, for the duration of their sixteen-week repeat pregnancies. Even the most basic movement, turning around for another view of their restricted world, is denied them. CIWF welcomes the European Union’s recent decision to phase out sow stalls, and to provide more space and better bedding for fattening pigs (those bred for their meat). We are overjoyed to witness the promise of a veto on castration and routine tail docking and teeth clipping — only a few of the many shameful mutilations perpetrated on today’s wretched farm animals. Unhappily, however, these much-needed welfare improvements will take some years to become law.

None of this paints a pretty picture. It makes for difficult reading — and writing — but the animals cannot act for themselves. They can only be acted upon, by us, either with cruelty or compassion, and I offer no apology if I make you feel uncomfortable today. Some people may argue that exported slaughter animals’ deaths can be justified in that they go into the food chain, unlike the unfortunates of the FMD purge. For CIWF, however, all farm animals — whether or not they are for food — must be permitted to live and die in humane circumstances, preferably remaining as close as possible to the farm of rearing. For these reasons — and many, many more — CIWF perseveres in the belief that live animal export must be made a thing of the past.

Cardinal Manning
Animal welfarists and rightists everywhere ask the same question: Why is the cry for justice for animals the exception rather than the rule among Christian clergy and laity? I say ‘animals’ because those short, sharp lives on the factory farm are not the only ones needing consideration. Take the sterile existence of the laboratory animal. Sympathy for the underdog is the very leitmotif of Christianity (‘He who is last …’), and yet if we are referring to a real dog, or any of the millions of other animals reared for the officially sanctioned vivisector, there seems no one in the present-day Catholic Church to match the magnificence of the nineteenth-century Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, second Archbishop of Westminster. Also a Vice-President of the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals from Vivisection (now the National Anti-Vivisection Society), the Cardinal spoke eloquently at a meeting held at the Grosvenor Square house of Lord Shaftesbury, in June 1882:

… but this I do protest, that there is not a religious instinct in nature, nor a religion of nature, nor is there a word in revelation, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament, nor is there to be found in the great theology which I do represent, nor in any Act of the Church of which I am a member; nor in the lives and utterances of any one of those great servants of that Church who stand as examples, nor is there an authoritative utterance anywhere to be found in favour of vivisection.

I believe the same moral outrage needs to be directed at factory farming and live exports today.

Speciesist Christianity
Andrew Linzey — Oxford Senior Research Fellow in Theology and Animal Welfare, to give him his gloriously unique title — has looked at the dearth of Christian compassion for other creatures, and asks if theology can ever move beyond ‘humanocentric parochialism’. Must Christianity remain speciesist, he queries in Animals on the Agenda, celebrating only the ‘God-givenness’ of humankind? Much elitism towards animals, Linzey claims, can be traced back to Aristotle’s observation, ‘Nature has made them for the sake of man’ — a view that influenced two of the Church’s most eminent thinkers, Augustine and Aquinas. ‘Reason has not been given to them,’ Augustine held, while Aquinas later wrote, ‘It is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatever.’ The mounting objectification of ‘them’ is not lost on us. Neither is the knowledge that the soul/no-soul dichotomy that prefaces it has not been to the advantage of the animal kingdom. I leave theology to theologians, merely adding, with a nod to Jeremy Bentham, that the real nub of the matter is not whether animals can be said to have souls, but whether they can suffer.

If we consider the blood fiestas in Catholic countries such as Spain, the answer seems all too obvious: animals do suffer. Although pre-Christian in origin, the fiestas flourished and have become associated with church feast days. During these events, live goats are sometimes dropped from towers, donkeys deliberately crushed, chickens hung upside down and decapitated by blindfolded young girls using blunted swords. Then there are the bulls. Is it not a supreme irony that animals, expressing no curiosity about religion (do we punish their innocence?) are still, in the twenty-first century, so bloodily used? This is not compassionate. And it’s certainly not Christian.

Remaining with theological considerations, Andrew Linzey explores further what we might term the ‘not-there-edness’ of animals. As an example of this, he offers an extract from contemporary speculative philosophising that is taken up with how alien life forms — should we ever come upon them — ought to be regarded:

If, in other worlds, there have evolved forms of intelligent life so different from our own as to entail an utterly different kind of experience, then there seems to be no theological reason why God should not also have assumed those forms of life in order to experience them for himself. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, for while this expounds, straight-faced, on how an absent, as yet non-existent, ‘other’ should be welcomed into the fold, it ignores the evolved forms that do exist and are here among us. Does the Good News of Christianity, we might ask, have to be bad news for non-humans?

Yet the idea persists among many Christians that giving animals proper moral consideration is somehow blasphemous. For society at large, it is, at best, merely sentimental. Welfarists are accused of anthropomorphism, whilst those, for instance, actually attempting to humanise pigs in order to provide spare-part organs for humans (xenotransplants), are called … scientists. What hypocrites we are!

It would be satisfying, for the animals’ sake, to have said something sufficiently defamiliarising to make you think ‘Ah …’, but I’ll leave the inspirational stuff to Compassion in World Farming, with its unflagging record on behalf of farm animals. Contact CIWF as well as the long-established Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare, if you want more details of what has been discussed. Just think, together we could help end factory farming and live exports here in the UK, and then — tomorrow — who knows?

St Francis would certainly approve, and so would the French writer and philosopher, Lamartine, who said, and I shall paraphrase in translation — Cruelty is the same whether it is towards man or animal: only the victim is different.

1. Compassion in World Farming, Charles House, 5A Charles Street, Petersfield,
Hampshire GU32 3EH.
2. A. Linzey, and D. Yamamoto (eds), Animals on the Agenda: questions about animals for theology and ethics, London: SCM Press, 1998.
3. Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare, 36 Broad Oak Park, St Johns, Colchester CO4 0JY.

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