Putting Animals on the Agenda – Rt Revd Dominic Walker

Rt Revd Dominic Walker, President of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA), speaks to Sarx about his long-standing passion for creation, his experiences of protesting against cruel live exports and the role of the church in promoting animal welfare.

Tell us about yourself and how you first developed an interest in animal welfare.

I was brought up in an animal loving family and there was never a time when we didn’t share the house with lots of dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, tropical fish and other animals.  We lived on Dartmoor and rode ponies and horses.  I joined the RSPCA (of which I am now an hon.vice president) as a teenager and did holiday jobs at a local kennels so I suppose that animal welfare and respect for creation was something that I was taught from a very early age.

How have those in the Church responded to your heart for animal welfare and has this changed over the years?

I have tried to teach that we all make ethical decisions every day whenever we shop or eat.  As Christians, we have to ask if what we are buying or eating is exploiting poor people or animals. Over the years I have stressed this message because of the increase in factory farming, zero grazing, live transportation and the world demand for cheap meat. I have upset a few farmers and fox hunters but on the whole, it has elicited a positive reaction and people have told me that they have changed their shopping and eating habits.

Your passion for animals has inspired you to actively protest against live animal exports. Were fellow protesters surprised to find a Bishop championing their cause?

When I joined the Shoreham protesters I was the Vicar of Brighton. Yes, people were surprised to see a priest protesting along with a local anti-hunting Tory MP (Sir Andrew Bowden) although there were a number of other Christians among the protesters.  I was just more visible.  Some asked me why the Church did not do more to speak out against animal cruelty. I did explain that the RSPCA was founded by an Anglican priest (The Revd Arthur Broome) but that I agreed that the Church ought to do more to protect God’s vulnerable creatures. We let it be known that Brighton Parish Church was ‘animal friendly’ and people were welcome to bring their dogs with them.

ASWA has grown a great deal since its foundation over 30 years ago.  What achievements are you most proud of?

Our mission has been to try and put animals on the church’s agenda and over the years we have encouraged churches to have animal blessing services and then to see beyond an appreciation of companion animals to the welfare issues involved in farming, hunting, culling, experiments, the tourist industry, deforestation and so on. We publish a quarterly magazine Animal Watch and have stalls at church exhibitions and gatherings. We produce leaflets and materials on animal welfare matters and aids for worship. Our membership has grown and we have an annual service – usually in a different cathedral each year – to let church members know that we exist.  We have also encouraged Anglicans overseas to affiliate with us, so the word is slowly spreading.

Since the 1990’s interest in Animal Theology has gained quite a lot of momentum in academic circles.  Do you see these theological developments filtering down into the Churches?

FairTradeSadly, not as much as I would like.  There has always been a gap between academic theology and the people in the pews and the link between the two must be the clergy and readers.  They are trained by theologians and then expected to apply their theology to their ministry, teaching and preaching.

I doubt if most theological colleges and training courses see animal theology as central to the doctrines of creation and redemption let alone in terms of kingdom theology where peace and justice are signs of God’s reign. Christians have now heard the message of the importance of caring for the environment and justice issues for humans so the churches encourage ‘green’ practices and  Fair Trade, but they have not yet become fully aware of our responsibility towards all God’s creatures with which we share this planet and for which we are called to exercise loving stewardship.

How might individual Christians find encouragement and voice support of animal welfare within their Church communities?

I think they can do two things.  Firstly, find support for themselves by belonging to an organisation like ASWA or Sarx and having contact with other Christians with a heart for animal welfare. Such organisations also encourage members to be aware of current animal welfare issues and how to sign petitions and protest. Secondly, they need to take the message to their local churches by asking for animals to be included in the Sunday prayers, to have animal welfare services (including Animal Welfare Sunday) and for animals to be remembered and included in harvest and remembrance services. A coffee morning or a  free veggie supper can also be used to let people know that Christian animal welfare organisations exist and welcome new members. A dog bowl with water outside a church also gives a simple but positive message.

Bishop Dominic Walker is the former Bishop of Monmouth having previously been Vicar of Brighton and Bishop of Reading.  Whilst in Brighton he was involved in the protests against live animal exports.  He has been President of ASWA since 2008.  He has also been a Vice President of the RSPCA since 2001.

For more information on the work of ASWA.