Walking the Pilgrim’s Way

I am now over halfway through my pilgrimage from the eastern corner of North Wales to the far western tip of its peninsula. This is the medieval Pilgrim’s Way, from Basingwerk Abbey to Bardsey Island. I have experienced so much in the 80 miles I have walked – two cathedrals (St Asaph and Bangor), Neolithic stone circles and menhirs, Bronze Age mounds, beautiful scenery, fascinating nature, and lots of uplifting conversations (from an enthusiastic metal detectorist to a daring escapologist). In these experiences, I have, in the beautiful words of the late Bishop Saunders Davies, experienced creation at its most translucent, glimpsing the grandeur and glory of its creator.

Alongside these uplifting and inspiring moments, though, I have also been struggling with excruciating pain in my right knee. Hoping for relief, I have washed it in the ancient wells of St Winefride’s (Holywell) and St Celynnin (above Conwy) and prayed at the famous healing cross of Tremeirchion. Eventually I was inspired to speak to a physiotherapist for advice! It seems my patella tendon is inflamed, a condition that will require physiotherapy when I get back. He strongly advised a rest day or two, so I am lying in bed at the moment, frustrated and sore, with a pack of frozen peas on my knee. Tomorrow I will rejoin the Pilgrim’s Way at Clynnog Fawr, where St Beuno founded his monastery in the early 7th century. From there, I will walk over 30 miles in three days and, all being well with crossing, sail for Bardsey Island on Saturday.

Andrew Jones, in his book Pilgrimage [BRF 2011], suggests pilgrimages often echo Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles all night and he emerges from the battle with his hip dislocated. Jones maintains that, from then on, “Jacob’s strength was actually in some way in that limp”. His extraordinary encounter had left him scarred but stronger. As I know from situations in my pastoral work, suffering is often senseless and tragic, but, when we emerge from difficult times, our scars can help strengthen us and our wounds can help us reach out to others in compassion. Christians believe that God does not cause or delight in our suffering, but, when we do suffer, he can redeem our times of trial and bring us to new life. It makes little sense that Jacob Epstein’s huge statue of the resurrected Christ above the nave at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales has no wounds on his hands and feet. Jesus’s body was scarred by sin and violence, but rose again and lived. Likewise, the difficulties we go through cannot be erased entirely. The fact they leave us hurt and scarred, though, does not rule out resurrection.

Pilgrimage very much echoes this process of renewal. After all, through pilgrimages we are led, in both our joy and pain, to new purposes and different perspectives – our eyes are opened to a connection with the eternal (through places, people, and objects) and we are helped to move forward with hope, joy, and compassion in our hearts. Yet we cannot avoid the fact that the glory of the resurrection involved the darkness of the cross and the tomb. As such, despite frustration and pain, I know that my inflamed knee, as well as my aching back and my sore blisters, will teach me, feed me, and inspire me as much as the numerous uplifting moments of grace when God’s hope and joy have broken through on each stage of my journey.

On Saturday, I will, God willing, step onto Bardsey Island, my destination. This beautiful, remote, and tranquil island was known in the Middle Ages as the “Rome of Britain” and was such an important place for medieval Christians that three visits there was considered the equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Holy See. It is said that the island became the graveyard of 20,000 Celtic saints. It might, therefore, seem paradoxical that it was, and continues to be, a place that holds the promise of new life and new beginnings. Perhaps there is significance in the fact that the head of the island points eastward, as if to Jerusalem and to the risen Christ. As such, I journey on, embracing both the pleasures and pains of this pilgrimage, with the hope, and indeed expectation, that I will be blessed with restoration, renewal, and resurrection.

NB to read some reasons why I am undertaking this pilgrimage, please take a look at my last post: Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Today I begin to walk the 135-mile pilgrimage across the top of North Wales known as “The Pilgrim’s Way“. This ancient route is the trail that mediaeval pilgrims took from Basingwerk Abbey on the Dee Estuary, near to the Wales-England border, to Bardsey Island at the very westernmost tip of North Wales. Why I am I putting myself through this long walk? Why embrace the blisters and sore joints? I think there are three reasons:

1) Challenge: Twelve years ago, I underwent major back surgery and, later, wrote a book (‘Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering’ [SPCK 2010]) reflecting on the challenge of pain and suffering for people of faith. I continue to be surprised by the impact that book has had, and continues to have, on people facing various trials and tribulations. Only earlier this week, I replied to a wonderfully uplifting email from a person who had been given my book while serving a sentence in prison. I was moved to discover that he regarded my book as one of the cogs in the wheel that had helped him turn his life around. The positive impact that my book has had on people helps lift me when I feel frustration in reflecting on the fact that chronic pain is still very much part of my daily life. However, I have now built up my strength so as to be able to walk for long distances, and this walk is one way for me to once again face down, and hopefully overcome, these struggles.

2) Charity: I am now vicar of a church in Cardiff, Wales, UK. I have seen some amazing transformation in the church, and in our local community, over the past few years. Not only has the church grown considerably over the past five years and is now a thriving mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, but our church hall, which we see as a gift to our local community, is being used by many different community groups. It is bringing hope, learning, company, compassion, and joy to people of all ages – from babies and toddlers to the infirm and elderly. Unfortunately, that hall is now not fit for purpose, and is having to be demolished. We are, therefore, building a new hall. Everything raised from the sponsorship of this walk will be going towards this new community church hall which will hugely benefit our local community. If you are able to give something, however small, I’d be hugely grateful Thank you! Diolch!

www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/trystan-hughes-walk

3) Change: “To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often”. The journey of a pilgrimage moulds and changes us, as the places we visit break through and transform us from the inside. As preparation for this pilgrimage, I have read some wonderful books about the nature of spiritual journeying (by Andrew Jones, Sally Welch, Peter Owen Jones, Charles Foster, and more) and about the history and makeup of the Welsh countryside. I am, therefore, ready to embrace the change that will come through my experience of the beautiful churches and medieval shrines I will visit, the inspiring ancient forests I will walk through, the Roman road I will tread, and the breathtaking prehistoric monuments I will pass (menhirs, stone circles, round barrows, cairns, and so on). However, I start this walk with my knees already sore and my back aching as usual, and so I am reminded that our transformation in pilgrimage is, more than often, through the adversities we face and the pain we feel, rather than simply in the fun and fulfilment. After all, we grow and learn as much by our following our blisters as we do by following our bliss.

God and Grenfell

1 Aberfan

Aberfan Memorial

Recently, our family travelled up to the “book capital of Britain”, Hay-on-Wye, for the day. We hadn’t banked on our three year old demanding a book in every single bookshop we stepped foot in, but, apart from a continually screaming child, we had a lovely time. On the way back, we saw signs to Aberfan, and, as my daughter was studying the tragedy that had taken place there at her school, she asked whether we could take a detour to the memorial. The memorial is on the site of Pantglas school where, fifty years ago, over 100 young children, a whole generation, were lost with the collapse of the colliery tip. There are two sections to the memorial – first, a beautiful and peaceful garden and, second, a lovely playground for children. As I watched my daughter playing on the swings and the slide, knowing she was the same age as the primary-school children who had lost their lives, my mind slipped into a prayer of protest – where were you, Lord, on that horrific day? Were you sitting on your hands on your golden throne?

2 God has FailedOn Wednesday morning, as I watched the news on TV, I found myself asking the same questions. I watched the harrowing images of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, the tears and grief of the friends and relatives, and the photos of the smiling children and adults missing. How could a loving, caring Father God allow this to happen? I started feeling disappointment with God, disheartened in my faith, a little angry even. A church in Tamworth was vandalised earlier this week, with “God has Failed” sprayed on its walls. However inane that act of vandalism was in itself, part of me could understand how people could come to that view in light of tragedies, wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us feel like the 50% of participants in a recent US opinion poll who, when asked for their “approval rating” for God, thought that the Almighty should be able to handle things in our world a little better.

JesusWhen we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few. Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father. As in any intimate relationship, nothing is too trivial or too important, and nothing too painful or too secular, to be excluded. A father-child relationship allows us to lay bare all our humanly experiences and emotions before our creator God – not only our joys, but also our pain, our despair, our questioning, our cries for help. God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. In fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.

None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre”. In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11). In light of my own experience of ministry to those facing so much tragedy and grief, I have come to recognise that God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family. Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.

3 Rowan WilliamsIn an article in the Sunday Telegraph in 2004, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected on the horror of the Boxing Day tsunami, which had just devastated South Asia. In facing such horrors, he wrote that our faith has no “answers”. Yet we still witness the kingdom in the sacrificial compulsion of people to care for each other and the impulse they have to make a difference. It is in those driven by, in Rowan Williams’s words, “the imperative for practical service and love” that we see God’s light shining. After all, when pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, those who face heartbreak, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done.

4 donationsWe’ve seen this in just the most amazing way these past few days. Alongside the tireless work of the emergency services and the hospitals, we have seen, on the ground, “an army of caring”, as the press have dubbed it – huge distribution centres, with donated toys, water, food, and clothes; churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all open and welcoming those of any or no faith; sports centres and community halls open; individuals travelling many hundreds of miles to help; celebrities, politicians, and bishops pulling their sleeves up and standing alongside those in their loss; locals opening their gardens and houses for anyone to pop in; people cooking meals and giving them out freely; and three million pounds donated within 48 hours.

6 rainbowA friend of mine who lives directly opposite Grenfell Tower posted the following on her facebook page yesterday: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn. But can we see it? Do we recognise him where he is to be found?” There are certainly times when we, his followers, can’t offer any words to explain tragedy, less still can we take any pain away. But we are comforted that, through the cross, God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony. In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” On Mount Sinai, God revealed himself as “the God of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6), and so when his people, of whatever background or tradition, are inspired to reach out in compassion, God himself is present. That is the hope that springs from suffering, that is the glimpse of God’s kingdom, that is the rainbow in the storm.

 

Why Christians should be the first to stand alongside Muslim brothers and sisters

 

abdullah-al-mulla-at-inter-faith-weekGrowing up in North Wales did not introduce me to a plethora of different faiths and nationalities. Three times a year, though, my family travelled down to the big smoke – Cardiff – to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we’d travel into the city centre, and there we would see people of different races and nationalities, women wearing hijab, and men in long flowing gowns. It all fascinated small-town Trystan and I remember asking my mum whether these people who looked so different from me were Christian. She told me that some of them were, but some were of other faiths, and she added, “but whether they’re Christian or not, God loves them and he wants us to love everyone, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their faith”. “But mum,” I retorted, “didn’t Jesus say that no one comes to God, except through him?” To my surprise, my mum answered, “no, Trystan, he didn’t say that”. Before I could rush to my bookcase to show her John 14:6 in my children’s Bible, she explained – “Jesus did not say that no one comes to God except through him, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him”.

By seeing God as our “father”, we Christians hold that we are brought into a particular type of relationship with God – a relationship of trust, of forgiveness, of unconditional love. This is a relationship that reflects a human relationship between father and a daughter or son. This personal relationship is one of the amazing things that I, as a Christian, believe makes my faith unique. Jesus came to show us how to attain that relationship, because that relationship reflects who and what God really is – a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion.

img_2255We Christians believe that Jesus offers us that unique relationship, but the consequence of that belief is not that other faiths should be disparaged or dismissed – quite the opposite. Our belief doesn’t mean that we Christians own God and that we should box him up as our special property. It doesn’t mean that those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, don’t connect and engage with God. It doesn’t even mean that people of other faiths don’t have their own relationship with God. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love, laugh with, learn from, and stand up for people of other faiths. This is perhaps something of what Desmond Tutu meant when he said: “God is not a Christian”.

Part of my ministry involves journeying with people who are themselves called to Christian ministry. In my first meeting with a candidate, I ask them who has helped them on their Christian journey – who, down the years, have helped them to connect with God, to see God in different places. Sometimes they mention friends, sometimes family members, sometimes someone in church. When I ask myself that same question there are so many people that come to mind – my mum and dad, my old school chaplain, a lecturer at university, a close friend of mine in my first job, a number of Christian writers whose books I have read but I have never met, and my wife Sandra.

img_0658But I would also add another name to that list. And that is the name of a man called Sameh Otri.  Sameh is now a lecturer in the Middle East, but he was, a few years ack, my fellow chaplain in Cardiff University. Sameh is a humble person, a deeply spiritual person, a compassionate person, an inspirational person. But what makes him different from many of the people on my list is that Sameh is a Syrian Muslim – he was the Muslim chaplain to the University. Yet I learnt so much about God, about faith, about prayer, about love, through Sameh.

img_1927I remember meeting up with Sameh for coffee one spring morning, for example. As we sat down in a Cardiff café that serves just the best cakes, Sameh said to me “oh no! I just remembered, it’s Lent for you, so you must be fasting and can’t eat anything!” I explained to him that actually, for Christians, fasting during Lent was very different to fasting during Ramadan, and that Christians usually give up something specific, like chocolate or cakes. “Ah I understand now”, he said as he chose a big slice of cake, “so what did you give up?” “Oh no”, I quickly replied, “what I meant was that other Christians give up something during Lent, but I haven’t given up anything and so can eat as much cake as I want!” This led to a lengthy conversation on why fasting is important, why self-discipline and self-control are helpful, and how fasting can bring us closer to God. I must admit, and not for the first time with Sameh, I went away with my faith challenged and, in some little way, changed.

img_1899Sameh taught me so much during my time as chaplain and it would be nice to think that he is now chatting to friends in his local mosque in Buraydah, telling them that he also learnt something about God through me. Our call is to both teach others and learn from others, whoever they are. It would be good if all of us could open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to allow people of other faiths to teach us something about God and about our faith. In the gospels, there are gentiles who are learning about God through Christ and his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to also learn something about God and faith through them – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, he said to his disciples about a centurion (Luke 7:9). We live in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with differences, and with trying to encourage us to fear and distrust those who are different from us and those who have different views from us. But that’s not how Jesus worked. He didn’t want to make people the same as him so he could engage with them. He simply reached out to all people, and encouraged his followers both to love others and to learn from others, whoever they are, however different they may be to them.

I don’t want to be good: Trump, Brexit, Adam, and Jesus

img_2960My youngest son has hit the terrible twos with vengeance. He has the potential to get rather angry, to say the least. A few nights back, when he was told it was time to pack up his Fireman Sam toys, he saw red and went into a meltdown. I calmly repeated to him that it was his bedtime and he needed to be a good boy. As the tears flooded down his cheeks, he looked directly into my eyes, and said “but, daddy, I don’t want to be a good boy!”

Reflecting on the US election over the past few days I have been thinking about his words. The Christian doctrine of original sin is the belief that all of us are inclined to mess up, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden. “Everyone who enters the world”, wrote third-century theologian Origen, “may be said to be affected by a kind of contamination”. In other words, all of us are inclined towards faults, frailties, and failures. Sometimes, like my two year old, we just don’t want to be good. Tertullian, another third-century theologian, reminded us original sin is not only a doctrine which explains the flaws of individuals, but also the difficulties faced by families, communities, and societies.

trumpTo some, this doctrine has seemed bleak and lacking in hope. It is little wonder that, down the years, certain theologians ignored or dismissed it and championed the innate goodness of our fellow beings and the inevitability of human progress. The terrible slaughter of the First World War seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of this positive view of human nature. For the past thirty years, though, many of us, whether we are Christian or not, have almost unconsciously tended towards a positive view of progress in politics and society – Soviet Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vision of a new Britain by Tony Blair, the promise of change by Barack Obama, not to mention spectacular breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology. Slowly, though, our hope in human progress has been eroding, culminating in a year when we have seen terror on the streets of Europe, increasingly bloody conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of hateful extremism in a plethora of forms (including, most disturbingly, increasingly “acceptable” forms), a victory for the hostile rhetoric of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election as US President, with all the threat that holds to minorities, the environment, and world peace.

Certainly complex reasons have led to the situation we are now facing – communities feel disenfranchised, individuals are facing increasing poverty and inequality, there is a distrust of the political class, and there remains real anger towards the greed of financial institutions. But at the heart of our present status quo is the fact that we humans eventually end up being tempted to do what we always end up doing, whether in our personal lives or in our communities and societies – to push the self-destruct button.

createdIn this sense, the doctrine of original sin and the Christian concept of the fall ring true to the reality of the human condition. All of us have a tendency towards selfishness, self-centredness, and sin. If that were the end of the matter, this would leave us hopeless and helpless. But Christian theology holds the tension of fall and redemption, of sin and grace. In other words, just as all are in Adam, all are also within Christ (I Cor. 15:22). We are both sinner and saint. We have been, after all, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that “likeness”, as Tertullian put it, can still shine out in our daily actions of peace, hope, and compassion. Our inclination to mess up, in the words of fourth-century theologian St Augustine, “darkens and disables good natural qualities” but those qualities still remain deep within us. The incarnation affirms this, as, through our faith, we become Christ to others (Romans 13:14) and others become Christ to us (Matthew 25:40).

trump-2This is where the Christian faith can offer the radical hope that our broken world needs to truly believe that change is possible – to believe that love and compassion will trump fear and prejudice. The sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin noted that original sin does not mean that sin is a necessity – we can all still choose another way. For us to do this, though, there is a greater challenge. We have to recognize that no one, whoever they are, is beyond redemption. Everyone has the imprint of God on them and should be regarded and treated as God’s children. Christian activist Sara Miles reflects on the uncomfortable challenge of this fact: “the thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people”. Even those whom we most vehemently disagree with, even those who are hateful, misogynist, narcissistic, and racist, are made in God’s image. Only through this realization can we truly grasp something of the revolutionary hope that Jesus offers to our societies. The doctrine of original sin does not teach us that we are lost to unconscious forces that control us. Rather, it reminds us of our own implication in the evils of the world and reassures us of our beautiful opportunity to transform ourselves, others, events, communities, and societies in the light of God’s hope, compassion, and love.

 

Compassion and the EU Referendum

Tom and JerryHaving a toddler in your house introduces you to all sorts of strange and colourful TV programmes with some intriguing titles – Twirlywoos, Hey Duggee, Messy goes to Okido, Rastamouse, and the list goes on. My two-year-old’s favourite show, though, is not so new-fangled – it’s the old classic Tom and Jerry. He avidly watches the original series from the 1940s and 1950s. Most Tom and Jerry episodes are the two enemies competing with each other. There are, though, a number of them that see the cat and mouse working together, to overcome obstacles. My son’s very favourite episode is, what he calls, the “baby one”, where the couple join together to care for a little baby who gets into all sorts of scrapes.

NewspapersAt our toddler’s insistence, our household is presently watching that Tom and Jerry episode on a continual loop. The care and compassion shown by the sworn enemies towards a helpless baby has provided a welcome break on our TV screen from the toxic atmosphere of hate and vitriol that the EU Referendum seems to have birthed. So much of the literature I’ve had through my door, not to mention the front pages of newspapers that I walk past in newsagents, are rooted in fear – principally, fear of outsiders who are, it is claimed, coming here to take our jobs, use our health service, and commit heinous crimes. This past week, the bishops of Church in Wales have issued a joint statement announcing their intention to vote to remain in the EU and noting that the emotive language of fear and distrust is overshadowing any meaningful discussion, with immigrants being ‘demonised’ in the debate.

Good Samaritan 1Certainly, the tone of the campaign has denigrated the weakest of our communities, and, in reflecting on Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, those lying on the road to Jericho are not being ignored, but are being actively derided, as hate, divisiveness, and bigotry has been spread in our country. Our challenge as Christians is to model the Good Samaritan, and not to turn our heads to look the other way like the Priest and Levite. Jesus, of course, never referred to the ‘Good’ Samaritan. I find the word ‘good’ to be rather insipid and bland. These days, it’s used when a dog collects a stick you’ve thrown or when a toddler eats his greens – “good boy, good boy”. My own suggestion would be to rechristen the parable as ‘the Compassionate Samaritan’ – here was someone who entered the suffering of his neighbour, treating him as he would a brother or sister.

Good Samaritan 2It is natural to think Jesus himself would act as the Samaritan did in this story – he offers healing and wholeness to those whose wounds he sees and cries he hears. But the incarnation leads us also to see him in the wounded, dying man on the road to Jericho – “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus enters the suffering of the distressed and depressed. Our call is to recognise him in that suffering – in the eyes of the mother queuing at the Foodbank, the refugee pleading for hospitality, the so-called immigrants who feel unwanted and alienated by the rhetoric of hate; in the eyes of the poor, the disabled, the grieving, the ill. Our role is to see Jesus in each and every person and be ready to offer our own love and care to them, whoever they are.

Good Samaritan 3And yet too often the discussions around whether we leave or stay in the EU have not been about the unique beauty and worth of each person, but have been about what is best for us personally. Such fear and self-centredness was the response of the priest and Levite in this parable. The Compassionate Samaritan didn’t say, “wait there, before I do anything – what’s in this for me?” He didn’t ask the question, “what’s better for me – to keep walking or to stop and help?” He didn’t check whether the beaten body at the side of the road was a different nationality, different gender, different race, different sexuality, than he himself was. Compassion is not about individual satisfaction or personal gain. Neither is it about being comfortable. As Christians, our role in politics is not to ask what is best for us. Rather, we simply need to ask: “what’s the most compassionate thing to do?”

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexitThere are undoubtedly Christians on both sides of the debate surrounding the EU Referendum. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that leaving would harm the poorest in our society, while his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales have noted that the EU has led to a “fairer, safer, and cleaner world”. Certainly the benefits it has brought in terms of peace, human rights, scientific research, animal rights, environmental care, reducing chemical pollution, and artistic and cultural interchange, relate directly to Kingdom values. Other Christians, though, have argued that we could continue to champion these values if we left the EU. Gillan Scott, in Christian Today, has written that “there is no reason why we cannot continue to show generosity, sacrifice and reconciliation to our European neighbours outside of the EU”. There is certainly truth in that viewpoint. However, just because we could build a more loving and compassionate society having left the EU, that doesn’t mean we would do that. As a football fan, I know that scoring a goal through individual brilliance is always possible, but most goals are scored as a team, working together. Many Christians purport that “Together Stronger”, the tagline of my beloved Welsh football team, is the more effective attitude in facing the deep-seated problems of our time – poverty, climate change, human rights, and so on.

hopeIn the past week, we’ve seen posters vilifying refugees fleeing war zones, English football fans chanting anti-European slogans while mercilessly teasing children who are begging on French streets, and a senseless and brutal murder of a devoted MP that may have been perpetrated because of her compassion for the downtrodden and helpless. My hope is that, whatever people vote for in this Referendum, their choice will not be rooted in the fear or distrust of the Levite and Priest on the road to Jericho, but in the peace, hope, and generosity of spirit of the Compassionate Samaritan. Our faith challenges us to expand our circle of compassion to all people and all living things, not merely those who are “like us”. There is a biblical imperative to care for each other, not simply as neighbours, but as family. This is what ‘good news’ is all about. Our country, and indeed our world, needs healing, not hostility; peace, not prejudice; freedom, not fear; hope, not hate. “A dark shadow of disappointment stubbornly follows our obsession with personal satisfaction;” writes theologian Miroslav Volf, “we are meant for something larger than our own satisfied selves”.

Animals and Faith

An interview with Dr Greg Dixon, a veterinary surgeon and researcher in animal welfare science, ethics and law

WimpyWhen I was growing up, I didn’t have a pet for any length of time. I had a rabbit named Twm Twitch for a few months, I had a guinea pig named Rupert for a few weeks, and I had a newt for a few days, before he escaped and I found him shrivelled up on the kitchen floor. I wasn’t really an animal-person, unless they were on my plate, next to my potatoes and carrots. I soon took a job in Wimpy burger bar and persuaded my then-girlfriend to give up her vegetarianism and start eating proper food – quarter-pound Wimpy burgers with that lovely pink relish. Animals, to me, were expendable and exploitable – “things” given to us by God to be eaten, worn, and used for our own purposes, however selfish and self-centred those purposes may be.

noah-ark05In my early twenties, I underwent a road-to-Damascus experience in my attitude to animals. It all came from reading the conclusion of the story of Noah’s flood, when God makes a covenant with his people, a covenant which expresses his love and care (Genesis 9:8-17). As I read that passage, it suddenly dawned on me that the covenant between God and his people in the Old Testament, which then became Jesus’s ultimate covenant in the New Testament, is not simply about humankind. The most striking aspect of the covenant with Noah is that it is between God and ‘all living creatures of every kind on the earth’, including ‘the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals’. As if to hammer this home, that fact is mentioned five times in that short Genesis passage alone!

SchweitzerWith this realization, I began to view Jesus’s teaching on love in a completely different way. It became evident to me that our call to compassion and care should not simply include those of the same species as us, but should embrace all living things. The medic and theologian Albert Schweitzer called this ‘reverence for life’. In so many matters, we Christians have our faith boxed up, over in one corner – we unpack it and it comes out on Sundays and it sometimes comes out for issues that relate directly to injustices towards people. But other matters, such as animal rights, are seen as issues that are quite distinct from our faith, and are boxed up in the opposite corner to our faith. In this way, there is often a fundamental disconnect between our faith and some critical ethical and societal issues. By now, I believe that animals are very much part and parcel of God’s kingdom and are due care and compassion from those of us entrusted to stewardship of his creation. So I’m delighted that a veterinary surgeon, Dr Greg Dixon, has agreed to speak to me about the issue of animal rights.

Before we go on to talk about your academic research in this area, Greg, can you tell us something about your job as a vet.

Greg-Dixon“Nowadays I work at a local practice in Cardiff, Wales, UK with a strong interest in canine and feline internal medicine, always happy with an ultrasound machine or an endoscope trying to figure out why the dog or cat is ill and what I am going to do about it. Many people view their pet almost as a family member, and I hope that by helping the pet I can help the people too. But before I came to Cardiff I was a ‘mixed’ vet working with farm companion animals. I have worked over the years closely with dairy cows, and on sheep and pig farms. I was never fully signed up to the farming practices to which I was exposed. I felt I was always a bit like Hawkeye in M*A*S*H – I didn’t agree with the war, but kept patching up the boys and sending them back to the front!”

And tell us something about your PhD research.

“By 2001 I had become very interested in Animal Welfare and Ethics, taking a further professional exam in the subject and helping to set up the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association. I was offered a PhD at Bristol Vet School, which is a centre for the study of Animal Welfare Science. I went to study the welfare of laying hens there for 3 years! My particular research was looking into the risk factors for the feather and vent pecking in laying chickens. This, in the worse cases, can lead to chickens consuming each other. Contrary to what many might think, this injurious behaviour happens mostly in free-range birds and not caged layer birds. There are few farming systems that are without their welfare problems, when practiced on a commercial scale. Sometimes a well-intentioned change leads us from the frying pan, into the fire.”

So, what led you to research animal rights in particular?

“In my veterinary work and in my research I was exposed to many farming practices, and particularly those of intensive pig farming, commercial abattoirs and broiler (chicken meat) farming led me to deeply question the way we treat our fellow creatures. This, together with much reading and discussion with my colleagues, farmers and philosophers led me to the conclusion that many of these practices, deeply engrained in our culture, are actually very hard to defend in a consistent manner.”

You seem to be saying that animals are not treated well, in general, in this country? Why do you think animals are treated so poorly?

Broiler-chickens“It depends which animals we are thinking of. I know some chihuahuas who live like kings! However, those animals that we consider only in an instrumental fashion perhaps do not fare so well. I am very concerned about the 850 million broiler chickens who are slaughtered annually in the UK, of whom, in their short 6 week lives, 28% (that’s 126 million sentient individual birds) are so severely lame that if they were horses they would be shot! Now, some might argue that are farm animals are kept better in the UK than in some other countries. That may or may not be the case, but that is not tantamount to treating animals well. In some pig abattoirs the line rate can be 60 pigs per minute, with commercial pressure on not dropping the rate. I think it can easily be seen that this kind of time pressure can easily result in those pigs, killed at the rate of one-per-second, not being treated well. I think that if we did to labradors what we do to those pigs on a daily basis, there would be a revolution! The huge demand for cheap animal products exerts an intense commercial pressure that often comes down, in various ways, directly upon the animals.”

What can we do, then, to ensure animals are treated better than they are?

gull“Well, of course, we can treat the animals we come into direct contact with well – I think that is the easy part, mostly. Being nice to dogs and horses is normally a pleasure. But what if we come across an injured gull, considered to be a nuisance by many people here in Cardiff? Do we have any duties to them? If so, do we discharge them well? But we also have social relations, mediated through the commodities of animal products, with many more animals than we come into direct contact with, and this is the difficult part. Can we alter our consumption patterns? Could we consume to improve the way we affect these animals’ lives? There is an analogy with people: we all mostly try and most of the time succeed in treating the people we come into direct contact with well. But we have social relations with many more people, mediated via the commodities we consume. Sometimes we try and treat those people we never meet, that make our coffee or our clothes, better by supporting fair trade or boycotting certain goods.”

As Christians, we see compassion and love of people as part of our mission… why do you think that some Christians miss the importance of compassion and love towards animals? From what you know about the Christian message, do the attitudes of Christians surprise you at all?

earth steward“I think that some Christians, like most people, might miss the importance of compassion towards animals. It may be reflected in that contentious translation in Genesis: ‘be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28). ‘Rule over’ is sometimes translated as ‘have dominion over’. But this, at face value, could imply that humans, being on top of a hierarchy, are able to put nature and its creatures to whatever use they see fit. There are, of course, alternative readings and those that talk of ‘stewardship’ rather than ‘dominion’ may cast a different light on our responsibilities. I’d like to take a second to do a bit of social history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was founded by Quakers and enjoyed support from the great and the good of the day, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They erected, by public subscription and generous donation, water fountains for the public and cattle drinking troughs throughout towns and cities. In those days, there was no public water supply and cholera was rife. There were animals throughout towns and cities, unlike today. The benefactors were concerned for the welfare of both people and animals – concern for one did not exclude concern for others. We are not always in a ‘lifeboat’ situation in which someone must be thrown overboard to save the others. The philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote that “compassion is like a magic liquid, the more you pour it, the more there is!” One of the motivations of the Association was, of course, for temperance – before the new drinking troughs, drovers could often only source water for their cattle at pubs that they were obliged to frequent! Nowadays the troughs are often used as ornamental flower boxes. I remember one well in Lewes, East Sussex, UK where I used to live. Alongside it had the imperative from Proverbs to ‘open thy mouth for the dumb’. And that is what I have tried to do in this interview!”

animal babyThank you so much for speaking with us, Greg. I think we would agree that, with regards animal rights, intensive farming, laboratory experiments, live exports, and so on, the old adage “this is the way it’s always been” is no excuse. As Christians, we are challenged to question what we’ve been taught, to read the Bible and to view everything in the light of Jesus’s love and compassion. But our faith is not just about viewing the world in a certain way – it’s also about changing the world. We need to live out the gospel, not simply talk about it. And, with this particular issue, we can do some practical things to take steps towards change: we can pray for all living things, educate ourselves on the issues surrounding animal welfare, read the Bible with the importance of all creation in mind, get involved in campaign (sign petitions and so on), support charities, be selective in shopping (fast food stores, for example, have an appalling record in not taking seriously animal welfare of farmed animals), and spread the word by encouraging friends, family, and colleagues also to educate themselves. Getting our priorities right is certainly the first step, but the next step is for us to ask God to inspire us into action.

See also:

Blog posts

Why I agree every Christian should be a tree-hugging environmentalist

Horses with no Names: What’s Faith got to do with Horsemeat?

Websites

SARX: Christian Animal Welfare

Creature Kind

Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals