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THE BROADER PICTURE / A day for beastly beatitudes

THEY MAKE an odd sort of congregation. Here they come through the gravestones, on leads and ropes, in baskets and boxes, cages and hutches, jars and bowls. Not piously silent, either, but mewing, mooing, yapping and yowling. Inside, by the chipped stone font, you can't move for straw, fur and the swelling pride of owners.

The vicar, in red robes, leads the thanksgiving for beasts, fowl, fish, creeping things, all of God's Creation. Two legs good, four legs good as well seems to be the spirit of the occasion.

Like so many ancient-seeming customs, the annual Blessing of Animals service at Blythburgh, Suffolk, is a modern invention. No one seems quite sure which year exactly it was inaugurated, but it wasn't more than a decade ago - about the same time as the World Crabbing championship began in Walberswick, three miles away. The two events were held this year on the same day. The perfect Bank Holiday Sunday: bless your pig in the morning; eat roast pork for lunch; catch crabs in the afternoon by dangling bacon from a string into the muddy waters.

Stranded like an ark where the A12 crosses the River Blyth, Blythburgh Church, 'the cathedral of the marshes', has long had a special relationship with animals - though not always a happy one. The death-watch beetle nearly destroyed its roof. Robins have twice nested in the lectern. And in 1644, Cromwell's men entered on horseback and fired into the wooden angels in the ceiling; their bullet-holes are still visible; so are the rings to which they tethered their clattering mounts.

'Please Close the Door or Birds Fly in' says a notice. But once a year the doors are thrown open. Sadly, after heavy rain had made the church look even more ark-like than usual, this year's event was cutesier - and decidedly thinner on species - than it might have been. Few large animals made it: two donkeys and a pony, but no bulls or sheep or goats. Creatures not great

but small included a cockatoo, budgie, caterpillar, snail and goldfish, plus guinea-pigs, hamsters and cats. But with a heavy presence of the tweed set (City folk on holiday trying to look County), the event turned into a bit of a dog show, more Crufts than Christian worship, the spaniel or terrier or labrador as Son of Man's best friend.

Can animals be blessed? Do they have souls? In medieval Europe, right through until the last century, there was a widespread belief that, on the contrary, animals were the satellites of Satan. There are many instances of the Church excommunicating and anathematising animals.

The Devil was an ass - or a cloven- hoofed goat, a raven, dog, fox, frog, or weevil. Even the most innocuous of creatures came under suspicion. Egbert, Bishop of Trier, was so enraged by the chirpy disturbances of swallows that he forbade them to enter his cathedral on pain of death.

Harry Edwards, priest in charge at Blythburgh, takes a more humane line. Not worrying overmuch about the theological niceties, he sees creaturely benediction as a bit of fun ('Vicar blesses slug' was one headline in a local newspaper) and, more seriously, as an opportunity for people to celebrate their love of and dependence on animals. It's also, of course, a chance to bring in people who wouldn't normally be there: as the flock of church-goers dwindles, here is the sort of occasion - like Harvest Festival, like Mothering Sunday - which puts bums on pews.

Other churches round the country have similar services. The signs are that they will become a trend for the Nineties: now that it's closing time in the zoos of the West, the Church will offer a space for animals instead.-

(Photographs omitted)