The voice belonged to the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, holder of the world's first academic post in "theology and animal welfare" at Mansfield College, Oxford. The subject of our conversation was his new book, Animal Rites, bound to cause controversy when it is published later this month because it contains the first set of church services for animals ever published. There are the equivalents of pet baptisms and funerals, together with healing services for animals. There are even memorial liturgies to be performed outside abattoirs and laboratories.
Couched, as they are, in the kind of Christian language previously reserved for interceding between humans and the Almighty, they will undoubtedly cause offence in certain circles even as they will be welcomed by animal rights activists and by a certain type of doting pet-owner.
It is the Fido-factor that is the problem, I told Prof Linzey when we eventually met in a study, foggy with pipe smoke, in the Oxford college where he is a fellow. Just insert that doggiest of names into the liturgy he has devised for pet owners, to swear a covenant with what he likes to call their "companion animals", and you get the idea:
PRIEST: Will you name this creature?
Will you care for Fido as God's own creature?
I will with God's grace.
Will you be mindful of his Christ-like vulnerability?
I will be so mindful...
(The human companion is then invited to touch/pat/stroke the animal as a sign of the covenant reaffirmed between them.)
Prof Linzey smiled wryly. "I've married enough Berts and Brendas to know that the insertion of certain individual names inevitably screws up the poetry of a prayer," he said. The key issue was this: Church people, newly conscious of the frail ecology of the world, were happy enough to frame prayers for the broad sweep of creation, but if you talk about one particular animal they feel uncomfortable.
"But the truth is that our relationships are with individual animals," he said. "It's no good the Lambeth Conference saying that `the redemptive purpose of God in Jesus Christ extends to the whole of creation', and then ignoring the fact that individual animals were made by God every bit as much as we were - and that the Incarnation is for them as much as it is for us."
This, it has to be said, is not the orthodox view. Animals do not have equal worth with people, according to Christianity's traditional reading of the book of Genesis - which says that God gave men and women dominion over the creatures of the earth. A similar attitude persisted in the classical world, when Aristotle's teachings prompted widespread belief that the world was there for man's use. The notion persisted through the Age of Enlightenment, and it continues at the core of much modern science. It is only comparatively recently that environmentalists and, more lately, animal rights activists have begun to question the concept of human supremacy.
"Over the centuries, people have fallen into an idolatry - the idea that God is predominantly or exclusively interested in the human species," said Prof Linzey. "But it's a mind-bogglingly, gob-smackingly, breath- takingly absurd notion. Why did God create the wasp? Not for human need. How could dinosaurs have been there for people to exploit? I find it deeply reassuring that God has other concerns."
Ordinary people know this, he insisted, and you can see it in their attitude to their pets. "Of course there can be sentimentality and emotional over- indulgence," he said, puffing on his pipe. "But consider the impact which the death of a companion animal can have. The experience of bereavement can be as deep, and sometimes deeper, than the loss of another human. Christian theology has failed to recognise the significance of animal- human companionship. Churches, in practice, have very little to offer those in the throes of bereavement; indeed, they frequently express hostility or ridicule."
Linzey knows that he is risking this himself. He is out on a shaky limb with a book whose dedication reads: "For Barney, still wagging his tail, in heaven." Animals do not have souls and cannot go to heaven, according to orthodox dogma, but Linzey disagrees: "We know that this creature, who died on earth, shall live again in heaven," reads his "Liturgy for Animal Burial".
There was a knock on the door. It was Prof Linzey's teenage daughter, on her way home from school. She had called in to report on the latest developments in her battle with her biology teachers. She was refusing to dissect pigs' hearts as part of her coursework. The professor broke off to listen, and offer words of support: "You should remember what my first parish priest said to me: `You'll never make a priest if you want to be loved by everyone'." She smiled weakly and set off home to do her homework.
"If you seek untrammelled popularity, you will have no prophetic voice," her father elaborated after she had gone. "Telling the truth does not always make people love you; Jesus found that."
It's not questions of truth, but of priority and proportion, which most worry me about the animal rights' movement, I told him. It seems odd that people are prepared to take to the streets to protest about veal in crates, but do nothing for the 1 billion people who go to bed hungry every night in the Third World.
"Perhaps they have a sense that people, however dispossessed they may be, can speak and act for themselves. But animals - like children and embryos - depend upon others to articulate their plight," he said. "They are the weakest, who cannot speak for themselves - vulnerable, unprotected, innocent... Christ-like in their suffering."
But, hang on, can you project innocence on to animals? Innocence is a moral quality. If animals, as CS Lewis put it, are capable of neither sin nor virtue, then innocence is not an appropriate term. And the moral worth of Christ's choice came not from being defenceless, but from choosing not to defend himself.
It was all getting theologically dense, so I asked him what was his position on animal rights activists attacking scientists and farmers. "They're not just wrong, but undermine their own case," he replied. "The weakness of the contemporary animal rights movement is its self-righteousness. That's a killer of moral sense. We're all impure when it comes to animals: all red wine is filtered through the bones of dead animals; all orthodox medicine has at some point involved the exploitation of animals - so have most paints, dyes, washing-up liquids, fire extinguishers. You can't be pure, but you can have a process of progressive disengagement, moving towards a vision of living in a cruelty-free world. These are veggie shoes, for instance, and they look all right."
He waved his black brogues at me. Indeed they did. "They're made by Lynx, the anti-fur-trade people," he said, before explaining that the argument was the same as the one over when war was permissible. The theory of "just war" sets down conditions, but does not detract from the general injunction that we should not kill. "Killing must be the last resort, not the first, yet our killing of other species has become habitual."
Which is why his book of prayers rails against veal crates, hen batteries, sow stalls, whaling, hunting for sport, the slaughter of seals and the "institutionalised abuse of millions of animals in laboratories".
"I used to be frightened of controversy; now I accept it," he said, refilling his pipe. "In an ideal world change would come without it. But this is not an ideal world: 150 years ago, the Church was defending slavery as the Christianisation of the dark races; 50 years ago it justified the subordination of women as part of the God-given order."
Now, where did I put George Austin's phone number?
`Animal Rites' by Andrew Linzey is published by SCM Press, price pounds 9.95Reuse content