Dear Bishop of Coventry

Controversy surrounds the funeral of Jill Phipps at Coventry Cathedral, but Oxford's first fellow in theology and animal welfare argues that a church should be the natural home for animal rights activists
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You made a bold decision to support the use of Coventry Cathedral for the funeral of the animal rights activist Jill Phipps. And a prophetic one, too.

Don't be dismayed by the view of one Conservative MP that this means the Church "is taking sides on the animal rights issue". The Church has taken sides - and by and large, it's still on the wrong side.

Apart from the honourable exception of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, there has been a deafening silence on the part of your senior and episcopal colleagues. As the nation's conscience has been racked by details of barbarism and cruelty, the leadership of the Church of England has turned the other way.

The truth is that the history of Christian attitudes to animals is shameful. "It is not wrong for man to make use of them either by killing or any other way whatever," wrote St Thomas Aquinas, setting the seal on the Aristotelian view that animals are here for our use.

Pope Pius IX forbade opening of an animal protection office in Rome on the grounds that humans had no duties to animals. The new Catholic Catechism reinforces the old view that all material creatures were created for the sake of humans.

Given this weight of theological indifference, it is all the more astonishing that early reformers found inspiration from the Christian tradition. The RSPCA was founded as a specifically Christian society in 1824. This counter tradition, suppressed by Pope Pius IX in Italy, flourished in England.

Its main theological basis was simple - cruelty was incompatible with moral generosity. "We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism,'' trumpeted the 19th century divine Humphry Primatt. Those who pioneered anti-cruelty legislation were regarded as freaks and subversives. The Times commented after the failure of the first attempt to ban bull-baiting in 1800 that "whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man's time is tyranny direct".

Yet the anti-cruelty movement gained ground, and in its heyday in the 19th century counted among its supporters almost the entire ecclesiastical elite.

The Church is not being brought into the animal rights arena; it has always been there. Christian theology has both defended and critiqued animal cruelty. Now the Church stands at a moral crossroads; once a leader in the movement for the protection of animals, it now has to decide whether it is in the procession.

The opening of Coventry Cathedral's doors to a dead animal rights activist is a small gesture. But it is symbolic of how those who work for justice for animals are once again at the doors of the Church. Church leaders are going to have to work hard to find good arguments to keep them out.