Hunting: Fisher of men, shooter of birds

To a dedicated section of the clergy, there is no contradiction between respect for God's creatures and a passion for hunting them down. By Charlie Pye-Smith. Photographs by Trevor Ray Hart
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Hunting helps to keep me sane," says Father Robert Block, whipper- in to the Newmarket Beagles and Anglican priest to the parish of White City, west London. We are sitting at the kitchen table in the parsonage, far from the sounds and smells of the hunting field. Through the window we can see chinks of luminous blue sky, but the parsonage lies in the shadows cast by the angular bulk of one of London's poorest housing estates.

Young, sharp-featured and handsome, Father Robert speaks in a silky voice which blends piety with good humour. "The priest has an almost impossible job here," he explains. "Every day we deal with the most profound human needs." Besides ministering to his 70-strong, predominantly black congregation, Father Robert is called upon to help others in times of death, mugging and confusion. "The whole social security system is predicated on two notions - that people can write a letter and have access to a phone," he says with a wry smile. "For many people here, both notions are false." Which means that Father Robert must act as amanuensis as well as priest.

If Father Robert completes his five-year spell in White City, he will be only the second incumbent in some 50 years not to leave prematurely. It is the music of the hounds - "I miss them terribly in summer," he says - that gives him the strength to cope with the demands of an inner city parish. "Just yesterday I was out hunting," he recalls with a shudder of joy. "The sight of green was wonderful!" And if he could no longer hunt? "I would feel as though I had been thrown out of the Garden of Eden."

For the Reverend Toddy Hoare, so named as his mother weaned him on whisky, the Hillside Parishes that straddle the North Yorks Moors bear more than a passing resemblance to the Garden of Eden, providing him and his parishioners with grouse, pheasant and fox. We eat in a manner that becomes a sporting parson: grouse shot by the Reverend Toddy, with two bottles of excellent Medoc.

Before taking holy orders, Reverend Toddy worked as a sculptor in London, then served with the 15th/19th Hussars in Northern Ireland. It was his savings from these occupations, supplemented by earnings as a grouse beater, that paid for his theological training. We talk, inevitably, about the campaign to ban hunting. "What we see here," says the parson, "is urban, sentimental man trying to deny natural man his freedom of expression." Natural man's antecedents, he explains, can be traced back to Esau, who probably coursed hare and deer with long dogs, and to the Psalmists, whose songs are full of allusions to hunting. Reverend Toddy speaks admiringly of what he calls the hunter's strange veneration of the quarry, a veneration that informs so much art.

Look, he suggests, at the cave paintings of early man, at art that celebrates the Masai warrior, or indeed at one of his own sculptures, presently on display at the Mall Galleries in London. "I call it A Bloody Awful Day," he says, although in the gallery the bronze has a politer title: Going Home. "I couldn't have done this if I didn't know what it felt like to spend a day in pouring rain, scouring the fields in search of game." A lonely figure, head sunk deep into upturned collar, heads wearily home with a bedraggled dog at his heel.

Literature, rather than sculpture, provides us with an enduring caricature of the sporting parson as a comic, intemperate figure better versed in the art of venery than the finer points of theology. Of the 50 or so parsons who hunt today, a few have come out of the same bucolic mould as Fielding's Reverend Thwackum - "I'm very fond of both the Bible and Horse and Hound," a West Country parson tells me, in a tone that implies they are of equal value - but most cringe at the idea of the upper-crust cleric doffing his cap to the squire who provides his living.

According to Father Robert, who organises an annual dinner for clergy who hunt and shoot on the feast of St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, sporting parsons belong to a broad church, more so now than in the past. In Britain, there are Catholics and non-conformists hunting, as well as Anglicans. There is even one Orthodox priest, and three of the Anglican priests are women.

Father Robert and Reverend Toddy were both brought up in the countryside - Father Robert comes from a long line of hunters; Reverend Toddy shot his first pheasant in Scotland aged 14 - but they represent very different strands of the Anglican church. Father Robert is a man with a mission, and his ministry reflects the Anglo-Catholic, left-wing traditions of the Community of the Resurrection, where he trained. Asked how he feels when hunt saboteurs hurl abuse, he replies: "We are supposed to love our enemies. And I certainly love them in an abstract sense."

Reverend Toddy, in contrast, is a family man with three girls named after flowers and a bluff, down-to-earth manner. "I understand why inner-city priests love the theatre of the mass," he says, "but in the countryside, I see no point in competing with God's grandeur." His attitude towards those who oppose field sports is robust. In A Theology of Hunting, to be published in the New Year, he recalls a conversation between a master of foxhounds and an over-zealous follower who keeps getting in the hounds' way. When the follower explains that he has come for the fresh air and exercise, the master replies: "In that case, go home and bugger yourself with the bellows."

"It is a retort," suggests Reverend Toddy, "that would be even more appropriate to a hunt saboteur."

For Father Robert, beagling for hares is the highest form of venery. "It is slowly and elegantly done," he explains, "and I love being close to the hounds." As whipper-in, it is his job to keep the hounds from straying on to roads or chasing rabbits. He does this on foot and frequently runs 20 miles in a hunting day, which suits both his health - he has asthma and is allergic to horses - and his stipend, which is insufficient to support a horse.

There was a time when most rural clergy had stables in which to keep their hunters, and glebes where they could graze. Reverend Toddy has no glebe, but there are stables beside one of the eight churches he serves. However, instead of providing lodgings for a horse, they house nine six- foot ciment fondu panels depicting the disciples. The figures are naked: James hoeing, John fishing, Nathaniel under a fig tree. "Man naked before God," explains the parson, whose Call of the Disciples scandalised some Christians when they first went on show.

We are back to natural man again. For the horseless parson on the North Yorks Moors this means grouse shooting and grouse beating, rather than riding with the local hunts. At a more profound level, says Reverend Toddy, it means being in communion with God's creation. He quotes Jesus as saying that man is more important than the sparrows, but he takes his text for field sports from the Old Testament. God may have given us dominion over all things, he says, but this is not a carte blanche to do exactly as we please with nature, and Exodus lays down explicit rules which, if followed, ensure the conservation of the quarry species.

"I strongly disapprove of shooting parties which kill vast numbers of artificially reared pheasants," he says, and recalls what happened to the Israelites when they took more quail than they could eat: "They were greedy in their collection of what God provided, and they were poisoned as punishment... It is a question of being sensitive towards animals, not sentimental. If we sentimentalise animals, we dehumanise ourselves and we deny the Holy Spirit room to work through us and in us."

Isn't it strange, Father Robert enquires, that many of today's leaders were raised in the liberal Sixties, but are now eager to ban things of which they disapprove? "I hate puritanism," he says with feeling. "It's so unloving, so lacking in virtue."

And what, in his view, is virtue? He thinks about this as he leads me out on to the streets of White City. "Speaking epigrammatically," he replies, "virtue is wiping a tramp's bottom. It is not about self."