The animals came in, ten by ten: Once a year, a Suffolk church welcomes snakes, stick insects .. plus a few hundred cats and dogs. Genevieve Fox went to watch

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The stretch of the A12 between Ipswich and Southwold is a Watership Down nightmare., with There is a freshly with squashed rabbits at every turn. or fox at least every quarter of a mile. Bank holiday traffic notches up still more casualties. But for Honeybun, a golden long-eared rabbit, life is more secure sweet: Todayfor today she is travelling in the comfort of her owners' car to As a pet, she is oblivious to the hazards of life in the wild. She is also the beneficiary of a special Blessing of Animals service which has been held every August Bank Holiday held at Holy Trinity church in the village of Blythburgh, near Southwold. since 1979.

Known as the Cathedral of the Marshes, the church is celebrated for its spiritual warmth?? and Perpendicular architecture. its the church's 14th-century tower is visible for miles, a beacon reaching up into the stark Suffolk skies. Isolated amidst from expanses of marsh and mere. it looks like a couchant animal, a beached whale holding out against the sea's determined land reclamation. On arrival, however, the its splendour of the church designed inside and out to guide the eye heavenwards, is overshadowed by the chaos at ground level, as scores of pets roll up for their the honorary?? service, which has taken place every August bank holiday since 1979. The usually peaceful graveyard rocks with a symphony of dog barks, children's squeals and adults' Sunday morning pleasantries.

Honeybun arrives in a wire cage. 'We've been to this service for the last three years,' chirp explains Her owners, Martin and Julie, have been coming to the service for three years. 'Last year, her Honeybun's dad came. This year, Honeybun is the representative for all our pets at home.'

But Why have they come? 'This area has strong links with nature and farming and it's nice to mark them,' says Julie. 'The service is a link between folk customs and Christianity.'

Some 300 churchgoers have brought their pets to be blessed. today. They've been arriving since 10am. The atmosphere is a mixture of school Pet Room Open Day and church fete without the stalls.

'The train now standing at platform 4 . . .' intones the church warden, inside testing the microphone against anticipated barks. Bertina, a black and yellow Californian king snake, is one of the first to arrive. She is hissing and her forked tongue keeps dashing in and out of her little mouth. Amy, her young owner, stands in the porch, looking nervous. Hemmed in by a semicircle of intrigued children, Amy she holds Bertina in one hand and strokes her, frantically, with the other. 'She keeps getting away,' she says. 'The blessing might make her stay.'

A serpent in the house of God suggests all grudges against its cunning forebears have been overlooked and female fear of these belly-crawlers overcome. But I instinctively turn away all the same and behold Alongside, a beaming father clutching clutches a cardboard box. 'It's a very shy hamster,' he volunteers. I can see something long and ginger and suggest that the creature lurking beneath the hay might, perhaps, be a guinea pig. 'Yes, you're absolutely right,' he says, without so much as a flicker of embarrassment. 'It's a guinea pig, a long-haired one.'

There are seven bearded collies, all lined up for a photocall like ushers at a wedding, endless labradors and an African grey parrot. At 10.45am the Rev Harry Edwards appears outside in full regalia to bless the outsize pets, the three horses and two donkeys, no longeradmitted inside due to banned from the church interior because of the 'threat of stampedes', not to mention other possibilities. horse pats. Looking like St Francis in his well-heeled days, complete with beard, he the Reverend Mr Edwards weaves amongst the crowd, smiling benignly, patting a donkey here, stroking a dog there, his altar boy tripping on along behind, processional cross in hand.

But he never actually makes the sign of the cross and I am beginning to wonder if he is blessing these animals at all. 'I just go and say hello,' he admits afterwards. 'The photographer asked me to bless a guinea pig and I said, no, I really can't. I suppose I could have blessed them but they are already blessed in a sense. The service itself is a blessing and a celebration of creation.'

'It really is like Noah's Ark,' whispers a delighted mother as pets and owners pour into the sun-filled church, the vicar setting off down the aisle with Gemma, his golden retriever, in tow. The church is packed. Christmas Day or a visit from Songs of Praise would hardly be hard pushed to achieve such a good turn out.

In the pew behind me, a child wearing a T-shirt with 'Flower girl' printed on it is stroking a scrawny, beady-eyed white chicken. Four to the left, another little girl stares into a jar and, further along, a mother rests a mystery plastic basket on her knees. A stick insect called Stanley is being cosseted in a shoe box at the back of the church, where most of the hundreds of dogs have assembled. and A six-week-old kitten is successfully distracting the children from the prayers for 'our animal friends'. Honeybun, meanwhile, has prime position in the central aisle and twitches her nose in cartoon contentment.

This is an eco-friendly congregation. Save the Dolphins, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and the RSPB are all being championed on T-shirts and badges; and hands reach deep in pockets for the collection, half of which goes today to the World Wide Fundnp for Nature.

Rev Mr Edwards's sermon stresses the therapeutic rather than spiritual benefits of pets. 'A friendly floppy-eared rabbit,' he informs the throng, 'has helped to rehabilitate the most hardened criminals in a top-security prison. ' Honeybun doesn't look like she'd be too happy let loose in a cell full of felons so it seems unlikely that the provision of rabbits and gerbils will feature in Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill.

Virginia Bottomley should take heed, however. 'Cats and dogs reduce colds and backaches. Stroking or talking to a dog lowers blood pressure. Animals make us more sociable, more relaxed, happier.

'Unconditional love,' he continues, introducing a theological vein in an otherwise secular sermon, 'is the most powerful stimulant in the immune system. The feelings of joy animals produce in us and the boundless affection and love they return is a mirror of God's unconditional love for us.' Barking breaks out in approval and the organ strikes up with 'All things bright and beautiful'.

While many see today as a family day out, the devout owner of Toby, a 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier, has no doubt that the hand of God saved his dog's life. 'Toby's been coming for the last four years. Two years ago, just a couple of days before he was due for his next blessing, he escaped from me and ran across the A12. He was quite unscathed.'

Nellie, the a three-legged collie, has pitched up today for her first blessing, presumably hoping for a spot of divine intervention herself, either that or a Lourdes-type miracle. But there is none of the frenzy fervour of the crazed pilgrim here. There are no kitsch religious souvenirs for sale, no relics, no extravagant displays of piety. The whole event is very civilised, English, restrained. Theological conundrums, such as whether animals have souls, And theology is not foremost on owners' minds. 'Do animals have souls? Gosh, that's a very deep question, isn't it?' says the owner of Sasha, a splendid white alsatian. 'I suppose, to a certain extent, dogs have souls. They've certainly got personalities.'

'I'm sure there are a lot of humans who haven't got souls,' interjects the owner of a smug-looking Corgi called Megan.

'That's right,' heSASHA'S OWNER?? replies, and everybody laughs in agreement. 'Let's say, yes, dogs have souls.'

One A final blessing concludes the pet service for another year. and Gemma and the vicar process back out into the sunshine. Surprisingly, There have been no major mishaps, neither a scrap nor a tear. Only one guinea pig was caught short relieving itself. during the service. , relieving itself on a mother's lap.

Once Outside, the pleasantries and dog-patting resume. Quite how spiritually edifying the experience has been is hard to gauge. 'Oh] do look, darling, the horse has done a poo]' explains one delighted mother. as the congregation flies files past a deposit of steaming horse dung. into the car park. God works in mysterious ways.

(Photographs omitted)

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