The picture on the front of the Animal Blessing Service programme featured a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a goldfish, a cockatoo, a hamster, a snake and a ferret. In the event, the congregation was confined to people and dogs, including my two cockers.
We sat in a circle in the shady courtyard of St James’s Church, Piccadilly as the Reverend Lindsay Meader, resplendent in a rainbow stole, led us in prayer. If a passing tourist wanted to understand British people and their animals, they had come to the right place. A few sightseers did wander into the square and watch for a while.
St James’s is a dog-friendly church where members of the congregation regularly attend Sunday communion with their pooch at their side. It is a lovely idea, and the annual animal blessing is now in its third year. The builder boyfriend and I took Cydney and Poppy with some trepidation, for they are not the most well-behaved dogs. They are both black working cockers — called working because they were bred to be picking-up dogs on a shoot. In truth they have never done a day’s work in their lives.
While Poppy is unintentionally frenetic, Cydney is the enfant terrible. The BB predicted she would wreck the place. ‘That one needs an exorcism, not a blessing,’ he said as we walked through St James’s Park with Cyd straining at her leash towards the ducks and attempting to throw herself over an iron fence at a pelican the size of a small pony.
We needn’t have worried. The congregation looked to be an eclectic mix, probably as daft as us. We sat down beside the spreading branches of a magnolia tree and the pups jumped on to our laps. As Revd Meader began the service a strange calm seemed to come over Cydney and she settled down so quietly I barely recognised her.
It was a sort of eco-service, bordering on vegetarian in places, with a nod to animal rights, but the words were beautiful, and when they concentrated on the partnership between pets and their owners I felt a lump forming in my throat: ‘The bond between human and animal is not a mere coincidence, but a deep connection that stretches back to creation and forward to a time when we may find our relationship free of predation and domination.’
As Revd Meader gave thanks and praise ‘for those who will never be entirely tamed’ I thought of Tara, my old chestnut mare who died recently, defiant, capricious and sometimes downright terrifying to the very end.
St James’s supports the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals and has received an Eco Church Gold award. Revd Meader has been vegetarian since the age of 13. ‘As a church, we take seriously our commitment not just to one another and all humankind but to all God’s creation, every living thing,’ she said.
Two more readings followed, one from St Francis of Assisi, now patron saint of animals and ecology, and another from Meister Eckhart, the medieval Christian mystic: ‘Every creature is a word of God.’ Then it was time for the blessing. Placing her hand on Poppy’s head as the pooch panted enthusiastically, the vicar said: ‘Poppy, may God bless and protect you and may you and your human enjoy life together and find joy in the love of God who created you. Amen.’ Moving along, she repeated the prayer over Cydney who, to my astonishment, sat meekly and allowed herself to be blessed. No lightning, no reports of water boiling in the font.
Next came the roll call of remembrance for pets who have passed away. Revd Meader read out the names given to her, pausing after each one: ‘Rustle, Honey, Smithers, Mama Puss, Cippolino, Bijou, Fifi…’ At the mention of Fifi, a silver-haired lady shouted out ‘Oh!’ and burst into tears. Whereupon another lady called out: ‘Don’t forget the magpie in the tree! He wants a blessing!’
The only slightly jarring moment was when we were asked to pray for the RSPCA. Anybody who has followed my articles investigating what happens to rescued animals will know why this made me wince. But of course, the builder boyfriend and I may have been the only ones there with reservations. I think a crowd of such sensitive souls would rather have heard God doesn’t exist than be told how that particular charity isn’t as they understand it.
As the BB said to me: ‘These are good people. They want to believe.’ So I shut my eyes and joined in the prayers for animal charities, sanctuaries and vets — may they do the right thing always.
Cyd and Poppy seemed so content that before leaving we thanked the vicar for her efforts. ‘I can’t promise the effect will last,’ said Revd Meader. And, indeed, as we walked back through the park, Cyd took a lunge at a passing mallard.