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Friday, 4 December 2015

Carols for the Animals

Last night we hosted International Animal Rescue at St Stephen Walbrook in a celebration for all the animals this Christmas. The service featured traditional carols, the Choir of St Stephen Walbrook, mulled wine and minced pies plus readings by special guest Peter Egan (Downton Abbey). All of which made for a wonderful Christmas evening.

All the proceeds went to support the animal rescue projects of International Animal Rescue and the evening included a special presentation from Alan Knight OBE, Chief Executive of International Animal Rescue, on the orangutans in Borneo and the current forest fires emergency.

Here is the introduction, reflection and prayer that I shared as part of the service:

Welcome to St Stephen Walbrook for this special service of Carols for the Animals. I’ve been asked to begin by telling you a little about this wonderful building in which we meet and then to reflect briefly on our theme of carolling for the animals.

For over a thousand years a place of worship has stood on this site. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the present church, is the fourth to have stood here. At the time of its building the great dome was unique in England and it was from this church that Wren developed his plans for St Paul’s Cathedral. Many distinguished men of letters and of the arts have graced the life of this place and been buried here. They include John Dunstable the composer, Sir John Vanburgh dramatist and architect and Rev’d Robert Stuart de Courcey Laffan, who with Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1890. Dr Chad Varah was for over 50 years the rector of St Stephen Walbrook and, among his many legacies, was the founding of Samaritans, the charity which exists that fewer people die by suicide.

Following on from the major social outreach programme involved in founding Samaritans, Chad Varah and the congregation wanted this iconic Wren building to express a theology of how they saw the gospel in relation to the world around them. That meant that the 17th century placing of the altar away from the people with the priest standing with his back to the congregation no longer expressed what they felt to be the immanent nature of the God they worshipped and served. Thus Henry Moore conceived this centrally placed altar made of travertine marble cut from the very quarry which provided the marble for Michelangelo’s work. In this way St Stephen’s was designed for people to gather as a community around the altar where God could be found at the centre. As you can see, Moore’s altar is surrounded with dazzling kneelers by the artist Patrick Heron. The opportunity for twentieth century artists and craftsmen to adorn the interior of St Stephen Walbrook came initially as a result of bomb damage in the Second World War, with that reordering being completed in the early 1980s.

All this is relevant to tonight’s Carol Service because what Christians celebrate at Christmas is God come to be with us in the person of Jesus, the babe born at Bethlehem. In Jesus, God moved into our neighbourhood, entered our world, and came to be with us by becoming one of us. That is what is symbolised by our central altar and is the reason why Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God is with us.

The gospel according to Luke tells us that Jesus came to be with animals as well as humans. The new born Jesus was laid in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals. So, we must imagine that there were certainly animals nearby! Jesus' first bed was an indicator of His nature and purpose. Rather than coming to earth amidst fanfare and in plush surroundings, the King of Creation and God's own Son was born among animals, with his very first visitors being lowly shepherds (caretakers of animals) from the fields.

That Jesus was born among animals is both a sign of his humility and also of his connectedness with God’s creation. Christians believe that the birth of Jesus begins a new world, a world of peace and love, a world which unites heaven and earth, a world which reflects the kind of world God originally intended; that is a world in which humans and animals live together harmoniously. So, in Isaiah we read words which it would be worth contemplating throughout this service: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

A short poem by Ralph Hodgson says that:

'Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares. 

Following the injunction we are given in that poem, let us pray

God our Heavenly Father, maker of all living creatures,
You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land.
You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters.
Give us the grace to see all animals as gifts from You
and to treat them with respect for they are Your creation.
We pray for all animals who are suffering as a result of our neglect.
May all be happy. May all be without disease.
May all creatures have well-being and none be in misery of any sort.
Take our heartfelt prayers and fill Your ill or suffering animals
with healing light and strength to overcome whatever weakness of body they have.
And at this special time of year, make us glad with the yearly remembrance
of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ; who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


Steve Scott - This Sad Music.

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