An Open Letter to the Bishops on Hunting

Dear Bishops

Please forgive this unusual form of communication, but the matter has now become urgent, and there is little time left. The Government has now published its Bill on Hunting, and shortly both Houses in Parliament will have an opportunity to make their views known. I have read carefully the contributions made by the bishops in the Lords, and I believe that there are important theological and ethical considerations that have yet to be articulated.

The bishops who have spoken so far are concerned about the welfare of the rural communities they represent,and also about the social and cultural aspects of hunting. Some feel, quite understandably, that rural concerns have been marginalised, and that farmers are experiencing unique difficulties. It is less clear, however, that these bishops have heard those who regard the issue of cruelty as central to this debate. While some bishops have made references to animal welfare, very few have fully addressed the issue of cruelty.

I define ‘cruelty’ as the deliberate infliction of suffering upon a sentient creature – when it is not performed for that individual animal’s own benefit (for example, in a veterinary operation). That hunting with dogs is ‘cruel’ is uncontestable.There is ample scientific evidence that all mammals experience, stress, terror,shock, anxiety, fear, trauma, foreboding, as well as physical pain. It is also ‘deliberate’ in that those who hunt do so with the express aim of pursuing a creature to its death. Not all may witness the death, but those who participate can be in no doubt about the result, at least, for most of the hunted species.

Humans are moral agents with the freedom to make moral decisions. That consideration is of central relevance to the debate about hunting. What is so objectionable is that moral beings, who should know better, choose to engage in an activity that results in cruelty.There is all the difference in the world between the accidental or instinctual infliction of harm by non-moral things or agents, and the volitional infliction of suffering by moral agents. In short: it is the difference between an ‘accident’, or a ‘misfortune’, and a morally evil act.

It therefore will not do, as some bishops have attempted, to justify hunting by reference to the facts that ‘foxes are not kindly in their ways’, or that, ‘the natural world is not a kindly place’, as if nature was a moral textbook, or capable of relieving us of our obligations as moral agents. Strictly speaking, cruelty is a wholly human act; it presupposes freedom and intention.

There are good theological grounds for regarding such acts as intrinsically objectionable. Human beings are made in the ‘image of God’ and given ‘dominion’ over animals. It is true that, in the past, both notions have been used to defend an exploitative attitude toward animals, but there are almost no scholars today who endorse that implication. Rather, we are to act as God’s deputies – made in the image of God who is holy, loving and just, and uniquely commissioned to care for creation as God cares. To the question, ‘Why should we care for animals?’ there is only one biblical answer: ‘We are
given that duty of care’.

From this standpoint, the deliberate infliction of suffering on ‘lesser creatures’ who are wholly in our power, and who are, strictly speaking, morally innocent, is a gross betrayal of our God-given responsibility. It is Christologically unenlightened for one bishop to defend hunting by arguing that, ‘there is in the tradition of the three Abrahamic faiths a gulf fixed between the human race and the rest of the created order’ – as if power was its own justification. That ‘gulf’ should, at least in part, be filled up by the exercise of moral solicitude. As C. S. Lewis observed, our superiority over animals partly consists in our acknowledging obligations to them which they cannot acknowledge to us.

But cruelty is not just an intrinsically objectionable act; it is a token of moral meanness; a practical example of our failure to live generously after the example of Jesus. There is, as Cardinal Newman indicated, ‘something so very dreadful, so satanic in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves,who are utterly in our power [and] who have weapons neither of offence or defence …’. And he concludes his consideration of the Christ-like innocence of animals with this appeal: ‘Think, then, my brethren of your feelings at cruelty practised on brute animals, and you will gain one sort of feeling which the history of Christ’s Cross and Passion ought to excite within you’.

But there is more. Hunting is not undertaken (as all killing should be) as a regrettable act sometimes made necessary in a sinful and fallen world, rather it is celebrated as a ‘sport’.It is here, most of all, that we should glimpse its utter incompatibility with the Gospel of God’s free, generous love in Jesus Christ. People hunt because they enjoy it. In the words of Baroness Mallalieu: ‘Hunting is our music, it is our poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure …’. Thousands have not marched in London simply to defend the ‘most efficient’ means of killing foxes.

It is crucial to understand why the taking of pleasure in the infliction of suffering is so morally deplorable. It may be morally permissible to smack a child when performed with the intention of rectifying regressive behaviour. But all should properly recoil at parents who enjoy this act. The taking of pleasure renders what might, conceivably, be a morally licit act into one that is disturbed, even depraved. A ban on hunting (any more than a ban on smacking) will not by itself prevent such depravity, but it will, at least, limit the number of victims.

Specifically, there is a Christian dimension which deserves to be articulated. It is we – the species to whom so much power has been given - who should faithfully reflect that trust by acts of care and generosity to the animal world. If God’s power in Christ was manifest in acts of sacrificial love, and a special solicitude exhibited towards the poor, weak and vulnerable, should not our power be so similarly directed?And are all those Christian virtues to be solely exercised in relation to ourselves?

I fear not only the judgment of God, but also the judgment of history. Is hunting now to be counted among the long list of moral issues, including capital punishment, votes for women,or the protection of children, on which bishops have either frustrated, or voted against, reform? There is no more desultory experience than reading the past record of Anglican bishops on moral issues.

Specifically, it is odd to see bishops so apparently uncomprehending of the anti-cruelty cause since our Christian forebears pioneered it. Many luminaries of the nineteenth-century – William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Fowell Buxton – to take only three examples, saw it as their Christian duty to oppose cruelty in all its forms.Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, founded the SPCA (as it then was) in 1824 as a Christian organisation.

In 1909, the Bishop of Hereford sponsored - with the support of five other members of the bench of bishops - a bill to outlaw deer hunting, pigeon shooting, and rabbit coursing. Speaking in support, the, then, Archbishop of Canterbury commented that, ‘I firmly believe that fifty years hence it will be found as impossible for the then members of your Lordships’s House to realise why we refrained from taking exception to rabbit-coursing as it is pursued today as we now find it difficult to understand why a hundred years ago exception was not taken to things like bull-baiting’. Almost one hundred years later, it appears that the sensibilities of (at least the most vocal) Christian bishops are no more advanced about hunting and coursing than they were about bull-baiting.

The hunting debate is at a critical juncture. The Government is now proposing a fudged piece of legislation, which will allow the hunting of foxes, mink, and hares, to continue under license. Licensing will imbue these ‘sports’ with a kind of legitimacy, which they do not possess morally, and ought not to have legally.Indeed, the whole notion of ‘licensing’ cruel acts is an affront to moral theology.

The so-called principles of ‘utility’ and ‘cruelty’ (like the question-begging formula ‘necessary cruelty’) presuppose a wholly utilitarian (and secular) justification for cruelty. There are times when some measure of compromise may be morally laudable, but this is not one of them. Hunting mammals with dogs for sport belongs to that class of always morally impermissible acts along with rape, child abuse, and torture. Whatever else is true, the Christian Gospel and cruelty are incompatible.

In the debates so far, the bench of bishops have voted for the continuance of hunting. But I do not believe that these bishops represent the mind of the Church in England, or of the wider Anglican Church in this country. I appeal to those many bishops who are opposed to hunting, whether in the Lords or not, to make their voices known – and I would be grateful to hear from them.
It would be tragic if the Church utterly wrong-footed itself in this debate to which it has so much to contribute.

I wish you – and all God’s creatures – a peaceful Christmas.

Andrew Linzey

Oxford OX4 1EG
Tel: 01865 201565
E mail:

The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey is a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford, and holds the world’s first post in theology and animal welfare – the Bede Jarrett Senior Research Fellowship – at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. He is Honorary Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham. His books on animals include: Animal Theology (SCM Press, 1994), After Noah (Mowbray,1997), Animals on the Agenda (SCM Press, 1998), Animal Gospel (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998) and Animal Rites (SCM Press, 1999). In 2001 he was awarded a DD by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his ‘unique and massive pioneering contribution in the area of the theology of creation, with particular reference to the rightsand welfare of God’s sentient creatures’.

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