Sermon: Harvest Sunday, 7 October 2018, St John the Divine

Interview Sermon with Revd Neil Summers and Sylvia Browning


Introduction – Neil


In our Mission Action Plan, one of the things we said we would do, from time to time, is a different sort of sermon slot, which may involve members of the church family sharing something about their work and interests, setting that in a context of faith.  Fiona Morgan bravely started the ball rolling earlier this year, when I asked her about her work with the charity, Me too & co.  Today, I have asked Sylvia Browning to share the sermon slot with me.

Harvest Festival falls during a period of the Church calendar which, for the past ten years, has been designated as ‘Creationtide’.  The season, which starts on 1 September, is an opportunity for churches to link the popular tradition of Harvest Festival into a broader theology of creation, and the care of our common home, the earth.  It includes the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi, on 4 October (last Thursday), which is also observed as World Animal Day.

In recent weeks, as part of the Brexit process, we’ve heard quite a bit about what animal welfare policy and practice might look like in the future.  Sylvia has a longstanding and keen interest in animal welfare issues, so this seemed a good opportunity to ask her to share some of her experience and thinking on this important issue, which matters to many people.

1. What, in the Christian tradition, encourages us to be concerned about the whole of creation?

We are stewards of this world, which was created for us by God.  I believe that it is our duty to respect and care for our world, and for the wonderful animals and birds who share it with us.

At this time of year, we particularly remember St Francis of Assisi, who lived in Italy in Medieval times.  He turned away from a life of luxury to live simply – with other monks – who eventually became known as the Franciscans.

St Francis cared for lepers, rebuilt ruined churches and studied the moon and stars, wind and rain, trees and flowers.  He particularly loved birds and animals and called them his “brothers and sisters”.  He taught people to be kind and compassionate to all birds and animals, and would always approach them quietly, so as never to frighten them. The hymn All creatures of our God and King is based on his theology. 

Perhaps not everyone here realises that St Francis is one of the four saints depicted in the niches behind our Lady Chapel altar.  Have a look when you go in.  There is also a book about the life of St Francis, entitled Brother Sun, Sister Moon, on the table in the narthex. 

2. Why is animal welfare important to you personally?

Animal Welfare has always been important to me.  We were brought up to respect all animals and birds – particularly the smallest and most vulnerable.  We were taken to feed the pigeons, on visits to London.

My mother had grown up in the countryside and had seen animal suffering that she could never forget.  She always condemned the cruelty of forcing animals to perform in circuses.  She loved cats, dogs and “pink pigs” and once exclaimed, about cows, “What lovely faces they have!”

One wintry day, she rescued an injured baby bird, and brought it into the warm kitchen.  I will always remember its bright eyes, as she cradled it in a tea towel.

3. Are there any particular aspects of animal welfare that interest you?

Pigeon welfare is one aspect which is very dear to me.  Few charities support pigeons, apart from Animal Aid and Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons.

Animal Aid is a charity which is known for its support of the most vulnerable animals, such as foxes, mice, squirrels, badgers and pigeons.  This charity offers a free Schools Speakers Service to primary and secondary schools, which aims to teach children and young people about animal welfare and how to be “animal kind”.  Sometimes the speakers will even produce knitted pigeons during the talks, and these are always popular!  There is some information about Animal Aid on the table in the Narthex.

4. Yes, I remember some years ago there was an attempt to get rid of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. And there is a current website dedicated to this issue.  On the pigeons, could you tell us about why these birds, so often considered to be pests, have a special place in your heart? 

Pigeons are really my favourite birds.  They are peaceful, courageous and gentle and we were brought up to love and respect them. Pigeons are closely related to doves, who, in the Bible, are symbols of peace and the Holy Spirit. 

When we were children, feeding the pigeons was our first contact with birds.  They would eat birdseed from our hands, which made us so happy.

Recently, however, pigeons have been maligned so much that some people now vilify and persecute them, which seems to me both tragic and unfair.

Pigeons do not carry disease – a fact which has been confirmed by vets and the RSPB.  They are highly intelligent, make excellent parents to their young and are still used today in communication and sea rescues, because their brilliant eyesight enables them to see colours at a great distance.  Their droppings make good fertiliser and were once highly prized, and pigeon houses were guarded because of this valuable resource.  Pigeon droppings were also used in the manufacture of gunpowder.  These birds are also among our forgotten heroes of war.

5. Could you tell us briefly about the crucial role of pigeons in wartime?

Carrier pigeons possess fantastic homing and navigational instincts, and they saved thousands of human lives during both World Wars.  They were taken on board convoy ships, planes and submarines and, if a vessel came under attack, a pigeon would be released to summon help, bearing an encoded message on its leg, giving the location of the stricken vessel.  Pigeons were trained to fly by night and could reach a speed of a mile a minute.  They often came under enemy fire, but continued, sometimes wounded, until they reached their destination.  Their outstanding service and bravery saved thousands of human lives, and helped us to win victory, and the freedom, which we enjoy today.

GI Joe was a carrier pigeon during the Second World War.  He carried a message, when all other communication had failed, and saved an entire Italian town from being bombed.  His true story is told in the book, Pigeon Hero, by Shirley Raye Redmond.  This book is on the table in the Narthex.

At the end of the Second World War, thirty-two carrier pigeons were awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal for their outstanding wartime service. The Dickin Medal is a bronze medal, decorated with ribbons striped in blue, brown and green, showing how pigeons served over air, land and sea.

The Medal bears the inscription, For Gallantry and We also serveAs well as being awarded to pigeons, it was also awarded to cats, dogs and horses for their vital wartime service.  So, pigeons are pretty amazing!

6. Are there any other animal organisations you support?

I also support Compassion in World Farming in its campaign to stop the live export of farm animals, who endure gruelling journeys over land and sea, without adequate food and water, only to face unregulated slaughter overseas. I hope that, once we leave the EU we will be free to ban this trade.

I also support SPANA, The Brooke, and Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, who provide veterinary care to working horses, donkeys and mules in some of the world’s poorest communities.  These working animals are often the main source of income for poor families and are sometimes exploited – working long hours in the sweltering heat, carrying burdens such as bricks into the brick kilns, or other building materials.  The charities teach the owners how to care for their animals and give them a better quality of life.  Information on these charities is displayed in the Narthex.

I’m glad you mentioned donkeys.  They have a special place in our hearts because of their key role in the Christian story, not least in the stories around the birth of Jesus, and also in the final days of his life, when he rode into Jerusalem.

I think you have some collection boxes for The Brooke, in the shape of bricks, representing the heavy loads donkeys often have to bear.

As we draw to a close, can I mention The Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals.  Their magazine can be viewed in the Narthex, and you can look up their website.  Although Anglican, the Society welcomes members from all denominations who share a compassion for animals.  Its work is centred on the understanding that animals are sentient beings, created and valued by God, deserving of our compassion.  The Society sees its work as being in line with the fifth of the five marks of mission of the Anglican Church, which help to define the Church’s role and ministry.  It is ‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth’. 

Sylvia, any final thoughts?

Today, I would like to thank everyone, from all of the three churches in the Team, who has kindly donated items for recycling, to help raise funds for animal charities.  Thank you.

Harvest Festival is a time to give thanks for ‘the earth and all that is in it’.  It’s also a reminder to us of the responsibility we all have to be wise stewards of creation.  I’m very grateful to Sylvia for participating in this sermon today.

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