If you attend church on October 6, be aware that the person sitting next to you might not actually be a person. He or she could have fuzzy ears and a thumping tail, and may try to lick you.
“The Blessing of the Animals in church is recognition of the special relationship that we enjoy with our pets, and remembering the importance of working animals in our society,” said The Reverend Tim Lewis, Rector of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Bridgehampton.
In honor of St. Francis, patron saint of animals and the environment, several churches will be offering animal blessings. Generally, this is done outside on the lawn, like at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, but some intrepid churches are inviting the public to bring their pet or working animal inside for the service.
The canine and feline worlds are likely to be well-represented at St. Ann’s, where people can bring their animals to the service. “Suitably leashed or caged,” Rev. Lewis said.
But almost anything else goes. “We welcome all of God’s creation,” said The Reverend Denis Brunelle, Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, which has a tradition of setting aside space for animals during the service. He added, “If they are horses, they will have to remain outside.” Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, a horse rescue farm, will be offering wine tasting at the St. Ann’s service.
It could, and has, happened. Last year, a young Clydesdale horse made it to the blessing at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor. “Clydesdales are big draft horses, and even though it was a baby, I had to reach way up to touch the horse’s head to bless it,” said The Reverend Karen Ann Campbell. Later in October, Campbell is to be named Rector of Christ Episcopal Church. She will be the first in many years.
She said she’s very happy to have the animals. “It’s all about God’s beautiful creation,” Rev. Campbell said, encouraging people to bring farm and working animals, such as hearing-assistance and police dogs, as well as pets. “All the creatures, large and small.”
In the past, “small” at St. Luke’s, has comprised a Darwinian spectrum of rabbits, ferrets, parrots, goldfish and even a beloved horseshoe crab.
Rev. Campbell said, “It’s also about neglected critters, too” that are homeless or in shelters. At St. Ann’s, for example, representatives from horse rescue groups, The Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, Pet Philanthropy Circle are expected to attend.
Animals don’t necessarily have to be real. “Some children bring their stuffed animals to be blessed,” Rev. Brunelle said, noting people who wish to bring ashes of deceased pets may also participate.
Just in case, St. Luke’s will have paper towels and plastic pick-up bags available, but in general, Rev. Brunelle said, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the animals behave.”
Rev. Campbell said that attendance at last year’s animal blessing was double, and she joked, “I wish people could bring their animals every Sunday.” Rev. Brunelle said the service often attracts not just Christians, but Jewish and Muslim attendees, as well.
While it may be fun, the messages are real, the clergy emphasized. “St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century, is best honored for his deep spirituality regarding the Eucharist and his ministry among the poor, but tradition also has it that he placed great value on the animal kingdom and preached to both people and animals,” said Rev. Lewis.
“Years ago, the theology was that everybody has a rigid hierarchy,” said Rev. Campbell. “We are celebrating the diversity of the planet, from whales to the littlest molecular creatures.” She added, “We have gotten very disconnected with where our food comes from.”
The Christ Church event will follow a 10 a.m. service, and certificates will be given out to show each animal has been blessed. The St. Luke’s service, which animals may attend, is also at 10 a.m.; animals will be brought up to be individually blessed in the front of the church. At St. Ann’s, attendees can bring their animal to the 9:30 a.m. service, or bring them for the blessing, which will take place on the lawn at 11 a.m.
While things may be somewhat livelier during the service, Rev. Lewis wants to be sure the message comes across, joking, “Dog fights during the sermon will not be tolerated.”
Hopefully, the only other sound during the sermon will be that of purring.