One of Britain’s leading animal ethicists talks to Elena Curti about his fight against animal experimentation and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment
Oxford has always been a centre for intellectual argument and research but in recent years polite discourse has given way to intense disagreement and even protests over animal testing.
A focus of attention is the university’s Biomedical Sciences Building, which claims to set a gold standard for the care of animals used in life-saving research. The project is hugely controversial and seven years after opening it continues to attract protests from animal-rights campaigners.
Also in the city, but separate from the university, is the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, dedicated to putting the moral and religious case against animal experimentation. The centre’s director, Andrew Linzey, is an Anglican priest and academic who has spent a lifetime teaching and writing about animal ethics, and who teaches theology at the University of Oxford.
One of his most recent projects has been co-editing a lengthy study on animal experimentation that lists in excruciating detail what has been done recently to lab rats, mice and pigs, not only in the quest for life-saving treatments but also to test the effects of a brand of tea, mouthwash and aloe vera juice.
Linzey describes animal experiments as intrinsically evil acts that inflict suffering on innocent, sentient beings, likening the tests to rape, torture and abortion. His views are shared by increasing numbers of people, as evidenced by a recent Oxford summer school centred on the ethics of using animals in research.
The school at the Anglo-Catholic seminary, St Stephen’s House, is an international gathering with more than 100 students, academics, a few clergy including a robed Buddhist monk and two Hindu scholars. Linzey is a genial host, bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked and with a ready wit. The place is buzzing with animated discussions in every corner.
Linzey took time out from the school to talk to me about his theology, his excitement about Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, and his own intriguing path to faith. He cites a number of Catholic influences for his views on animal ethics.
First of these influences is Cardinal John Heenan, who wrote in the foreword to a book called God’s Animals by a Benedictine, Fr Ambrose Agius. Linzey quotes Heenan’s words from memory: “God the creator has the right to have his creatures treated with respect.”
Then there is Cardinal John Henry Newman who in a Good Friday sermon of 1824 talked about animal vivisection in the context of Christ’s Passion. “Newman said, ‘What is this but the very cruelty inflicted on Our Lord.’ And why? Because there’s innocence, do you see?”
Now he is most excited by Laudato si’ because in its tone he detects a rethinking of the Catholic theology of dominion; human beings are no longer the master species but rather the servant species, as he explained: “What’s implicit in the encyclical is we have obligations to other than the human species and that those obligations might have to come first if only for the sake of preserving the very Creation that God has made. So this constant jarring of human rights and animal rights really won’t do it. As Noah would say, ‘We are all in one boat together.’”
I ask how he can be so categorical, given that experiments on animals have helped scientists to find cures for terrible diseases and will continue to do so. He takes a long pause and puffs on his pipe before replying: “I no longer think that God’s sentient creatures are simply tools, commodities, things, resources here for us. I think the moral challenge is that it is a moral realisation that sentient creatures have value in themselves.”
But where do animals fit in God’s plan of salvation? After all, Christ instituted the Eucharist for human beings, not animals. Linzey looks pained and remonstrates that God’s plan in Christ is to reconcile all things to himself, not just the human species.
As for references in the Gospels to animals, the professor talks about the beginning of Mark’s Gospel where he says Christ begins his ministry in the wilderness with the wild beasts. He also talks about Christ, the Lamb of God, and his entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey. “We have become so used to these metaphors we haven’t understood their significance,” said Linzey. “It’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The very logic of the Incarnation is the sacrifice of the higher for the lower, not the reverse. It’s the humility, the condescension of God.”
Rather unexpectedly Linzey also likes the line in Laudato si’ that animals may be used to meet “the necessities of human life”. But he points out that so many things that were once considered necessary – like eating meat – are now optional. Intellectually, he believes current thinking is moving in his direction, saying: “I don’t mean to pretend that there aren’t serious conflicts and people can’t have different views. I understand that totally, but the intellectual ground on which so much abuse of animals is moving, is shaking.”
Linzey expresses these views with great fluency but becomes much more hesitant when questioned about his personal life. He reveals he had a very troubled, violent and abusive childhood and was bullied at school. It left him acutely sensitive to suffering, especially that of children and animals. He believes there is a link between cruelty to humans and that to animals and has edited a book about it.
Linzey was born in a council house in east Oxford and was the first in his family to go to university. His parents were not religious, he says, and laughed at him when, at the age of 14, he told them he wanted to be a priest. It was around this age, he discloses, that he first discerned his vocation after a series of religious experiences.
“I assumed everybody had them at the time,” he said, laughing nervously. “It was only later on that I found out that they were called mystical. So I became rather convinced at an early age that there was something more in Heaven and Earth than in most people’s philosophy. I started reading theology.”
This, he says, supplied a language for what he had experienced and what would lead him to university and ordination. His interest in animal ethics was part and parcel of becoming a Christian – “it all seemed rather obvious that if you believed in the creator you ought to care for the creature”.
He also became a vegetarian, saying he could not understand why animals were not an issue for his fellow theology students at the University of London. He wrote his first book on the subject in 1976 while a curate. He bridles at the suggestion that animal ethics is a niche interest. Rather, he sees it as a form of the radicalism essential to being a Christian. Yesterday’s heresy, he says, is today’s fashion.
“Forty years ago, liberation theology was out, now liberation theology is in,” he said. “In order to be a Christian you need a long memory and a good sense of history. Otherwise you don’t understand the Catholic tradition or any tradition.”
Among his 20 books is one called Animal Rites, a collection of liturgies for animals that arose from the death of his dog, Barney, and the funeral he wrote for him. Home is still in Oxford, a large Victorian house that also includes the Centre for Animal Ethics. He and his wife have four grown-up children (his eldest Clair is deputy director of the centre). The family have another dog, three rescued cats and feed three feral cats outside.
Earlier, Linzey had been reluctant to speak too much of the mystical experiences that led to his conversion. When we return to the subject later he explains that this is partly out of embarrassment. But the chief difficulty lies in articulating what had actually happened. He mentions transcendence and nature, although he is emphatic that nature is not God. He also mentions the Holy Spirit as being “behind nature” and his sense that “reality suddenly became rather translucent”.
These experiences never returned but their effect was life-changing. In a sense, Andrew Linzey has never looked back.