From Surtees to Sassoon

‘LET NIMROD the mighty hunter bind a leopard to the altar, and consecrate his spear to the Lord. Let Ishmael dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which the Lord has set him at large’ Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno.

In the ideological no man’s land where Old Labour and New Labour meet, there is no terrain more significant than hunting. For Old Labour it is a bastion and symbol of privilege and class; for New Labour its abolition is the very heart and soul of the New Compassion. Both are agreed that to hunt foxes with hounds has all the absurdity which Oscar (or was it Stephen Fry?) attributed to it: the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. Which is why we need to be told.

Told (since the Church Commissioners are the nation’s largest landowners after the Crown – a veritable National Trust in their own right) what is the Church of England’s attitude to fox hunting. For a truly modern Church, as Mr Stuart Bell MP will no doubt find an opportunity to explain to the General Synod, has a duty to have an ‘attitude’ to everything.

At first sight the persecution of huntspersons (like the ordination of women to the priesthood) looks like a Biblical non-starter. As one who firmly believes that vegetarians (like teetotallers) are fundamentally unchristian, I have always delighted in the motto of the Honourable Company of Butchers of the City of York, emblazoned below their arms in Butcher’s Hall (some words from the Acts of the Apostles which never fail to stir the heart): ‘Surge, occide et manduca’ (Rise, Kill and eat). But we have to be realistic. The mere fact that the entire Biblical record is one of a succession of veneral carnivores is unlikely to cut much ice with the present school of hermeneutics. People who have been unable to draw any very firm conclusion from five consecutive millennia of patriarchy are likely to remain unmoved.

Still, there is, I venture to suggest, a good deal of amusement to be had from speculating with what audacious mendacity they will defend the prohibition. In the finished programme I suspect that God’s (always problematical) preference for Jacob over Esau will figure largely. By contrast the account of Cain and Abel will be discovered to be a late interpolation, whose verbal texture clearly marks it off from that of the passages surrounding it. The Eucharist (in which cereal products symbolically replace meat) will be interpreted as a final rehabilitation of Cain. And, until fly-fishing also comes under the New Labour ban, the prominence of fish eating and fish symbolism in the New Testament and early patristic period will be a source of useful comment.

Hopefully disciplines other than biblical exegesis will be exercised in the new cause. Dr Henry McAdoo (ably assisted in the capacity of acolyte, by the Bishop of Portsmouth) will no doubt offer a slim volume on the opposition to venery in all its forms in the works of Hooker, Ussher and William Wake; and any number of the English disciples of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza will explain that the Apostle Paul’s antipathy to Diana of the Ephesians arose not from objections to a female focus of worship, but to the lady’s unseemly connections with the chase. The Apostle Junia, about whom the available information increases almost daily, will be proved to have been an early opponent of coursing with hounds in various along the Appenines

We can be fairly certain, of course, human nature being what it is, that there will be a sullen residuum of Old Believers, who will remain unconvinced. Probably they will justify their position by claiming that the Church of England has no authority unilaterally to condemn hunting. But their tedious citations of seventeenth century Archbishops of Canterbury and Renaissance Popes (all to a man – which was probably their problem – addicted to the pursuit of game) will do nothing to advance their cause.

In the course of time it will be seen how much, ethically speaking, the Christian tradition has to learn from a truly modern secular culture, like that of New Labour. In the matter of rights – human and animal – the political consensus of our age has insights from which the Church must learn with a new respect and humility – or so Mr Bell will undoubtedly say. Cool Britannia is Compassionate Britannia; a nation which has awakened to a hurt and pain from which previous generations (from the Jewish patriarchs to the last Conservative government) were somehow anaesthetised.

But I need hardly go on… You have heard it all before, and you will gain no satisfaction from its replay – though I suspect that you will have to endure this sort of thing repeatedly, until death subvenes. After years of experimentation in theology faculties and Universities, the exegetical techniques are now in place which can make the Scriptures say almost anything – and the Tradition is repeatedly subjected to the facile revisions of its moral inferiors.

But every departure from revealed religion has its price. And the price of this departure – let the reader understand – is the humiliating absurdity of a symbiotic relationship with a government which can cheerfully pay for five million abortions a year, but feels an overwhelming ethical imperative to give to every fox a more than a running chance

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.