On one level, it was clearly hugely successful with dozens of dogs and their owners arriving to fill the church, - together with 2 gerbils, a cat, a rabbit, a tortoise and a whole jar of common or garden snails.
Many adults came from beyond the church family, bringing the pets who are central to their lives, - grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge and give thanks for the importance of those relationships. When I spoke to one of our Church Wardens afterwards, she commented that people who felt unable to come into church on their own behalf could hide behind their pets, engage with them as a mask for engaging with others or with God, and that it was undoubtedly a positive experience in bridge building. So, that's good, then.
Several of our usual families were there too (yesterday was OpenHouse’s 1st birthday, and it’s encouraging to realise that we do have some “usual families”, whom we wouldn't otherwise encounter, though the congregation is pretty fluid overall) and one (thanks, A) kindly emailed me with positive feedback, even though she’s not a pet owner herself :
"Someone told me that St M's was too high for them, but I can now say that it's not too high to welcome assorted 4 legged creatures...". Another positive.
Overall the atmosphere was fine, and the animals behaved beautifully (even though I did have to conduct much of the service with Mufti in my arms, as she was too overexcited to handle separation without screaming about it. Evil Dillon, in contrast, was a model of canine virtue, sitting alert but peaceful in the front pew…role reversal at last!).
All good, then?
Well, no, because at the back of my mind there always lurks the spectre of the Vicar of Dibley, - and an anxiety that what brought people in was less the opportunity to thank God for their pets than the prospect of free entertainment on a stormy Sunday afternoon. Because of the presence of the assorted pets, it was much harder to create the space to really pray...and though I was pleased with the service I'd devised, and the congregation participated with conviction, specially in the singing, it did feel quite a distance away from worship.
On balance, though, I’m going to rejoice rather than repent, because the actual rite of blessing each pet and owner by name was so very wonderful. Among many special encounters, I'll share just three…
- With Daisy, an arthritic poodle in a pram whose owner said that because she was almost housebound this was a real highlight for her pet
- With the owner of the snails, a small girl who had adopted them that very afternoon, because, she said “There are so many animals out there that don’t get loved and looked after, and I think God wants us to remember them”
- With a family who came without their beloved dog, Chloe, because she was too ill to come…would I pray for her, please, as she was having chemotherapy?…so mum, small sons and I prayed together and it was good. Truly.
[Note: If you're considering a similar moment of madness, there are lots of good resources on the web...I found that prayer here and there's lots more to choose from]