My husband’s first time leading worship and preaching at his new church in Baltimore was the same Sunday as their annual Blessing of the Animals. The congregation of Emmanuel Church was very welcoming of all, including animals, so, unlike in some churches that hold a service where animals are blessed, at Emmanuel, pets were present in worship, in church, for the entire Eucharist.
I thought this set a pretty high bar for their new priest. He had worked very hard on the sermon, his first that the whole congregation would hear, as he always does. He might be nervous about the usual stuff: would people be able to hear him? Would they understand what he was trying to say? Would they get his jokes?
But a congregation that also included dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, cockatiels, and whatever other pets people had with them in the pews, offered the possibility of monumental chaos as well.
I’m happy to report that the sermon and whole service went well. No fights broke out between animals (or people). The pets were very well-behaved and pretty quiet throughout, except for a couple of dogs joining in on some hymns. Some animals were so still and quiet I didn’t really notice their presence. For instance, the woman I was seated directly behind with the unusually thick grey hair turned out to be a standard poodle with a cut that looked like a quirky triangular bob. It wasn’t until she turned her head part way through the sermon and I glimpsed her profile that I realized my mistake.
While many Episcopal Churches I’ve served and worshipped with offer a blessing of the animals, this is the only one I’ve attended where animals came into the nave and stayed for the whole time. What’s your experience?
Rachel Marie Stone writes in her beautiful essay “God Bless Rocket and Bobo and Tigger” about her love of the Blessing of the Animals liturgy (and that animals are invited into the church building where she worships). She writes
I love watching the faces of the congregants on that day. As they carry small dogs and lead larger ones, as they lug crates with cats or rabbits or box turtles, I recognize a look of pride and amusement, of affection and something like satisfaction. It’s as if everyone has brought a part of themselves to church that’s usually left at home: the part that crochets on the couch whilst wearing pajamas and watching crime dramas; the part that reads middlebrow genre fiction in bed, hair askew; the part that fusses over animals in a high pitched voice that they’d never use at the office or at church. It’s as if our souls have come to church in their slippers and bathrobes. We’re less guarded, because how sophisticated and dignified can you be when you’re cradling a floppy-eared puppy, or toting a bunny in a box? I love that the service opens up—and shares—something in us that’s usually reserved for home.
We were recently in Staunton, Virginia and saw this sign, welcoming dogs and their people to a worship service at Second Presbyterian Church.
It made us smile.
The Episcopal Church offers several prayers and liturgies for pets and other animals. Here are links to some of them: