'Human beings are not the master species but the servant species': Andrew Linzey, Oxford animal theologian

"Would you bury a golden retriever?"

"Yes," replies Reverend Linzey.

"A cat?"

The Oxford academic again responds in the affirmative, but this time with a mutinous look; he knows, from bitter experience, where this conversation is heading. "A goldfish?"

"I can see your headline now," he says. "'The Barmy Theologian Who Will Bury Your Pet Fish'. Does the idea of conducting some form of service for a goldfish seem absurd to you?"

"It sounds weirder than it would for an elephant," I tell him. "Or a chimpanzee."

"And what is the rational basis for that assertion?"

"I suppose it has to do with intelligence, and the social circle frequented by the deceased."

"You have to ask what you are doing at a funeral service," Linzey says. "You're thanking God for the life of the animal, or human being, and commending a life into the hands of God."

"A beetle?"

"Allow me to re-orientate this discussion ever so slightly. From God's perspective, every creature is loved or is no creature at all. I'm not saying we have a duty to pick up every dead animal and conduct a complete funeral service for them."

"That," I suggest, "would be fairly time-consuming: think of the ants alone..."

"Death is woven into the fabric of existence. Death deserves acknowledgment."

It's easy to mock, as Andrew Linzey is all too aware. The world's leading animal theologian, who lectures on ethics at Oxford, where he is attached to St Stephen's College, Linzey, 63, who has professorships at other universities including Chicago, is no stranger to ridicule from the British tabloids. Inconveniently for his critics, the Anglican priest, who meets me at his house in Oxford, is a highly intelligent and articulate proponent of the theological case for more compassionate treatment of his fellow creatures. The founder and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics offers the animal rights movement the kind of serious academic muscle that Germaine Greer provided for feminism in the Sixties.

"What is the Linzey doctrine?"

"The advocation of progressive disengagement [from cruelty]. If God so loves the world, non-rational creatures must have a look-in too. Human beings have a responsibility of a kind that mice or giraffes don't. We are not the master species but the servant species. Our power should be exercised in looking after creation."

Linzey proposes the establishment of a body called AAA: "Animal Abusers Anonymous. We're all guilty either through products we use, food we eat or taxes we pay, so I think self-righteous zeal is entirely inappropriate. When there were protests against the animal laboratory in Oxford I didn't participate because there was violence and illegality."

A tireless scourge of the notion of animals as "meat machines", he says he takes encouragement from the broadening disquiet aroused by abattoirs, intensive farms, and killing for sport.

My research for this meeting involved consulting literature such as Communicating with Animals, by Arthur Myers. It includes poems written by pets and "transmitted telepathically". One verse, composed by Belle, a labrador from Vancouver, includes the line: "The wind is so strong that I can't hold on, Brenda."

Linzey, who in 2001 was awarded a doctorate of divinity by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, does not belong in such unorthodox company. That said, our conversation was not without its surreal moments; at one point I did ask: "Can a prawn sin?"

"Absolutely not. But beings with the capacity to suffer have the capacity to be wronged. They also possess some degree of cognitive ability and some sense of self awareness."

"Unlike Tottenham fans."

"Experience suggests I should not comment on that."

Linzey is engaging, bright, amusing and, above all, sane. The mainstream church, he argues, will slowly become more active in its opposition to what he sees as institutionalised cruelty.

"I am not a starry-eyed idealist. We're experiencing a gradual paradigm shift from the idea that animals are commodities to the idea that, as sentient creatures, they have dignity, value and rights. The Christian church has made similar shifts on the rights of women, and gays, and of the child. Things advance. This is where somebody like Richard Dawkins, say, gets religion so terribly wrong. He doesn't understand that the church is like a river and changes, much as science moves on. He dwells on the worst of its history. That's like judging secularism by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot."

This tradition of ever-broadening compassion, he argues, "is not finished yet. Pope John Paul II condemned liberation theology. Pope Francis welcomes it. It is possible to witness some amazing reversals of attitude".

And how, I ask him, can such transitions best be accelerated?

"I'd suggest three things," Linzey replies. "Belief, perseverance, and the ability to live long enough."