"If you're going to the Blessing of the Animals service, get on this side of the police barricade," said the police officer as we hurried into the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan last Sunday morning. His statement perfectly captured the ambiguities of the event. Part Christian worship service, part media event and interfaith celebration, the famous Blessing of the Animals service was a kaleidoscope of music, banners, kites, readings, dancing, incense, tourists, barking dogs, and even the odd cockroach and the Nicene Creed.

St. John the Divine, humorously called "St. John the Unfinished" due to the fact that it has been under construction with multiple delays since 1892, is the cathedral church (home of the bishop) for the Episcopal Church (USA) diocese of New York, and advertises itself as "a house of prayer for all people." Intentionally interfaith, committed to the arts, and socially active, the cathedral is perhaps most widely known for this service, now in its 20th year. Many Episcopal and Catholic churches celebrate a Blessing of the Animals on or near the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. However, St. John the Divine is without a doubt the only congregation to draw upwards of twenty photographers and a standing-room-only crowd. Crammed into the standing-room part of that crowd, we found ourselves in a varied group of people: photographers with long telephoto lenses, pet owners holding small noisy dogs, puzzled college students seated on the ground and whispering "This is too much" to each other, and a man standing next to us who, alone among the crowd by our particular pillar, joined with us in the singing and liturgical responses, forging a sudden and unspoken communion.

The service draws ...

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