A lobsterman rinses off freshly cooked lobster at his home in Maine. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

At churches from Maine to Maryland to Mississippi, the annual community supper means one thing: lobsters.

To animal rights activists, that’s a problem.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the prominent advocacy group, has honed its focus on one beloved tradition in Episcopal churches across the country, the lobster boil. The animal-rights group sent a letter Friday to Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop and primate who leads the nationwide church, asking him to end the practice of lobster dinners in favor of something more vegetarian.

“Most of us grew up believing that killing lobsters and other animals for food is what must be done, but if we contemplate it, all killing requires conquering, violence, and separating ourselves from the rest of creation,” PETA wrote to the bishop. “God designed humans to be caretakers, not killers.”

The letter cited both the Old and New Testaments and the writer David Foster Wallace, who examined the practice of boiling lobsters alive for consumption in his well-known essay “Consider the Lobster.” PETA described the practice as “cruelty that I know doesn’t reflect the tenets of the Episcopal Church.”

Ben Williamson, a spokesman for PETA, said he didn’t know if there was any particular link between Episcopalians and lobsters, and several Episcopal church leaders whom The Washington Post asked about the connection didn’t have an answer either. But PETA staff noticed a pattern of lobster dinners as church fundraisers, and decided to look into it. They identified 28 Episcopal congregations advertising lobster fundraisers in more than 10 different states.

The PETA staffers looked into how many lobsters each church cooks at a fundraiser and got answers ranging from 75 to 2,000. In total, PETA said Episcopal churches kill well over 10,000 lobsters a year, a total that could not be verified by The Post.

It’s evident, however, that the number is high — St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, N.C., for instance, boasts on its website that its annual fundraiser has sold more than 65,000 lobsters since 1978. “Put in perspective, we’ve sold around 40 tons of lobsters, or the equivalent of a couple of school buses,” the website says, with accompanying jovial clip art of buses. (Lobsters at St. Timothy’s cost $16 each, and children can also enjoy a bouncy house and a hay ride.)

A spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church said that Curry is on vacation and did not respond to further questions about how the church would respond to PETA’s request that it abandon its lobster fests. Many of the churches on PETA’s list did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry.

At St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Springfield, Va., the Rev. Peter Ackerman said that his church would continue its lobster dinner, but “PETA raises a thoughtful point. I have shared this with our church board in the hopes that we can respond in a way that keeps the annual celebratory dinner gathering intact but also brings forth our awareness and sensitivity to how we interact with God’s creatures.” That sort of reflection, he said, would be in line with the church’s social action activities like offering free physicals and school supplies to local children.

The letter to Curry is one of the first activities of PETA’s newly reorganized Christian outreach arm, which in its prior incarnation helped persuade a Wisconsin Catholic church to end its 44-year tradition of human vs. pig mud wrestling, which ended with dozens of pigs being slaughtered after taking a beating. The church replaced the event with human vs. human football in the mud.

“Just considering how many Christians there are in the U.S., we’d be doing a disservice if we don’t cater an animal rights message to them,” Williamson said.

Asked what the churches should do to raise money for their parishes and charities, in place of a lobster dinner, Williamson replied, “Vegan bake sales would be great.”

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