A 2016 POLL conducted by ICM for the Bible Society found that, surprisingly in modern secular Britain, 32 per cent of British people believed in angels. Furthermore, ten per cent had actually experienced the presence of an angel; interestingly, it was younger rather than older people who were more likely to have had an angelic encounter.
At Michaelmas, the Church celebrates all angels, although Archangel Michael is singled out. The festival is an opportunity for preachers to explore what angels actually are, their purpose, and their relevance to faith and living the gospel.
It is a tricky subject, as it seems that the angels of modern imagination are substantially different from the biblical variety. In the scriptures, they perform several functions: some, for instance, are messengers; others provide the music of the heavens.
In the Revelation of St John, they are central to the unfolding apocalyptic drama: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels waged war upon the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought, but they had not the strength to win. . . So the great dragon was thrown down” (Revelation 12.7-8).
WHATEVER the part assigned to them in the heavenly hierarchy, the archangels, cherubim, seraphim, and so on, are believed to be spirit-beings who are endowed with supernatural gifts and were created to serve God.
Angels of popular imagination are closer to the fairies of folk tradition than to the enigmatic heavenly host found in the Bible. They have been eagerly appropriated by the non-Christian world, and are visualised as androgynous beings with wings and snow-white gowns, often found as mascots and charms.
Even the word has new meanings. For instance, in the tabloid press, nurses may be described as “angels”, and there are pre-school nurseries named “Little Angels”. As for cherubs, they are no longer the awesome, four-faced monsters described by Ezekiel, but endearing, baby-faced charmers.
One might suppose, from the Bible Society poll, that believing in angels was a relatively easy step of faith. Today, we normally look for truth in the literally and historically true. Seen that way, doctrines such as the Virgin birth and the resurrection, which are not provable facts, can become obstacles. Angels, however, are viewed differently. They exist in the imagination. The secular world accepts them as creatures of story and make-believe. “Angelic” is a poetic term. There is no expectation for truth, in this context, to be rational or verifiable.
ONLY three of possibly 12 archangels are named in the Old and New Testaments as received by Anglicans: Michael, Gabriel, and — in some translations — the outcast, Lucifer. Raphael is found in the book of Tobit, in the Apocrypha. Uriel features in the non-canonical book of Enoch, although it has been suggested that he was the unnamed angel who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel. Tradition also suggests that Uriel warned Noah of the flood. Jewish, early Christian, and Islamic writers have provided names for several others.
I have been aware of St Michael from a very young age. As a boy treble, I sang in the choir of a church with his dedication; and Michaelmas (29 September) was my father’s birthday.
There are a surprising number of churches with St Michael as their dedication, despite his being very much on the periphery of the Christian story. Believers in the theory of ancient ley-lines have named the most powerful of these the “Michael line”, as it links so many churches.
In Wales, Canon Patrick Thomas, Chancellor and Librarian of St Davids Cathedral, says, many of these St Michael’s churches were built on pre-Christian holy sites. Michael was regarded as a supernatural warrior, who had the power to counteract or defeat any evil influences remaining from the past.
The Church has not made belief in angels into an article of faith: there is no mention of the angels in the creeds. Christians can take them at face value, or regard them as biblical allegories. As for the nature of angels, that is all speculation. The story of Lucifer implies that they have free will, and can distinguish between good and evil. When angels select the path of evil, it has been suggested, they are no longer angels but demons, and will eventually, according to 2 Peter 2, be consigned to the dark pits of hell.
THIS Michaelmas, if we take time to think of angels, archangels, and all the heavenly host, it should be to ponder the immensity of what we do not understand.
The world of science is constantly revealing worlds that had previously been beyond our imagination — extraordinary, counter-intuitive facts that cannot fail to astonish. But, even with the tools of science, we have seen only the smallest fraction of what there is to see in the physical universe.
The more we discover, the more we realise how much exists that is, and has always been, beyond human understanding, intervention, or purpose. The extraordinary and spectacular rings of the planet Saturn existed long before Cassini paid them a brief visit. They will be there, beautiful and ever-changing, for millennia to come, whether or not we are watching from earth. Through science, we come to see our innate anthropocentricity as a human vanity.
To ponder the angels is similarly to consider our insignificance in the created world. God made us humans; but he made so much else as well — both physical and spiritual. The mystery of faith is to know, nevertheless, that we are not insignificant. Every individual human is a precious member of creation, capable of knowing God as father.
There is more to heaven and earth than any of us can ever hope to comprehend in this life. Perhaps angels are the windows on to the possibilities of the celestial realm. Some mystics, such as Blake and Swedenborg, believed that these spirit-beings co-inhabited this world, and that the spiritual and physical planes were intertwined.
Angels remind us that the wonders of the world to come await us, and that something of that world may nevertheless be discernible from this.