MY LOCAL church, Mary’s, South Creake, is where I go to spend time with angels. Since the 15th century, it has stood in that ancient, ecclesiastical part of north Norfolk that clusters around the Marian shrine at Walsingham, destroyed in the Reformation but revived on a modest scale in the 20th century.
After the break with Rome, many churches were stripped of their decorations, which were deemed too Catholic as official tastes in matters of religion became more Protestant, even Puritan. Yet places of worship such as St Mary’s were left largely untouched.
Smiling down from St Mary’s “angel roof”, as they have been for the past half millennium, are two rows of carvings of winged heavenly creatures, carrying musical instruments and reminders of Jesus’s crucifixion. Although it defies 21st-century logic, they have come to feel to me like friends — and not just because their benign gaze represents a kind of continuity with the past.
THE church was built in the 1450s, funded by lavish bequests from pious lords of the manor-keep to curry divine favour at a time when the county was booming on the back of the wool and cloth trade. That prosperity is long gone, and, in today’s secular world, St Mary’s is a giant out of all proportion with the tiny village it now serves.
Inside is a medieval wine-glass pulpit and a rood screen, as well as an ancient seven-sided baptismal font, but the real draw, at least for me, are the angels. They hover high, high above, like the skeins of geese that fly over north Norfolk’s big blue skies so vast that when under them you can see that the world is round.
The angel roof is said to have been put in place, belatedly, to mark Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which winged “heavenly knights” were said to have played their part. Along each side of the nave, the angels double as the hammers that support the hammer-beam ceiling, their slightly garish red and green wings the result of an over-eager restoration in the 1950s. Their bodies, though, are the originals. The 13th-century theologian and “angelologist” par excellence, Thomas Aquinas, imagined angels’ bodies to be made of air, but those adorning St Mary’s are fashioned from solid oak.
There have been, it is recorded in the church’s records, some zealous efforts to disfigure these angels, but not by disapproving Protestants. It was a group of local farmers in 1680 who sprayed them with musket-shot in their over-vigorous efforts to polish off an invasion of jackdaws who were disturbing worshippers. Bits of ancient lead were found lodged in the angels’ bodies during the 1950s restoration.
Perhaps their survival in the post-Reformation cleansing of churches can be attributed to the sheer height of the roof. Perhaps even the most extreme enforcer of the biblical injunction against “graven images” of “anything in heaven” was not so confident of having God on his or her side that they would risk climbing a ladder to tear down the too-“popish” angels.
Or, perhaps, I find myself thinking, when I am sitting in St Mary’s on a quiet weekday afternoon, never quite feeling alone while these survivors of religious wars and enthusiasms hover overhead, that it may have been that the countless largely unlettered congregations who filled this place in centuries gone by wanted the angels to remain always available to them. To generations of Creakers, these angels were more than guardians, protectors, and signs of hope in what were lives of hard toil and cruel fate: they represented a gateway into the scriptures, where they so often appear.
ORGANISED religion is in decline in the West. One way in which the once all-powerful Christian Church responded to the challenge posed to its authority by first the Scientific Revolution, and then the Enlightenment, was to insist ever more loudly that the details found in the scriptures, and especially in the Gospels, were literally true. That way, they, too, could pass the “proof” test. But, of course, they couldn’t and can’t. That was never the point of these narratives, and the consequence today is that those who have decided that those gospel details are not historically accurate have written them off as discredited, along with institutional religion.
Yet so much of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic holy books — and those of other faiths, too — is about something other than the strictly historical. Instead, they convey a timeless and very human truth in much the same ways as Greek myths do. In the latter case, we seem happy enough to accept them as such; but not the religious narratives. Because they have been presented as literal, and have then been exposed as nothing of the sort, they are sidelined.
It is a disdain that spreads in our society to all things religious. I have lost count, while researching my book about the history of humankind’s relationship with angels, of how many times I have been asked with wide-eyed incredulity if I “believe” in angels. Can you tell me, a distinguished oncologist demanded, that the Angel Gabriel was actually there at the Annunciation, telling Mary that she was going to have God’s child?
Of course I couldn’t, any more than I could produce a feather from an angel’s wing. I talked instead of my angel friends in St Mary’s, and he assumed a look of victory. But what they certainly “prove” is that, for millennia, people have, in their own way, however inimical it might be to today’s orthodoxy and tests of veracity, believed in angels.
In fact, recent opinion polls suggest that one in three people still believe they have a guardian angel (including one in six atheists).
They continue to believe in them for much the same reasons as they always have. Sales of angel cards, angel therapies, and angel retreats are, in this context, nothing other than a continuation of the popular strain of religion that has long insisted, whatever the outward physical absence, on having an angel close at hand, whether it be every day at the table, or in moments of strain and crisis, personal or collective. The only difference today is that this reliance on angels as “dwellers in time and space” — as we sing in “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” — is happening outside of organised religion.
ANGELS going, in effect, freelance can give rise to misunderstandings. The Victorians were not the first to take comfort, when coping with the death of a child, in characterising their lost son or daughter as having not only gone to “be with the angels”, but also as somehow becoming an angel. The same idea had been popular in ancient Rome, where pagan parents decorated the stone sarcophagi of their dead children with winged putti, or sprites, a habit later borrowed in Christian cemeteries, where guardian angels were carved into gravestones.
In theological terms, however, angels are not, and never have been, human. They were, St Augustine taught, created by God (when he said “Let there be light”) before he created Adam and Eve. They may, on occasion, take on the form of humans, but it is an illusion. And so, today, when those who have found solace in grief in the increasingly popular notion of a loved one’s being almost resurrected as an angel, want that to form part of a Christian burial, it can lead to awkward and unhappy conversations with clergy.
There are many words, not all of them approving, that are used to describe this hankering for the presence of angels: need; wish-fulfilment; a childlike desire for an invisible best friend that we really ought to have grown out of; or, for those who haven’t, the yearning for a Superman of unknown origin but unimpeachable goodness who sweeps in and sorts out our messes and mixed-up emotions.
Is it all whimsy, then: meaningless superstition? That is the modern secular consensus, but pause a moment before dismissing it so lightly. Throughout history, in our continuing attachment to angels and their stories, especially that notion of them as our guardians, we are surely responding to an emotional need that is part and parcel of human existence, and which they can address.
It is what we seek out, too, in poetry: something that touches on the elusive, the potentially transcendent that is found, or not found, in beauty, in life’s ups and downs; the possibility that, somewhere out there, there is a type of “unknown almost”, just close enough for us instinctively to feel its presence, but also just far enough to be beyond our grasp. Like poetry, angels talk to spirit, not body, the within, not the without, the metaphysical, not the physical, the invisible, not the visible.
The exchange is as weightless as an angel’s feather. Our would-be guardians come with no explanations, and they make no demands. They are just there. At its most basic, the story of angels is about the power of love — whether you see it as the best of humanity, or the best of divinity, or both — and how to reach for it at precisely those moments when we are confronted by the worst of life and each other. Their story, then, becomes part of ours. In its simplicity, it continues to resonate.
Angels: A visible and invisible history by Peter Stanford (Books, 22 March) is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20 (Church Times Bookshop special price £16). He will be speaking about the book in St Mary’s, South Creake, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday 24 April. Admission free.
Listen to the author talking about his book at churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.