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The hierarchies of heaven

29 September 2023

Charles Moseley marks Michaelmas by making the case for angels


Icon of nine orders of angels with an illuminated triangle, a symbol of the Trinity (Greek, probably 18th century)

Icon of nine orders of angels with an illuminated triangle, a symbol of the Trinity (Greek, probably 18th century)

HOW can we talk about angels, in our crassly materialist culture, in which our default position is that, if something can’t be quantified or valued, it doesn’t exist?

What do most church members think privately? Any attempt to conceptualise angels easily loses itself in the androgynous figures in Victorian stained-glass windows with anatomically improbable wings — appealing, but hardly relevant; and certainly not so awesome that you would involuntarily kneel in fear and trembling.

Yet, today, the Church of England celebrates the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, in — as Cranmer put it — their “wonderful order”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992; para. 328) says that the existence of the non-corporeal beings that scripture calls “angels” is “a truth of faith, and that the life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of the angels”.

All the great religions posit the existence of an unseen dimension to our world, and of beings who interact, for good or ill, with humans. Angels appear many times in the Old Testament. The Talmud names four (Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael), who would later be called archangels; Psalm 91 assures us that “He will give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” Our Lord and his disciples would have shared this tradition, which continues seamlessly into the New Testament. Angels brought tidings to Zechariah, and to Mary, and reassurance and warning to Joseph. Angels counsel the disciples after the ascension. In Acts 12, an angel frees Peter from prison.


WELL before Cranmer wrote his collect, ideas about angels and their functions had been greatly developed. They appear in many medieval buildings and paintings, with symbols of their rank; for, in the fifth century, the Celestial Hierarchies (a book wrongly attributed to Dionsyus the Areopagite, whom St Paul supposedly knew) had distinguished nine orders, and these were recognised by Gregory the Great. Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin (1475-76) in the National Gallery shows each order with its different characteristics. So does window 36 in Chartres Cathedral — and there are many other examples.

The highest orders — seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, entirely God-turned — are afire with the love of God; so, in medieval art their faces are often red. The next triad — dominations, virtues, powers, with power over evil forces — attend to the created universe. Finally, the principalities, archangels, and angels engage with human affairs.

Cranmer’s word “order” implies that concept that is fundamental in antique and medieval thinking about society, the world, and creation itself: hierarchy. That is not just authority, but a willing exchange of duty and love, upwards and downwards. Everything from the meanest particle to the greatest angel has a unique place in God’s purpose. Human beings, placed a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8.5), quite properly have to do only with the squaddies and NCOs of the heavenly host.


IT IS all unprovable. But, just as it is axiomatic that an argument can discuss only matters implicit in its premisses, so our senses can perceive only what senses can perceive. There may be — probably is — much else going on, in modes that our senses cannot know. That fine scientist (no supernaturalist) J. B. S Haldane said in 1927: “It looks as if the Universe is queerer than we think. It may be queerer than we can think.”

He was right — as we discover almost daily, in quantum physics and astrophysics, in epigenetics and plant biology, and the extraordinary world of fungi and lichens. Thirty years ago, nobody thought that trees communicated, even co-operated, through their mycorrhizal networks; or that slime moulds and mycelia could make what look awfully like choices, without any semblance of a brain.

Our world is truly full of wondrous things, where the only certain expectation is of the unexpected. Nothing is more probable than that our material mode of being is not the only one: material or immaterial seems merely a matter of wavelength. Indeed, if we Christians accept the bedrock of our faith — the divine non-sense of the resurrection — we are committed to just such a world: all materialist bets are off.


SO, THAT spiritual beings exist is probable. Suppose they really do interact with us — suppose they really are God’s messengers, as their name attests? What sort of world do we then inhabit? What form might their interaction take? John Donne, writing in around 1600 to his Anne, takes their appearance so matter-of-factly, as if there were no argument:


So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp’d be . . .
An angel, face, and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure, doth wear!


“Oft”, indeed? Perhaps we do entertain angels unawares, as Hebrews 13.2 suggests (“Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”). Have we not all — rarely, but unforgettably — met people into whose eyes, for one brief moment, you look and share utter intimacy, before whom your being is laid bare? And then they are gone, we know not where, those ordinary people — or perhaps not so ordinary.

Then, that time that accident so nearly happened, and in an instant, a split second, you seemed aware of some intervention. Guardian angels? Well, why not?


BUT God did not create toys. He made beings with — at whatever level — the freedom to refuse his will. It must follow that spiritual beings, created good, must be able to choose wrong, else their service would be worth precisely nothing. We cannot guess what sort of sins angels might commit, but the tradition endures of the archangel Michael and his host in battle against Satan and his angels, who seek to foul Creation.

Just as we posit the possibility of helper angels, so we can posit the other sort. And — just as helpers may be disguised — so, too, rotters will not look like rotters, but be attractive, with big smiles, much humour, and promises of what you believe to be your heart’s desire.

One of the greatest ironies is that evil is powerless unless it counterfeits good. Unattractive tempters can’t be tempting. A whole early-modern dramatic tradition hung on 2 Corinthians 14: that Satan can appear like an angel of light. Paul warns: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

So, let us indeed rejoice in the wonderful Order of Being which includes stars, and slime moulds, and angels, and us, and the electrons singing in their orbits. The holy is all around, and often unnoticed. The distinction is not between sacred and secular, but only between sacred and desecrated. So praise him; for “he looked on all he had made, and saw that it was good.”

But he dared to give his creatures freedom. Some do choose the dark.


Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.


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