Sunday 1st October 2017

Preacher: The Rev’d Stephen Pash, Honorary Assistant Priest

One of my heroes in the faith was the remarkable Victorian-era woman, Emily Ayckbowm.  Emily’s life corresponded almost exactly in time with the reign of Queen Victoria.  She grew up in a vicarage in Chester and was imbued from an early age with a passionate desire to serve the poor and the sick, especially children.  She was courageous, nursing the sick and dying for example during a cholera plague which hit Chester.  Emily eventually moved to London with her supporters and began a heroic, selfless ministry with the poorest of the poor.  She set up what became known as ‘bun’ schools in whatever spaces she could find, including stables and haylofts.  Her work and that of the Community of the Sisters of the Church which she founded, is honoured in this cathedral in Cedar Prest’s clerestory window high above the pew dedicated to the Sisters (pew N).  In my days as chaplain of St Peter’s Girls, I used to delight in showing the window to our students when we visited the cathedral, our original school chapel.

Emily worked to bring God’s message of love to the poor and neglected, especially to children.  She wanted to protect them, and to assist them, particularly through education.  Emily believed all those tasks were only possible through the power which prayer and worship of God brought to her.

Why am I talking about a remote Victorian-era woman?  Because she chose St Michael and All Angels – whose feast we keep today – to be the patron saints of her community.

The tasks she set for her community corresponded almost exactly with the traditional understanding of the work of angels.  In the scriptures angels exist to worship God, to protect human beings, to carry the message of God’s loving providence, and to assist and heal human beings.  In choosing Michael as patron, Mother Emily placed a constant reminder before her community of the angelic nature of their vocation.

My admiration for Mother Emily, and being part of the school her community founded, caused me to re-think the whole notion of angels.  I came to a new appreciation of what they represent.

It wasn’t always so!  I grew up with a friend whose life was pretty-well wrecked by growing up with an “angel” in his house – his younger, more beautiful, more intelligent, more talented, more accomplished, more compliant, blonde cherub of a sister.  He could never compete, so I think he did the very opposite.  In her defence, it wasn’t she but her parents and their attitude and public utterances about her, who constituted the problem.  As I watched him turn into an alcoholic it was easy to take a jaundiced view about angels.  It was an age of scepticism anyway.  More to the point, I had a pathetically immature, inadequate understanding of the idea of angels in any case.

So Mother Emily forced me to do a re-think.  Why did she place her community under the patronage of Michael and All Angels?  Peter Anson in The Call of the Cloister suggests it was to show the militant spirit of her Sisters of the Church as they struggled against various forces of opposition – societal and ecclesiastical, but also in their internal and personal struggles.

Let me backtrack a little.  To the ancient world the existence and purpose of angels made perfect sense.  How was it possible for mere human beings to have any contact with a God whose un-mediated presence could kill a person?  See God and die!  The Israelites knew Moses was great precisely because he was the exception to this rule.  He could converse with God face to face.  Belief in angels solved the problem for the ancients.  They were intermediary beings who bridged the gap so that God could work in people’s lives in a non-lethal way.

Where does that leave us as Christians who worship Jesus, the true messenger/angelos of God – but no angel?  We hold him to be truly human, after all.  His true humanity bridges heaven and earth and he reveals a God who he metaphors as ‘Abba’. Perhaps today he would also use the feminine ‘Amma  – This God is like the loving parent a small child instinctively turns to for love – a far cry from the terrifyingly other, holy God of the ancient Hebrews.  In the light of Jesus revelation, then, do we need to bother with angels anymore?

I think we might well need to.

For a start, entertaining the possibility of angels, understood as higher orders of being, serves as a check against human arrogance and self-centredness.  It might help us as a species to think we may not, after-all, be the pointy end of evolution, able to solve any life-threatening crisis we face through our own cleverness.  Modern science, posing the possibility of extra-terrestrial beings/life seems to me to be speculating on similar ideas asserted by ancient mythologies.  Leaving open the possibility of angels is also a reminder of the fact that there is a great deal of the mysterious in life and that we simply can’t get our heads around it and never will, though we rightly strive to push back the fringes of that mystery.

Angels keep us in check.  Understood as spiritual beings, they’re paradoxically, an anti-spiritualising idea.  Human beings are not angels.  We’re not just minds and spirits but also, and equally importantly, we’re matter.  We are earthy, dust from dust.  We have sensual needs.  Any anthropology which ignores this, any exaltation of reason and spirit over and against our physical selves and needs and limitations, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth about us.  The idea of angels puts us into place, into perspective.  It reminds us who we are not.  And it reminds us of the vocation we have to meet the material needs of the poor and the unwell.  We are not just soul savers.

Angels symbolise and reflect humanity’s God–given, imaginative life.  They represent the poetry and the mythology of religion and life, the creativity, the fun and the joy of existence, indispensable for our well-being.  They are part of the possibility that there’s more to this life and universe than we can dream of or that meets the eye.

Angels understood as part of a hierarchy of beings open up and hold before us the idea that the universe, is an ordered affair, not some cosmic accident or fluke in which we humans live alone.

As spiritual beings they represent first, the idea that every event has an inside meaning, and secondly, that God is in every event.

Historically and mythologically, they have been understood as the ones whose double task is to attend to God: to offer God the worship due to God, and to do God’s work.  Adoration and action. Adoration of the Creator and action for the good of the whole creation.

Adoration and action summarise Mother Emily’s guiding principles for her community.  Adoration makes action possible.  Action feeds into adoration.  It was and is still true for Emily’s Community of the Sisters of the Church.  It might also be true for us.

In my own life I recognise that the angels who have ministered to me are human: they’ve carried to me the message of God’s love for me, they’ve cared for me and tried to protect me; and they have joined with me in the most important of angelic purposes – worshipping God.

Just as those angels who have ministered to me have been human, so I believe our vocation is to be the angels of God in our own time and place: taking the message of God’s kingdom of love to the world; advocating for the little ones of the world – the poor, the oppressed, and the abused;  seeking and working for justice and peace which are the only true security;  and attending to God in prayer and worship so that we can do that angelic work.