Discerning Angels | Discerning Angels


Angels come up a lot in Anglican liturgy but not very often in Anglican sermons.  Every Sunday we sing with angels and archangels and all the powers of heaven, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, words that we may not have much impact because we use them so often. But now and again the feast of Michael the Archangel falls on a Sunday and we have to face what we think we mean when we talk about angels.

Angels are big business in some parts of the world, particularly in the USA. The emphasis there seems to be on the rather cosy guardian angel, who snatches a child out of harm’s way or comes to warn us of an impending danger. Much as we may find this idea appealing and comforting, it does leave us with the question of where was our angel when a really bad thing happened to us?

Perhaps a better popular idea of angels comes from Hollywood and the classic film, It’s A Wonderful Life. I am sure you remember how the Jimmy Stewart character George Bailey is saved from suicidal despair by his guardian angel Clarence, who helps him see his small-town life in terms of all the difference he has made to his family and neighbours. His angel helps him to acquire the gift of discernment.

Perhaps some of you encountered the Angel who hung around on Primrose Hill from dawn to dusk every Sunday this summer, a tall striking figure in burlap wings. She had some very interesting encounters with people who needed to talk to someone, a bit like George in the film.

The Bible readings today describe angels in very striking images. The Book of Revelation gives us the picture you can see in most mediaeval churches of the archangel Michael, the captain of the heavenly host, spearing the devil as a dragon under his feet. This is angelic protection and defence on a grand scale. In Jacob’s dream angels link heaven and earth as they ascend and descend the mystical ladder. Jesus quotes this famous vision in his dialogue with Nathanael. But here he makes a very bold claim. The ladder that links heaven and earth is himself.

So we have angels as protectors and defenders and angels as messengers from God travelling between earth and heaven. If you start looking for angels in the Bible you will find them everywhere, and they often have the best stories, whether it is the three strangers who bring good news to Abraham in Genesis 18, Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22, Tobit’s adventures with Raphael in the Apocrypha, or the most beloved subject of religious art, the annunciation of Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.

But today I would like to talk about angels as described in the early chapters of the book of Revelation, when a special letter is written to the church in each of seven cities.  You will remember how each section begins, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write”, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write”, and so on, pointing out the good and bad things in their communal life.

The visionary John’s message is addressed not to the bishops or other leaders of each of the seven churches but to their “angels”.  The angel is not something separate from the congregation but somehow represents its totality.  The community steps forward as a single collective entity.  I owe this idea to the theologian Walter Wink and I highly recommend his book Unmasking the Powers, from which I am quoting some of his definitions.

The angel is the “felt sense of the whole”, with no existence apart from the people.  The reverse is also true: the people have no unity apart from the “angel”.  Angel and people comprise the inner and outer aspects of same reality.  People embody the angelic spirit; the angel “distils the invisible essence of their totality as a group”.  They cannot exist without each other.

We don’t have to worry about the metaphysics of angels – do they or do they not exist in the sense that we do? But we can use the concept of angels to discuss the “interiority” of things, including institutions. An institution’s angel is the “corporate personality or felt sense of the whole”. And today, on Back to Church Sunday, I would like to use Walter Wink’s methodology to see if we can begin to discern the angel of St Mary’s Primrose Hill.

To discern the angel we have to start by seeing what is there, just as George Bailey needed to take a closer look at his own life.

            1. The first thing is to notice the architecture and the ambience of an institution.  We make statements about our identity through our buildings and how we use them. What does our church building say to a stranger walking into it for the first time?  There seem to be areas that are set apart, and I am sometimes surprised to realize that people assume they are off-limits. I wonder how many of you have been up into the chancel, or explored the sacristy, or have plumbed the depths of the crypt or climbed the bell tower. Does the building welcome us to explore its space? Does it help us raise our hearts to God? Does it look cared for?

2. Walter Wink then invites us to look at the power structure. How is leadership exercised? Do you assume that the vicar manages everything from changing lightbulbs and paying expenses to making decisions about fundraising, youthwork and preaching the gospel? Or do we fully accept that the responsibility of keeping St Mary’s going is shared by all of us, with specific roles allocated to clergy, churchwardens, PCC members, paid staff and volunteers?

3. The third bit of information that our corporate angel reveals is how conflict is handled. Every human institution experiences conflict. There is no avoiding it. But is the angel of St Mary’s more of a St Michael with a lance or a Clarence with a gentle word of wisdom?


4. And finally, how does the church see itself and how do others see us? We tried to collect some answers to these questions when we carried out the welcome survey last year. But that was an internal exercise. I wonder what people on the street think of St Mary’s? Are we principally seen as a venue for children’s parties, yoga classes, stimulating lectures and good music events? As a shelter for the homeless, a base for nitty-gritty youthwork, a safe space for recovering alcoholics holding AA meetings? A refuge that is often open where you can pop in to sit quietly, light a candle or talk to someone about a problem?  A useful means of getting children into popular schools?  A club of knowledgeable insiders who enjoy a particular kind of liturgy and music? I wonder if anyone outside the church looks at our building and sees it as a ladder to heaven.

Walter Wink says that “every collective entity that has continuity through time has an angel.” Institutions can experience turnover of personnel without changing their corporate nature.  A river is never made up of the same water molecules from one moment to the next but it remains the same river.  Every seven years all the cells in a human body are replaced by others, but it remains the same body (and we remain the same person). Those few of you who have been attending St Mary’s for decades can tell the rest of us which aspects of St Mary’s angel have remained discernibly the same throughout all the changes of people and staff.

Discerning the angel of our church, or of our school or place of employment or even family, means facing some challenging questions.  Do we need or want our angel to change?  If so, what change do we want to see?  How we will we effect it?  Do we feel that change is happening in spite of us?

Which aspects do we value and want to maintain? How will we do that? What is God saying to us about our corporate life?

I hope you will all think about this and discuss it and argue about it. A little healthy conflict is no bad thing! The PCC has been considering history, our corporate life and our shared responsibilities over the past couple of years. I believe that I can report to you that St Mary’s angel is dynamic. There is a lot of energy stirring. New ideas are coming forward from many different sources. People are volunteering to take on leadership roles. The understanding that we have collective financial responsibility for our church life is going deeper. Our angel is facing outward, not downward and inward, helping us to make connections between faith and daily life, and challenging us to action to serve the common good.

Perhaps our angel still needs to look upward a bit more, focusing on that ladder that links earth and heaven, not just in beautiful liturgy on Sunday morning but in daily prayer and Bible reading throughout the week.  Ideas about how to address that have come from laypeople in this parish and you will be hearing more about them next month.

Please tell me what you discern about the angel of St Mary’s. And I hope, if you are a new attender or have come back to church this morning, that you will discern an angel in this place who will draw you back again and again.