Send Thine Archangel

I’ve always loved Michaelmas. Perhaps it’s about the time of year when the feast of Michael falls, with schools back and universities about to start the academic year. Or it could be to do with the dedication of the church where I grew up, St Michaels’ Kirkham, and the C of E primary school I attended. For whatever reason, St Michael has always occupied by thoughts in September.

Much of the understanding of angels has shifted over the centuries under the changing winds of theological fortune. At the Reformation many physical representations of angels were lost, albeit that interest in angels continued in other ways. For Milton they were towering figures of supernatural power; of a grandeur hard for humans to gaze upon, yet also imbued with a compassion that is equally reflective of the God they serve.

Whereat Michael bid sound
The archangel trumpet; through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosanna to the Highest

Paradise Lord, book VI

Angels persist in popular imagination and are major figures in many world religions. Especially connected with children, there have been several funerals I’ve conducted for babies where Robbie Williams’ Angels has been played and poems about angels have been read. The contemporary artist and poet Roger Wagner depicts angels across the full spectrum of his work. Often he creates contemporary scenes in which these spiritual beings are as real as the cooling towers of a power station. Through their presence in his illustrated translations of the Psalms, Wagner’s angels are given a consistent appearance across the arc of human history – hinting that human structures are temporary and fleeting set alongside the presence of these ageless entities.

Michaelmas Daisies , Museum Gardens, York 2021

And in that summer evening’s fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat.
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.

‘I Saw the Seraphim’, Roger Wagner 2019

Angels probably surface most in Western countries towards the end of the year. Whether on Christmas cards, at nativity plays, or their ubiquitous presence in carols, it feels that December is the month when we allow these strange creatures to enter our imaginations. In the child-like play of creativity that the festive season invites, these bright beings connect with a nostalgia that appears to bring wistful comfort to some. Yet angels aren’t all about sweetness and light.

When the second Adam appears, angels fly like sparks at the moment the human and divine are forged into one. The shepherds’ experience of overwhelming glory is countered by the threats of infanticide and the flight into Egypt. In the Shepherd’s Farewell by Berlioz, the lyric is tinged with a sense that even Christ must journey through a wilderness, and the shepherds petition God’s blessing on the holy child.

That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give him. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

It feels to me that angels occupy that ever-present and boundless wilderness of the unknown. As we understand more about the universe its scale seems to widen, and within human life there is an equal expanse of the yet-to-be-known. These glittering creatures may have cast us out of Eden, but they are also with us on our journey, ciphers of the realms of which we are only dimly aware. When Milton pictures Adam and Eve leaving the garden, they go to meet a world that ‘was all before them’. Into this great unknown they go ‘hand in hand with wandering steps and slow’.

This and the first picture are depictions of angels in the stained glass of the Great East Window (1405-1408). Photos by the author.

God protect you,
guide you safely through the wild!

The idea of angels and their depiction in the arts may seem far removed from our reality. What they represent still has lessons to teach us, and in their glow they carry the embers of eternity. They are in the dark places as well as the daylight, the unexpected glimpse of something wonderful and beyond our comprehension. Signs heralding life’s ultimate goodness and the hope of returning home. For all our advances in the world, Shakespeare’s words convey with simplicity what remains true today: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. The infinity of angels reminds us of a vastness which cannot be fathomed, and a God who is dazzling glory – and the faintest flicker of hope in our darkness.

Nor Wanting Nor Wasting

Many people who participate in religious worship have missed singing. Thankfully, it is returning to churches and other places of worship. Singing once again has reminded me of the rich resource of both melody and poetry that makes up our finest hymns. Last Sunday featured Immortal, Invisible, God only wise at Evensong in York Minster. The phrasing and economy of the text allows a rich vein of theology to flow throughout the hymn. The paradox of a God who is hidden in light; lacking nothing, and yet whose bounteousness isn’t wasteful. Neither growing nor diminishing.

Hymns have the capacity to connect our hearts, spirits, minds and emotions in powerful ways. The enduring presence of Songs of Praise on Sunday TV is testimony to the need people feel to hear these much loved tunes and words in their lives. Hymns continue to be sung at some football clubs before matches, and Abide with Me is a part of the traditions of the FA Cup final. Radio 4’s Soul Music has featured a number of hymns and told both the story behind their creation and the impact they have had on people’s lives.

Last week I listened to another Radio 4 programme which set me thinking about all of this. Start the Week took on the ambitious topic of consciousness and how we have a sense of self. Deep waters indeed. One of the speakers was Tiffany Watt Smith, Director of the Centre of the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her contribution to the programme Tiffany focused on the idea that language enables emotions. In other words, that “language allows us to notice those inchoate physiological experiences”. The implication is that if we lacked words to express our sensory experiences it could create a degree of inner tension and psychological difficulty.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about the capacity of the language of poetry to express those feelings and thoughts that teeter on the edge of perception. So that my worship of a God hidden in light can find shape and expression in the combined effect of music and words. Nothing else will do this nearly so well. Dr Watt-Smith gave some examples during the programme of cultures that had a word to describe a feeling for which we no longer seem to have a use – and words we had in the past to express this, which have now dropped out of use. Perhaps ‘melancholy’ might be one example?

A cursory review of contemporary Western societies suggests that the ebbing of religious language does not represent the loss of religious experience. The growth of spirituality; the interest in phenomena such as eclipses; and the turn to mindfulness, all demonstrate a search for the transcendent. What the atheist Philip Larkin described in Church Going as an unexpected ‘hunger’ to be more serious. In the current edition of the Church Times the reviewer Andrew Brown notes the ‘uncharacteristically tentative article’ in The Economist about the state of the Church of England. The Economist article ends with words reminiscent of the experience of Larkin. Are some things timeless and beyond price?

The experience of working with people living with dementia provides vivid examples of the anxiety and frustration that are generated when words to express feelings elude. Following Watt Smith’s argument, this is not simply a problem in the communication of feelings: the lack of language impedes the development of feeling itself. If we cannot tell, then we are unable to experience hearing our own words being spoken, heard and reflected back to us.

“The Christian worldview is shaped by a variety of forces: community praxis, scripture, prayer, and perhaps supremely, participation in the liturgy”.

White, S. J. (2006). “Sing to the Lord A new song”: Christian Hymnody and the Scientific Worldview. Liturgy, 21(3), 41-50.

It may be that faith cannot be shared and developed when the language of belief has waned. This is not a purely technical problem in sharing faith, but a fundamental obstacle in allowing religious sentiments to grow. A hunger may be felt, but how will that appetite blossom and flourish? The resources that animated an inner sense of God were once plentiful and rich. Now it feels that there are gaps and holes in the discourses available to us, and a central theme with multiple facets has become a landscape of disparate ideas, struggling to sustain a core.

The Jewish people in exile asked how they could sing the Lord’s song when they had been ripped away from the fabric of of community and context. It is a question that is highly relevant for Christians in the West today as societies become ever more distanced from Christian culture and heritage. In the midst of exile it is never easy to see how liberation might come – yet time and again God’s people eventually found the freedom to re-establish a culture of faith.

We need the poetry and music to re-pattern the narrative of faith, even as we search for ways to live faithfully in a land that may feel unfamiliar and strange. In Susan White’s paper, there is a widening gap between a scientific world and a Church singing hymns reflecting a pre-modern world. I echo her conclusion that unless we find new ways of faith in the 21st century ‘we will find ourselves wandering directionless between the two worlds’. We need poets and musicians who can use the kind of economy , skill and depth illustrated by Immortal Invisible. This is no easy task, but unless we renew the culture of faith in the West, religious feeling will reach for words that can no longer be found.

We the Passengers

For all its faults, limitations and breadth, the Church of England has embodied a particular way of service and witness. Planted in every community, the Parish Church is a focus for spiritual expression, history and continuity. The buildings of the Church tell the story of God’s presence in the world; the death and resurrection of Christ; the connection of the here and now to a Kingdom that is becoming. They are the public expressions of Christian faith and offer the community a place to pray; to seek; and to find. The presence of these buildings is a testament to centuries of worshippers and a space of invitation ready for future generations. They are not often the buildings we would construct today – nor do they always meet the needs of modern congregations. Yet time and again creative alterations have enabled a balance to be struck between history and necessity; the beauty of a former age, and the inspiration of the present.

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form”. 

‘Vision and Strategy update for Synod’ The Church Times Friday 2 July 2021

The rich but daunting legacy of the Church has been questioned in a recent report in which Canon John McGinley has identified the limiting factors facing the institution. It would appear that his answer to the challenges facing the Church is to move away from virtually everything that defines the C of E. Fewer paid clergy; less investment in the education of ministers; getting rid of buildings. There is an attractive naïveté in this view of the world – the investment in a bright future of low-budget Jesus-clubs with vastly reduced overheads. What’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot. This kind of arrangement already exists across a broad range of churches, it hardly needs inventing. There is nothing particular that the Church of England would bring to these house churches, and a huge amount to lose. Shifting the focus from public worship to private homes has all sorts of implications. Everyone has a right to attend worship in their Parish Church: domestic settings can be more choosy. As large amounts of money are invested in new expressions of Church it is important to ask why such funds can’t be allocated to strengthening the resources that sustain the parish system. Over the last thirty years the direction of travel has been to merge churches; group congregations; and share vicars. The stretch has become wider and wider with no end in sight to the melancholy, long withdrawing roar, of well-educated, professionally trained and locally visible clergy.

Amongst at least some clergy there is a clear distaste for the kinds of people who attend church. Just over a decade ago this was palpably clear in the disastrous ministry of a former vicar of Wetherby. Of course people can be difficult (that’s clear in the Epistles) but brow-beating the laity into the preferred theology of the minister is seldom a success, from whichever tradition the vicar comes. The disdain for people who don’t engage with the current liturgical fashion has to stop. I’ve known serving bishops refer to attendees at early morning worship as those who prefer ‘non-contact sports’. In other words, people who come to church but don’t engage: passengers. This is a disturbing and wholly anti-pastoral characterisation. In my experience many of these faithful people are wounded or grieving and this is the service that saves than from well-meaning but overbearing compassion. They are not passengers. They participate by being there; receiving the sacrament and praying. It is very dangerous to measure things by a standard that isn’t calibrated to capture the dimensions of what is under examination. In the current meeting of General Synod there has been reference to measuring the ‘depth of discipleship’, not simply its quantity. How this is developed will reveal much about the prevailing perception of what matters in the C of E.

It appears that much of the energy driving this kind of proposal comes from a desire to succeed. As Martyn Percy has commented in this debate, there are gendered and indeed sexual elements to this ambition. The attempt to achieve growth and public profile in Christian mission feels at times like an exercise in countering personal insecurity. The kind of new churches being talked about feel a million miles away from the deep, gritty, faithful and radiant ministry of the chaplain portrayed so skilfully in the recent Jimmy McGovern BBC mini-series Time.

“God left us with a very troubling model of success. I think success for the Church has to be something measured by the degree to which the compelling radiance of God comes through.”

Rowan Williams quoted in The Church Times, 9 September 2009

Even as I write this blog it feels paradoxical that most of my ministry has been spent outside the pay of the Church Commissioners. Being with people in prison breaking bread; talking with prisoners about faith and sharing in Bible study. Sitting by a hospital bed where two or three pray together and face the tough realities of suffering, loss and mortality. Singing hymns with 40 people on a Sunday evening in a retirement complex. Most of the time I have done these things, the interest of the institutional Church has been limited. For example, these moments of ministry tend not to be counted. Rather than launch some grandiose scheme of suburban sitting-room religion why don’t we invest more in recognising, supporting and growing the ministry that is already happening and proving so well received and valuable? I think we would be surprised just how much is already going on in our communities.

The answer may be that these places and people don’t fit the image of the youthful, successful and heteronormative family life so often equated with success. The picture of shining disciples who just ‘get on with it’ rather than wrestle with theological dilemmas and pastoral complexities. In a nation of increasing diversity, not least in matters of religion, this simplicity may sound appealing but it comes with considerable risks. Leading and serving the church in the 2020s certainly isn’t less challenging than it’s been in the past.

Clergy don’t need cheaper training – they need enhanced training. This training is likely to be more expensive than the training provided today. Why would we want the clergy of the future to be less able to recognise, understand and manage the responsibilities they hold? We need people who don’t simply safeguard against physical abuse but leaders who know the wisdom of ensuring people are able to make open and balanced choices about belief. Placing an overriding emphasis on recruitment and growth is likely to generate behaviours that increase the risks of abuse. The telling observation by the Leeds sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is often at the back of my mind and can serve as a salutary reminder that religious ministry is enmeshed in powerful and potentially dangerous inter-personal dynamics:

“One of the most insidious of the many shapes of domination (pastoral power), as it blackmails its objects into obedience and lulls its agents into self-righteousness by representing itself as self-sacrifice in the name of ‘the life and salvation of the flock'”

Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

Maybe we have arrived at a moment when the Church of England needs to engage in a consultation about its future. A consultation which will include people who don’t attend church but value its presence; people in extra-parochial settings who experience its ministry; and the people who come faithfully and frequently to experience the joy and peace of worship. Surely, for something so richly present in the landscape of England, the future direction of the institution deserves wider consideration. Perhaps even the passengers can have their say?

Getting High

Elevation has a connection to altered states as old as humanity itself. It is unsurprising that height is a metaphor for intoxication, a sense of elation rising above the mundane and everyday. For many people reaching the summit of a mountain is a transcendent experience, the kind of perspective described by William James as a moment when “we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace”.

Standing watch over Whitby are the remains of an abbey, where a church has stood since the year 657. The choice of location reflects a common practice of placing churches on prominent sites overlooking a village or town. Nor is this practice confined to Christianity – it is a phenomenon which can be seen in countless world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

This architectural preference reflects the belief that spiritual matters are ‘above’. Whether that is simply the place where God dwells, or a parallel world of saints and angels, heavenly beings are consistently elevated; on high; raised up. Placing a church above the everyday existence of home and work illustrated these metaphysics. Not only was this done by the elevation of the building, it was often reflected in the interior, where steps were set at key points suggesting a gradual ascent towards perfection: nave to choir; choir to sanctuary; sanctuary to high altar.

In 1 and 2 Kings, high places are a matter of considerable discussion. Here the bamah (plural bamot) are places where shrines and altars are established. Customarily, many of these were at the summit of hills and mountains and it is understandable that translators often took the idea of raised places to render this word. However, the book of Ezra describes bamot in ravines or valleys, suggesting that these were places of high religious significance, but not necessarily always placed at physical altitude.

Getting to the summit of a mountain holds a human fascination. Whether it’s Everest, or the 282 munros to bag in Scotland, getting to the top offers a sense of achievement and exclusivity. Not everyone makes it, and many don’t ever begin. Reaching such a goal implies physical fitness and mental determination. Those achieving such targets become part of club with limited membership.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Isaiah 40:4

When it comes to the prophet Isaiah there’s the suggestion of a divine ‘levelling-up agenda’. Elite places of encounter are flattened – what was accessible for the few becomes an opportunity for the many. The Christian faith finds in Jesus Christ the incarnation of this vision, the revelation of a God as close to us as we are to ourselves. A holy presence that comes to meet us wherever we are: in a stable, in temptation, by a well, at supper, or on the cross. A relationship that takes us out of ourselves, dispelling the illusion of a self-centred existence. These connections beyond us, to God and neighbour, become paramount ways to live a good life and see ourselves in perspective.

Many people have special places, perhaps because they once offered a life-changing experience. High places and threshold places – such as any natural wonder – can have the capacity to give us a transcendent moment. It is no coincidence that for some of Jesus’ disciples it was a moment of revelation on a mountain that enabled them to see Jesus transfigured. These places and experiences have always belonged together in the human imagination. The good news is that faith can bring these elevated insights into the everyday. We only need to think of the diminutive field RS Thomas saw illuminated by the sun for a moment, the ‘miracle of the lit bush… the eternity that awaits you’, to know that spiritual transformation is only ever a moment away. All we need are the eyes to see it.

Evensong Praised

On the eve of decimalisation, in 1971, my Uncle Alan gave me a few of the new coins. The owner of a draper’s shop in a Lancashire market town, he had them in advance of general circulation. At a young age this was exciting for me rather than strange, but it must have come as a shock to many people; a radical departure from the money familiar for generations. My only memory of using the old currency was adding a modest contribution to the ‘penny miles’ which used to snake their way along the pavement in aid of a good cause. Much easier to achieve with the old penny than with the new.

The 1970s were full of change. As a family we attended the parish church which began to use the experimental orders of service offered by the Church of England. My earliest recollection is the ‘Series 3’ service, and I quickly came to know the communion liturgy by heart. For my parents and grandparents it must have felt jarring – or liberating – to shift the address to God from ‘Thou’ to ‘You’. Money changing; holy words changing – it was quite a decade.

In all the change that has followed for the Church, one service has remained largely untouched. Somehow, Prayer Book Evensong persevered in cathedrals and some parishes, although it has died out in many places. It feels to me that no other service reflects the time of day quite so fittingly. Traditionally held at 6:30 pm, the time has changed over the years, and now often takes place as early as 4 or 5 pm. Yet this hasn’t disturbed unduly the rhythm of the day or the sense that this service is connected with the waning of light and the approach of dusk. At St Cuthbert’s Lytham as a teenager, and St Mary Magdalene Ecton in rural Northamptonshire in the mid-1980s, I attended Evensong many times. Now I enjoy the same opportunity at York Minster. In spiritual and musical terms it is a spacious service, faithful and reflective in tone, it sits well as the business of day gives way to the evening hours.

“You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.” 

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Choral Evensong is available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. Each week BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a service (occasionally played from its archive) and there are countless other options on YouTube and elsewhere. This is not a weekly festival of past musical triumphs, but strives to include new compositions and innovation that adds to the spiritual range of the service. Recently Radio 3 broadcast Evensong from St Pancras Church in London. It was a live event during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. About 7 minutes into the service there was the world premier of an introit ‘Troparion’ by Renāts Cvečkovskis. It struck me as a remarkably haunting piece of music. Marking the season of the Ascension the music rose and fell in the ancient church. At one point the wail of a siren penetrates the walls and become part of the music. I’ve no idea which arm of the emergency services it came form, but this sudden intrusion of everyday-London didn’t seem out of place in the contemplation of a departing God.

“the presence of contemporary music in an ancient cathedral, especially its more angular dissonance, serves as a reminder that the worship being offered, although in beautiful and ancient surroundings, is not remote from the anguished and urgent realities of the present day”. 

Simon Reynolds, ‘In Praise of Evensong’ The Church Times 7 May 2021
The Great East Window, York – which with fading light, is a frequent backdrop to Choral Evensong

As Simon Reynods wrote a few weeks ago, attendance at Evensong has been growing in recent years. Perhaps this is linked to a new interest in monasticism (in which our evening worship was formed). Or it may be a rediscovery of pilgrimage – a meaningful journey to a place or moment of spiritual significance. Either way, it is a service with sufficient self-confidence to allow seekers, enquirers and tourists to attend. Being at Evensong is an immersive experience combining the deep roots of Judeo-Christian worship with an English language forged in the heat of exceptional times, as the great vowel shift left an enduring mark on our liturgy.

When Lord Rees won the Templeton Prize there was some debate as to why an agnostic astrophysicist had been awarded £1 million by a religious foundation. Described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God, Rees responded that his visits to Evensong in his college chapel were simply ‘the customs of my tribe’. This disarming answer puts a spoke in the wheels of both ardent atheists as well as religious purists. I would like to think that, for Rees, the difficulties of knowing which lie at the heart of faith are a refreshing exposure of uncertainties, which abound in science but are far less often announced in public . His comments certainly hint at this:

“Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality,”

Lord Rees, quoted in The Guardian 6 April 2011

It would be wrong if what I have reflected on to this point was not questioned. Is Evensong elitist? The music is often of the highest quality and there are no doubt people who look at the menu of settings and anthems before deciding to set out for a service. The power of the liturgy relies to some extent on the evocative silences and echoes between the notes and words. An occasional intrusion of noise may sometimes add to the service, but not always. Not everyone can be silent and still for an hour. While freedom from vocal participation can be liberating, for others it is frustrating and disempowering. Sometimes Evensong sermons are inclusive and engaged with a God alive in the world, but they can also be inward looking and riddled with churchy language and ideas. The question of culture in worship is something Giles Fraser has addressed, and it continues to be a live debate for the Church. Fraser reflects on his time attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral:

The silence would stop me and calm me down. The prayers and readings would slowly format my thoughts. But it was the music that stole for me a glimpse of heaven. And it was often unspeakably beautiful.

Giles Fraser, Unherd – blog following the announcement of Sheffield Cathedral’s choir being disbanded

Evensong is a rich and important part of worship. Knowing what is being offered and where to find it is much easier now there is a dedicated website. The internet’s offering of liturgy, including Evensong, has become much more extensive during the pandemic – there is a wealth of material to discover. Radio 3’s weekly broadcast is now in its 95th year. I have no doubt it will make the centenary, and endure long, long into the future. It is a jewell in the crown of English worship and will continue to be a vital part of a living spirituality. Not for everyone – but for an eclectic mix of doubtful seekers and faithful pilgrims. When so much continues to change, Evensong has lightened the darkness for people across the centuries: a precious moment of reflection, praise and peace.