Where angels care to tread

Charles Cowling


I sit and wait
Does an angel contemplate my fate?

R Williams

Do you believe in angels?

According to research by the think tank Theos in 2012, around a quarter of the population do. If you’ve not seen the Theos report, do have a look: it’s a fascinating survey of the faith of the faithless generally.

Belief in angels is, of course, as old as time itself and is shared by many religions including all 3 Abrahamic ones. In classical Christian belief angels encircle the Godhead and sing alleluias and suchlike worshipful greatest hits, arranged concentrically in choral hierarchy: Seraphim,  Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, Angels. God employs them as messengers, and we note that it’s a pretty plebby sort he dispatches to planet Earth — mere Archangels, for heaven’s sake.

Today’s angels — perhaps we should call them post-New Age angels — are often evoked by unchurched people when someone dies:

So go and run free with the angels
As they sing so tenderly
And please be sure to tell them
To take good care of you for me

Children who die are often fondly supposed to have grown angel wings and flown to heaven. As a proportion of the population, females are probably more likely to transition to angelhood than males. Old people are seldom reckoned to have been the beneficiaries of this celestial makeover, probably because they don’t conform to the aesthetic. A nan with wings really isn’t a very likely look. 

Just how thought-through and developed this modern belief in angels is I have no idea, so I hope you can come in with some info and points of view. Belief in guardian angels is widespread, as in: “One day, when my son was a baby, I tripped while I was holding him, and he went flying headlong toward a brick wall. There was nothing I could do to protect him, but I watched as he inexplicably stopped an inch from the wall and fell gently to the carpet. I knew immediately that an angel’s hand had been his bumper pad.” Source. People pool their experiences at Angels Online.

Angels are part of the modern iconography of death, which includes other winged creatures — eg, doves and butterflies — together with rainbows, as in:

Time for me to go now, I won’t say goodbye;
Look for me in rainbows, way up in the sky.

It would be interesting to hear the reflections of celebrants on funerary angels. Are they part of a Disneyfication of afterlife beliefs generally? Do they play an influential part in people’s grief journeys?


4 thoughts on “Where angels care to tread

  1. Charles Cowling
    Wendy Coulton

    Personally I am comforted from thinking I have guardian angels who are my deceased grandparents who look out for me from the spirit world. Whether it is finding a ten pound note when I least expect it but most need it or feel better when a psychic told me my nan was keeping a watchful eye when my husband was driving long distances it is not evidenced or proven to be so. It hurts no one else to believe this and I consider myself blessed and loved from people I cherish. They do not have wings and their special power is an enduring and unconditional love for me. I believe in them and they believe in me.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Michael Jarvis

    Plebeian angels, blimey that’s an image to conjure with.

    A few months ago I was asked to write a short piece about great hymn writers. Whilst doing some research I was interested to note that there seemed to be a predominance of Low Church/non-conformists who included angels in their works:

    Perhaps the best-known example today would be ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright’ written by the Puritan Richard Baxter, a man who was tried by Judge Jeffreys. That hymn is based on an earlier poem of his which described angels as
    Fitter than we
    Dark sinners be,
    For things so high

    Now here’s an interesting thing: other than Cherubim and Seraphim there is no reference in the Bible to angels having wings…

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Well, Charles and Richard have explained clearly for us the system of Christian belief concerning angels. I haven’t had much direct references to angels in funerals I’ve been involved with. But the line about looking for someone in rainbows, (cf I’ll be there in the call of the birds etc) – I guess some people take that as a metaphor for the way a dead person ‘s influence stays on with us, may feel all around us. The meaning of a dead person’s life doesn’t stay at the crem/in the grave with the body, whether or not you believe in an immortal soul.

    I think others find something in this New Age angels phenomenon you could call wishful thinking (though that may be a little unkind!); they don’t have religious beliefs, but they want something MORE. Hope against hope. “Wherever he is, I think he’s looking down on us…” from the family that says they don’t have religious beliefs. Maybe not, but they clearly have some yearnings towards a non-corporeal and continuing existence. Rainbows in the sky can scoop that up for them, or angels (in a general, non-orthodox sense.)

    How thought-through is it? asks Charles. Not at all, I’d guess; it’s a deeper need than rational thought. We’re back to the difference between religion as defined by belief (can be divisive) and faith in something that, if it works, it works – scan be very inclusive. Whose going to jump up in a funeral and say “he’s not looking down on us, he’s gone, dammit?” We’ll generally feel the emotional impulse and not want to rubbish it, or we’ll treat it as a metaphor – or we’ll believe in angels, in a loose, post-Christian sort of way.

    Men generally make lousy New Age angels because they will compete. “Which one of us can fly from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and back before the end of the service, then? Eh? Eh? Yeah? Well I’ve got turbo-wings…..”

    Richard crosses himself; I cross my fingers. I think it’s subjective efficacy, Richard’s got the direct line. If it works, it’s good.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    People talk about sweet, innocent children and radiantly beautiful adults as angelic. I’m not familiar with the notion of such people becoming angels. The religious belief is angels are celestial beings, entirely distinct from we earthlings. Exceptional mortals can become saints, but not angels.

    Interesting to learn so many secular folk believe in angels. I suppose many people have a sense of a spiritual guardian looking over them. They see things they interpret as a guiding vision. They have a lucky escape and feel saved miraculously from an accident.

    In religious circles, people discuss direct relationship with God versus prayers of intercession to the saints or, perhaps, archangels such as Michael and Gabriel.

    Call me superstitious but I cross myself in private as a reflex action when even minor disasters are averted. The front door slams behind me and I think I’ve left my keys inside. I find them in my pocket. Thank you, God. Quick sign of the Cross. I’m usually a go-direct kinda guy, although Our Lady has also been known to bring comfort in times of anguish.

    Charles Cowling

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