Angels have a certain ‘currency’ in our pluralist society, which, to the frustration of some, is both post-Christian and post-Secular. The form with which we have envisaged angels has changed many times – angels are ubiquitous, but no longer Victorian angels sitting on clouds wearing white nightgowns and playing harps; which were in their time quite distinct from Mediaeval angels – and this in itself points both to an enduring ‘need’ for angels and to an evolutionary impulse that ensures their survival.
Let’s be honest: our current love of angels owes a lot to Robbie Williams. His career was sinking without trace when ‘Angels’ catapulted him to super-stardom. It is played at christening parties, weddings, and funerals, with ‘angel’ becoming the ‘perfect’ human form – baby, bride, departed loved one – a fantasy. The official video is both revealing and disturbing: Robbie’s angel is a beautiful and passive woman who provides a means of avoiding any troubling introspection. Unlike an ordinary (real) woman, this fantasy does not demand reciprocity, to be treated as a human being; her acceptance of who he is neither asks for nor empowers change, but colludes in the status quo. Here, the salvation being offered is simply the resuscitation of a flagging ego; but there is no possibility of relationship, as we locate ourselves in an eternal present moment, without shared past or hope of a shared future.*
The writers of Dr Who brilliantly subverted the angel image with the Weeping Angels, aliens who take the form of ‘angel’ statues, moving at terrifying speed when their victim blinks – don’t blink! – and killing by transporting you to another time in which to grow old and die, separated from your loved ones. Are angels comforting, or frightening? Perhaps our turning people into angels separates us from the difficult but life-giving relationships with flesh-and-blood humans?
Just up the road from us, in Gateshead, stands the Angel of the North. It is an iconic image of North East England. Sculptor Antony Gormley said this:
“People are always asking, why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The angel has three functions – firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears – a sculpture is an evolving thing.”
This Angel resonates with our need for angels. But Gormley unpacks that need in terms of a disruption – travellers going about their everyday business pass this angel at a rate of more than one person per second – that connects us to the past, to the future, and to our hopes and fears.
And this disruption, and those particular connections, seem to me to make the Angel a good place to start Advent (which begins on Sunday) – with its stories filled with angels…
*“Desire’s balancing point between past and future means that it can only exist as a gift nourished by a promise.” Revd Dr Jessica Martin, prologue to the Pilling Report (Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality), p. xv.