Saturday, May 26, 2012

Recognising the Angels.

Sermon preached at St Augustine's Church Canterbury on the occasion of their Patronal Festival 26th May 2012 based on I Thessalonians ii.8
Ebbsfleet station is not a place that one would normally associate with Saints. It sits in a rather remote area amid the urban sprawl of North West Kent, boasting a 17 minute trip to London and a 37 minute trip to Canterbury West. Buses shuttle the traveller into Gravesend or to Bluewater shopping centre. It all looks very modern, very stylish, very clean… and very soulless. It’s not the sort of place where you could imagine a rather nervous, saintly monk and equally twitchy entourage getting off the High Speed Rail Link from Paris onto the wind-swept, grey platform clutching a papal mandate to evangelise the Angels of the British Isles. Indeed, is there anything angelic about Ebbsfleet?


Of course, St Augustine’s Ebbsfleet is nearer Ramsgate than it is London, though history might be very different if he had been able to use the Eurostar. It would also have been very different if there had been the wrong kind of leaf on the line. The mission to the Angels of Angleland would be stranded at Paris Gare de Nord.

Yet, strictly speaking, it is St Augustine who becomes the Angel, after all, the Greek word Angellos means “Messenger” and what a message Augustine brings. This is a great irony about Augustine’s mission: he is an Angel to the Anglish Angels! There are more angles here than a icosidodecagon!
Of course, the area we now know as England was already Christian long before St Gregory saw the Angelic Angles in Rome. There were English Bishops at the Council of Arles nearly 200 years before Augustine and the famous heretic Pelagius was a priest here on these shores. It is the constant raiding and looting by the pagan Vikings and Arian Germans throughout the Roman Empire that have rather put paid to the integrity of Christianity in this country by the sixth century.  Christians have to live in isolated pockets in the West of the country or move to Wales or to Ireland.

Imagine that! Being part of a Church so ravaged by secular and pagan cultures that you’re reduced to worshipping in disparate parishes all around the country!


It does sound familiar doesn’t it?  Our Orthodox English Christianity that has existed from the beginning and which Augustine’s ministry re-invigorated, is now back to where it was, reduced to pockets here and there.

But let’s just hold on here! Is this really where we see ourselves fitting in? Do we really regard ourselves as the remnants of English Orthodoxy and thus sit back and wait for a new Augustine to arrive and reinvigorate us?

It’s tempting to think that way and to make parallels which don’t quite fit. Let’s just review things here. While we are growing, our size does make it difficult to thrive, this is true. However, this really does not mean to say we’re on our last legs unlike the ravaged Christianity of the 6th Century. What we do have is a robust structure already in place; we are just as established as the Church that Pope Gregory intended to found through St Augustine. The evidence for this exists in that we have an Archbishop who visits us and encourages us, that we have brethren all over the world in growing numbers and that we have members here who do commit themselves deeply to the Gospel.

It is clear that we shouldn’t see ourselves as needing the ministry of a new St Augustine: we are already called to emulate our Holy Founder in whose name this parish is dedicated for the greater glory of God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is we who are called to minister to the spiritual needs of this country.  So what do we do? How do we express this calling? With St Paul, we have to be desirous of not only trying to impart our Gospel but our very selves to those to whom God has called us as ministers.

What was St Augustine called to do but to bring the good news to Pope Gregory’s Angels? In those Anglish slaves in the Roman market place, Pope Gregory recognises the Angels who need to hear the word of God. Likewise, there are Anglish angels in our midst who are slaves to the tyranny of this world and its secular values. There are folk around us who want to be free from servitude to a global and spiritual power which is determined to take away their humanity and replace it with some material worth through the lure of material things. We have to be honest, we are affected ourselves by this erosion of our faith by the secular. It is only because we meet together and are committed to Christ and to our Diocese that we are able to fend off the secular. We might be as fragile as St Augustine and his little band who stand on these shores with us albeit separated by the centuries, but all things are fragile compared with the might and the love of the God whom we preach.
The trouble is that very often we tend not to recognise people of Britain as being particularly angelic.  Can we honestly say  we know what Angels really look like? We might be forgiven for the confusion, after all, we only ever attribute the angelic look with some particular style of Gothic and Renaissance Art. Think of all those paintings of winged beings with classically beautiful features, long golden hair, large, liquid, languid eyes, wings that look beautiful but wouldn’t hold up an emaciated budgie and lustrous full lips which are usually employed in the playing of cornett, shawm or slide trumpet. Now think of the folk huddled on the windswept platform at Ebbsfleet, or the empty-eyed shoppers in the supermarket, or those aimless individuals pouring out of the pubs and clubs. Where are Pope Gregory’s angels for us to give the good news?


The fact is, Biblically speaking, angels are not readily recognised except through the eyes of faith. Even then, as in the case of St Raphael and his dealings with Tobias and Tobit, it is only when they reveal themselves or God reveals them to us. It is our job to maintain our prayers to God in our own personal life, not just in our corporate worship, for eyes to see Gregory’s Angels around us and for ears to hear the voice of their calling. It is our job to meet with Our Lord and to listen for His mandate which will bring us near those desperate to hear the Good News. They won’t necessarily hear it by what we say, but rather by what we do. The closer we are to God, the more he will reveal us to be the Angels for those who need the Love of God in their lives.

So who are the angels really? Is it those to whom we have been sent? Or is it we ourselves? Do you know?


Ben Shelly said...

Thank you for your blog, it is truly a blessing.

Warwickensis said...

Thank you, Ben, for your kind words.