(First of two parts)
Hannah Roberts Brockow is a therapeutic musician. She regularly visits two palliative care wards in her adopted hometown of Montreal—one for adults and one for children—to play her instrument, a harp, to the patients there. The music, she says, helps relieve people’s anxiety and ease their pain in their final days.
Seeing her carrying her harp, she says, bystanders in the hospital will sometimes joke about angels. But Brockow doesn’t doubt the ward is visited by them. She believes that angels will often appear to patients as they approach death, to help them make sense of their lives, know that they are loved and ease the “transition” they are about to experience.
“In most cases, if not in all, although sometimes people aren’t verbal, they’re going to talk about seeing religious figures, often angels, and often family members. This is common knowledge to the nurses and doctors.
“When people have these encounters, the change is dramatic in the way that they are perceiving what is happening to them,” Brockow says. “This is the point at which patients might say, ‘I realize that I had a really great life, because it was full of love.’ Or, ‘I realize that the kind acts that people have done for me, or that I’ve done for them, are what matter the most for me or my life.’ ”
Sometimes these encounters happen in her presence, she says. “I had a woman who was looking past me to a corner of the room, and she said, ‘I just want you to know that Jesus is here, and there are four angels with him, and they love listening to you play.’ ”
Although she herself has never actually seen an angel, Brockow says, they are a huge part of her spiritual life. She sees herself, she says with a laugh, as the “angel lady” in her church, St. John the Evangelist; she has spent years researching angels, and has chaplets—prayer beads—to Michael, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, which she uses in worship.
“I like to ask them to help me to pray,” she says. “I like to ask them to help me do the work that I do in palliative care and to show me the ways in which I can be a better person.
“I’ve had people ask me before, ‘Why would you not just pray to Jesus?’ And I say to them, ‘Well, I think Jesus is very happy for me to ask the angels for help, because the angels know Jesus very intimately’…We all love Christ together.”
How exactly does it help to invoke the angels in prayer? “It’s difficult to put into words,” Brockow says. “It’s something I feel inside, but it feels like I’m surrounded by love when I sit down and pray.”
Not everyone, of course, believes in angels, but Brockow is in the majority in Canada. An Angus Reid poll on faith, released in March 2015, suggested that 62% of Canadians believe in angels. Belief in angels has remained quite constant over the last few decades; it sat at 61% of Canadians in 1985 and 63% in 2000, the poll noted.
A certain amount of today’s interest in angels appears to be coming from outside of religion. In a Maclean’s magazine article on the poll, Reid commented, “I’m not convinced what we’re seeing there is a fervent religious belief in the existence of angels…I don’t think it’s religiously rooted as much as it’s rooted in pop culture.” Indeed, a 2014 survey of Americans performed by Baylor University in Texas found that roughly three in 10 of respondents who said they had no religion also said they believed angels either “probably” or “absolutely” exist.
One possible explanation for their current popularity is the flexibility of angels to fit into all kinds of spiritual traditions, says Joseph Baker, a professor of sociology at East Tennessee State University and co-author of a recent study on angelic belief in the U.S. Some may see them as light that appears at the foot of their beds; others may simply consider as angels other human beings in whom God is believed to be at work.
A certain amount of angelic belief today, he says, also seems likely traceable to the New Age movement.
What do most Anglicans believe? It’s not entirely clear.
“I think you’re certainly going to get a wide range of opinions in Anglicanism—that’s par for the course for anything Anglican, I guess!” says the Rev. Christopher Snow, who served 11 years as rector at St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, Nfld., before his current role as rector of Grace Anglican Church in Milton, Ont.
On the one hand, he says, “Protestants have trouble with intermediaries” between humans and God. At the same time, Snow notes, angels play a prominent role, not only in the Bible but in much Anglican liturgy. “Every Sunday, Anglicans gather at the Eucharist and we sing the angelic chorus—you know, the Sanctus—”Holy, holy, holy”? Snow says. “We join with the angels and archangels as part of our eucharistic prayers.”
Some Anglicans are probably “a bit skeptical,” Snow says, especially concerning angels as having any kind of physical reality—which, he adds, however, actually isn’t an essential aspect of belief in them.
In response to an Anglican Journal Facebook post soliciting readers’ opinions on angels, one skeptic responded in two words: “Magical thinking.”
Others seem less decided. Teresa Looy, a 24-year-old Anglican now working toward a master’s degree at the University of Manitoba, says that for most of her life she has viewed angels with skepticism—partly because of what she calls a “very Protestant” upbringing.
She has become “open to learning more” after discovering how, via a growing familiarity with Roman Catholicism, the concept of angels can be seen as fitting into a theological system.
“I’d like to understand more about the role that they play and what they are conceived of as being,” Looy says.
If belief in angels among parishioners seems mixed, among theologians the topic has become distinctly unfashionable; courses on angels do not figure prominently in most seminary curriculums today, Snow says. Much Protestant theology over the past two centuries, says Wayne Hankey, a specialist in medieval philosophy at Dalhousie University and a former Anglican priest, “has made belief in the angels meaningless, or worse.” The goal of many influential Anglican theologians in the 19th century, he says, was to justify Christianity on practical, moral or emotional, rather than theoretical, grounds—rather than working out, for example, a structure of being in which God, angels and human beings might all have a place. More recently, some Roman Catholic theology, he says, has taken a similar direction.
But what are angels? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask. One thing they are definitely not—at least according to some of history’s most respected theologians—is a human-like winged being.
In the next part of this series, the Anglican Journal will explore how angels have been understood by some of the great theologians of Christian and other traditions.
Editor’s note: In 2021, Wayne Hankey, who is cited in this article, was charged with sexual assault and indecent assault in relation to incidents alleged to have occurred in the 1970s and 80s. He died in 2022, before he could go to trial on these charges. In 2021, the University of King’s College, where he had taught for many years, announced it had hired a law firm to conduct an independent review of the facts that led to one of the charges. The review, the final report of which was released in March 2022, concluded that Hankey had “engaged in a pattern of predatory and abusive behaviour towards some young men.”