St John's, Stamford: Angels, Apostles & the Absent

The Church of St John the Baptist, Stamford, has a number of brasses depicting families connected to the church. By clothes and hairstyle, I would date them to the fifteenth century. On the roof, above, a dozen or so angelic effigies are attached, peering down at the congregation with eyeless gaze. On the choir stalls in the chancel, a couple of surviving apostles or prophets are carved, looking suitably wise. I am certain that there are more depicted beings in this church than there are flesh-and-blood worshippers on a Sunday.

I was set wondering whether those three categories - angels, departed Christians and the apostles/prophets - are aware of what goes on in our churches. I think scripture is quite clear that we should never seek to communicate with these groups, though angels may well appear to us. Offering them prayers, incense or devotion is a detestable practice which no true believer should ever countenance. Yet they may still watch our worship, our comings and goings and our affairs even if we do not direct such things to their attention. I am inclined to err on the side of caution and assume that the apostles, and truly converted former generations, are sufficiently occupied by heavenly worship than to be bothered by anything on our drab earth, even if they were permitted to observe it. I suspect angels may sometimes invisibly condescend to join or inspect heartfelt, earthly worship, with all its imperfections and distractions, though I cannot amply prove it from the scriptures (I think Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 11:10 may briefly allude to angelic associations with the church).

We ought to engage in worship (alone, in our families, at church) as though only the Lord Himself is with us. That is a terrifying and awe-striking prospect enough, without thinking Peter, Paul and Gabriel are also looking in. It is God alone we worship, and for His own glory do we gather; whether beings in other places can observe or participate is not currently for us to know, nor be troubled by.

Ye holy angels bright,
who wait at God's right hand,
or through the realms of light
fly at your Lord's command,
assist our song,
for else the theme
too high doth seem
for mortal tongue.

Ye blessèd souls at rest,
who ran this earthly race,
and now, from sin released,
behold the Saviour's face,
his praises sound,
as in his sight
with sweet delight
ye do abound.

My soul, bear thou thy part,
triumph in God above,
and with a well-tuned heart
sing thou the songs of love;
let all thy days
till life shall end,
whate'er he send,
be filled with praise.

-Richard Baxter