Flight of the angels

Evangelical outreach in the UK challenges ideas of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’


When twelve white, kite-like, manga-inspired figures appeared suspended above Swindon’s shopping Parade, their provenance was not immediately clear.  The featureless structures could just as easily been mistaken for an abstract art installation as angelic messengers heralding the birth of Jesus.

Commissioned by the locally-based Bible Society of England and Wales, the ‘angels’ were an attempt to bring a spiritual element to the town’s Christmas decorations. The previous year’s decorations had had a decidedly unholy Harry Potter theme.

But while the Society’s mandate is to  ‘make the bible heard’, the 'Flight of the angels' installation was carefully designed to not ‘shove religion down people’s throats’.

For most of its 200 year history the Bible Society has primarily been a publisher and distributor of bibles. Although this work continues in the developing world, the emphasis of its domestic work has shifted to ‘bible advocacy’.  This aims to get people in Britain – whether they’re religious or not – to take a second look at the bible’s relevance.

“What’s interesting about the Bible Society is the lens that it provides to look at the relationship between religion and secularity – the extent to which society in the UK is undergoing a process of secularisation or not," says Dr Matthew Engelke, an anthropologist who has spent several years studying the organisation.

Swindon angelsFor Engelke, the angels were an example of 'strategic secularism' by the Bible Society. Research suggests while church affiliation and attendance levels are dropping, British people still recognise a spiritual dimension to life. So the Society deliberately picked angels for the display because they felt they fitted the bill for being ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’.

He also argues that rather than being a public declaration of belief the display was instead meant to create a sense of ‘ambient faith’ – something that is part of the background of daily life, but nothing too intrusive or demanding.

“We often talk about ‘public religion’ and ‘private religion’—and the dominant narrative in modern Britain is that religion should be ‘private’. For the Christians in Bible Society—alongside many others—this isn’t acceptable. The move to an ambient faith is an effort to undercut the simplicity of the public-private split. The angels were there, in the background, a sensual, ‘spiritual’ presence. 

“And of course Christmas is all about ambience – it’s about the lights, the music, the feel of the season. The angels were supposed to be a contribution to that, but one which was not based on snowflakes or snowmen or Harry Potter.”

Engelke observed that the Society also reckoned it would be important for the project not to be overtly religious if they wanted the agreement of the Borough Council – in other words, it couldn’t be a 'Christian' project.

This later proved true when the council wanted to tone down the religious content of the promotional posters for the project. The draft posters had read "Good News! Hope!" Very biblical language. But the Council’s objection turned out to be unintentionally helpful, with the final poster expressing  a sacred/secular mix: “The Angel Said Unto Them: Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” It was a cross between Old Testament language and the pop lyrics of Bobby McFerrin.  

Engelke explains the Bible Society’s approach: “In this day and age, you can’t go up to someone cold and start talking about Jesus. That’s not the kind of engagement that’s possible in contemporary England. For the Society, the question is, ‘how else can we start conversations with the general public?’” 

This approach was also apparent in earlier poster campaigns that the Society ran in Nottingham and Manchester which drew on the plot of EastEnders. One read: "Is Lisa right to seek revenge on Phil Mitchell? Text yes or no to 82100" and another: "Should Dirty Den's kids forgive him for faking his own death?" These ad campaigns were meant to help people appreciate that the drama of TV entertainment is often drawn from biblical dramas and narratives. 

“Through the posters the Society was exploring the question of 'what makes dramas dramatic?' What are the tensions that we are grappling with through the storylines of modern soaps which reflect on love, justice, family relationships?" says Engelke. "So strategic secularism is a way of positioning the bible in a cultural rather than strictly religious register. It’s about appreciating the bible for its literary qualities.”

Engelke says, “These moves toward strategic secularism and ambient faith are efforts in a long-term project to re-invigorate the idea of the bible as something that is acceptable and even desirable as a resource of modern life.

“The Society’s outreach should prompt us to rethink our understanding of the relationship between the religious and the secular. These terms are not as useful as they once were. We’re starting to see a blurring of these categories that points to their limited utility.”

Posted May 2012

Useful links

For full details of Dr Matthew Engelke’s research and publications see his profile on the LSE experts directory: Matthew Engelke|

Dr Engelke co-ordinates LSE's new Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion|

‘Angels in Swindon: Public religion and ambient faith in England’| by Matthew Engelke, American ethnologist (2012) vol. 39 no. 1

BBC Wiltshire, Pix: Swindon’s angels|