Angels have performed many functions down the years: winged messenger, match making cherub and now classroom assistant. No, it's not the latest wheeze to solve the recruitment crisis but a New Age faith preparing for take-off in the UK, reports Sally Ballard.
When was the last time you saw an angel? Apart from on your Christmas cards that is. Can't remember, or don't want to say? According to spiritual healer Paulina Baume, angels, not death, are the last taboo. "You can ask someone when they last had sex," she says, "but you cannot ask them when they last saw an angel; not without being thought crazy."
Paulina's "angel workshops" are booked solid by those - believers and sceptics alike - who do want to ask about them, including teachers, some of whom have gone on to discover that not only do angels exist but they can lend a helping hand in the classroom.
In the US, it's boom time for angels: there are angel statues in gardens, angel shops, angel newsletters, and angel courses for business executives. Even the doyenne of American daytime television, Oprah Winfrey, is a vociferous champion. And angels are now winging their way across the Atlantic to Britain, bringing with them a profusion of books, courses and Web sites. Are we witnessing the dawn of a new religion, or merely another New Age fad?
Dr John Drane, a senior lecturer in practical theology at Aberdeen University, has been studying the growth of New Age beliefs, including angels. "It has to be taken seriously," he says, "if only to recognise that people are looking for spiritual solutions to the meaning of life as we move into the next millennium."
Dr Drane believes the new religions offer a do-it-yourself spirituality for a do-it-yourself world. They are a rejection of conventional religion and a reinvention of spirituality "without the difficult baggage of discipline", he says.
But angels are not without their supporters in academia. "The angel world does exist. It is part of the fabric of nature and the universe," says Dr William Bloom, a former special needs teacher at Southwark Community College, south London, ex-lecturer in political psychology at the London School of Economics, and now a respected author and New Age expert.
Dr Bloom, who recently addressed a United Nations conference on New Age religions, estimates that as many as 30 to 40 per cent of adults in Britain and the US are interested in creeds outside the mainstream religions. Of these, a growing number are turning to angels for guidance and support.
In the West, angels traditionally have been represented as winged spirits, messengers or superheroes. But today's angel-watcher sees them as forms of invisible energy that shepherd us through the trials of life.
Dr Bloom, who 10 years ago co-founded the Alternatives Programme of St James' Church in Piccadilly, London, equates angels with "the tingle factor" and sense of calm that envelopes us when we see a beautiful sunset, a cascading waterfall or a delicate flower.
"There are the sceptics who see invisible beings as the creations of a fanciful mind," says Dr Bloom. "But even the most cynical often sense a magical presence accompanying some aspect of nature." It is the act of "inviting in and working with" these invisible spirits that brings psychological well-being, he says.
It is these angelic powers which can be harnessed in the classroom, believes Dr Bloom, who has used the "techniques" himself. "If there is an atmosphere in the classroom which is intimidating, it helps to be calm and centred," he suggests. His advice to teachers is: "Pause and centre yourself. Open yourself to the idea that there is a perfect pattern for how the class and the lesson should proceed. Ask for the angel of education to come in. Mentally, that will prepare you, whatever you believe. But if you are like me and think that the angel is real then you can sense a change in the atmosphere. It is subtle. Not like a hurricane. But the presence is there."
For the Very Rev Dr Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, the current popularity of angels is a sign that there is "a felt need" that the Church has not been meeting.
"A lot of churches have allowed themselves to be so taken up with social and political agenda that they have forgotten to teach people how to pray and meditate," he says. "People are grabbing at all forms of spirituality, but you have already got all you could possibly need in Christ. The fact the Church has made Christ boring is apparent.
"The very word church to many people just means boring, irrelevant, out of touch. I think the Church needs to address the whole issue of spirituality. If we don't, someone else will."
To contact Paulina Baume, tel: 01242 228223. E-mail: paulina.baume @which.net. Dr William Bloom's latest book, 'Angels, Fairies and Nature Spirits', is published by Piatkus pound;8.99. For details of his lectures and workshops, tel: 0171 287 6711. Dr John Drane's forthcoming book, 'What is the New Age saying to the Church?', will be published by Marshall Pickering in April, pound;7.99. For further information contact The National Federation of Spiritual Healers, tel: 01932 783164. Web site: http:www.nfsh.org.uk.
* 'IF I'M HAVING TROUBLE IN CLASS, I ASK MY ANGEL FOR HELP'
At her Coventry comprehensive, special needs teacher Sue Hawthorne was having trouble with a particularly difficult child, so she asked her guardian angel for help. She attended a meditation group held by Paulina Baume which sent "healing energies" to the girl.
"Since then people have said to me that (the girl) has improved such a lot," says Sue. "We have moved from having terrible battles to getting along quite well."
Sue Hawthorne works with particularly damaged children, many with difficult home backgrounds. "If I am finding discipline difficult, I access my guardian angel and say, 'Please can you speak to each of these children'. It does have an effect.
"I cannot tell you any amazing stories, but these children have been calmer and happier and I feel heaps stronger. And I cope with situations that I used to dread."
Her mentor, Paulina Baume, was one of the first healers to be paid for by the National Health Service in the early 1990s, and was recently made a fellow of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers.
She has been healing, teaching and spreading the word about angels for 15 years. Part of her work involves counselling hospitalised children and their families for Warwickshire County Council. She calls herself a facilitator. "People say, 'Make me better', and I say, 'No, I will educate you so you know how to make yourself better'." Angels are part of the process.
Paulina Baume believes that appealing to angels can make one mentally stronger and more confident, and confer "healing" powers - whether mending bones and minds or simply helping teachers to bring harmony to their wayward classrooms.
One of her workshops is called "Grow Your Own Wings". She tells participants about the angels in their lives: guardian angels, household angels and, "yes, parking angels", she tells a curious driver.
Participants have to imagine themselves hovering in space while meditating on "life goals". Paulina urges them to feel wings sprouting from their shoulders. "Run your fingers along the shoulder blade and you will find them," she promises. If you can't, you're "not ready to grow them yet. Too much baggage to throw off first."