What might St Michael have to say about being re-named 'St Mike'?

St Michael isn't exactly cosy.(Photo: iStock)

What do Vincenzo Pecci and the Rev Sarah Yetman have in common?

He lived in the 19th century and was an Italian who was elected Pope Leo XIII; she is a 21st century priest, currently the vicar at St Michael's Bournemouth.

What connects them both is the figure of St Michael the archangel, because Rev Yetman has hit the headlines in the Daily Mail with her decision that the name St Michael's is not cool enough to make access to Jesus as easy as it should be in her parish.

The suggestion is that re-naming the church St Mike's will carry a cooler image and public profile than it formerly did as St Michael's.

I don't think anyone would think that she was wrong, in the sense that calling the place St Mike's won't make it more inaccessible than it was, though it may not improve its public profile as much as she hopes.

But why bring Pope Leo XIII into this?

He is famous for two things (and they both have something to say about the change at St Michael's Bournemouth).

The first is that he was asked the question about the validity of the Anglican priesthood from the mother church's point of view and in a papal bull that was devastating to the hopes of many who wanted to heal the scars and schisms of the Reformation, his response was to create a commission and declare them null and void. As ministers of the Gospel, the Church of England clergy were understood to be entirely authentic of course. As priests offering a Eucharist which turned into the body and blood of Jesus, not.

It has to be said that this may have come as a relief to many Anglicans who had staked their theological allegiance (along with Zwingli) on the assumption that such miracles were never Jesus' intention anyway and that the Apostles, the bishops they appointed in their place and the universal church over 1,500 years had made a serious error of judgement; but that is not the main story here.

Here, the drama has to do with Pope Leo passing out in the middle of a Eucharist in the Vatican in October 1884, and falling into a coma. He was carried off into a side room and the doctors were called for. At first sight it looked like he had succumbed to a stroke.

But when he came too, he said that he had experienced a vision. In this experience he had overheard a conversation between Jesus and Satan. There are several different accounts of the story which vary in detail, but all agree that Satan was given permission to make a devastating assault on the Church in the following 20th century.

Pope Leo was so shocked and taken aback at this revelation of the spiritual undercurrents that were going to inflict the most dreadful damage on the Church that he called the body of Christ to arms.

With an eye on Daniel 10 and 12, and the book of Revelation 12, Pope Leo wrote a prayer which he insisted should be used at the end of every mass throughout the Catholic world.

"St Michael the Archangel,

defend us in the hour of battle.

Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil.

May God rebuke him we humbly pray

and do thou, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God

cast down into hell

Satan and all other wicked spirits

who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls."

All Catholics offered this prayer at the end of every mass until the middle of the 1960s when the second Vatican Council decided it was no longer needed.

In the meantime, the forces of both communism and fascism had unleashed themselves on the Church, causing mayhem and destruction.

Beyond the physical violence there was a philosophical violence. The forces of progressive philosophy and theology stripped the Church of much of her own self-understanding and spiritual confidence.

Modern medicine invented the pill and changed the relationship between men and women and their sexual habits overnight, in a way that had devastating consequences for the Christian vision of family.

The Church is still reeling under what is both a spiritual as well as a political assault. St John Paul II set up a commission to look at martyrdom, and it was discovered that the 20th century had produced double the number of Christian martyrs than all the previous 19 centuries put together.

The scale of this assault on the Church is one of the elements that invites a spiritual and metaphysical analysis as much as a geopolitical and cultural one.

The twentieth century saw as stark a conflict between the forces of darkness and light, good and evil as any other century before it. One of the responsibilities of the Church is to give a historical and political narrative a spiritual interpretation. The vision of Pope Leo XIII is one of the most powerful tools to understand what has been happening to the Church and is still happening.

This mythic narrative of the conflict between good and evil is one that plays out perpetually in all literature and film. While it's not always obvious who is good and who is evil at first, humanity is fascinated by the struggle and looks for any help it can get in solving the metaphysical puzzles it faces.

JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, for example, may have disturbed the Church with their invocation of magic and magicians, but one reason why they sold all over the world was that they brought the struggle between ultimate good and evil to the centre of the narrative in a way that children (and adults of course) grasped immediately.

The figure of the Archangel Michael and his role in confronting, containing and defeating evil lies at the heart of the Christian faith and the Church's task.

Not all Christians, let alone all our neighbours, take evil seriously. And yet, if Christianity is not a supernatural and metaphysical struggle against evil and hate on behalf of God and love, it isn't anything.

It's just possible that the people of the parish of St Michael's Bournemouth might have their hearts and imaginations touched by being introduced to the figure of St Michael and his allegiance to Jesus, and being told who he was and why it matters and why their parish church was dedicated to him.

But it would need the vicar and her congregation to be convinced it was worthwhile. Reducing the flaming Archangel and his magnificent and awesome role in the struggle to the more cosy 'St Mike' may not be the best route to take in achieving this.

It seems rather to defeat the purpose of being an archangel to be mis-presented as cosy. However well-meaning it is intended to be, and despite a laudable ambition to get down with the kids, it might miss the point. Taking a leaf out of JK Rowling's approach may, in this instance, be more effective.

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen. He blogs at Ashenden.org