When Queen Elizabeth passed out Birthday Honors last week, she awarded the Order of the British Empire to a Flying Angel. The Rev. Cyril Brown, 52, sports no wings and looks more like a white-haired Pat O'Brien than a member of the heavenly host, but the organization he runs is better known in the world's seaports and ship lanes by its nickname, the Flying Angels, than by its official title, Missions to Seamen.
The Sea for a Parish. The idea of the Flying Angels took wing one bright summer's day in 1835 when a young vacationing Anglican minister named John Ashley stood with his son looking out over the Bristol Channel. The little boy pointed to two lonely islands, Steep Holme and Flat Holme, lying far out in the haze. "How can those people go to church, Father?" he asked.
Next day John Ashley put off in a boat to find out. The fisherfolk, farmers and lighthouse keepers he found there had no church at all, and Ashley 'began to visit them from time to time to hold services.
Then he started calling on the ships that were anchored or becalmed in the chan nel, and so great was the need he found that he gave up his regular church, fitted out a cutter with a chapel below decks, and made the sea his parish.
For the next 13 years until his retirement, John Ashley built up his unique work. In 1856 it became officially the Missions to Seamen and is now one of the twelve principal missionary societies of the Church of England. Today its 53 chaplains and 25 laymen operate in 80 seaports around the world.
Pork & Crimps. Their reward has not always been gratitude: one chaplain in the 18603 complained that sailors burst into raucous song in the midst of his sermion and pelted him with lumps of pork rolled up in the tracts he had brought them. Ashore, many Flying Angels of earlier days got bruised knuckles and broken heads fighting the crimps who shanghaied sailors or lay in wait to fleece them.
Today their life is more peaceful. They visit hospitalized seamen, arranging such things as transfusions of rare blood, settling language and legal problems. Breaking the news of a seaman's death is a common and painful task; British shipping companies always cable the Flying Angel in a dead sailor's home port and wait until the chaplain can visit the family before sending an official cable. Wife trouble is another constant concern.
During World War 11 a girl came to a Flying Angel in an African port, said that she had married a British radio officer, had not heard from him and wanted a divorce. The Angel cabled the mission in Glasgow, the husband's home port, which in turn located the ship in Asia, where a third Angel sat down with the husband, helped him draft appropriate letters to his wife, which (with the African Angel's help) assured a happy ending.
The Angels do far more than answer distress signals. Seamen are prepared for confirmation, for instance, while on voyageone lesson in one port, the next in another.