THE EXORCISM on Channel 4 caused a stir in church and other circles before
its broadcast on 24 February. Press coverage about the attempt to measure the
brain patterns of an individual undergoing an exorcism attracted words like
"irresponsible" and "dangerous".
In the event, the actual exorcism on screen was a mild affair, and many who
watched it were probably fairly bored (and tired) by the time the programme
finished, well after midnight.
The material extracted from the brainwaves of the subject, Colin (
pictured right), was inconclusive, and neither he nor the minister,
Trevor Newport (pictured below), practising the deliverance, had any
interesting things to say about the procedure. It was hardly riveting
The mild furore beforehand and the subsequent anti-climactic silence after
the broadcast are perhaps indicative about the way in which the practice and
perception of exorcism are changing in the Church and society today.
Why was there such a fuss made about the programme beforehand? Until now,
there have been many in the Church whose deliverance ministries have been
alarming and dangerous both to the individuals concerned and to the church
communities within which they occur.
Apart from high-profile cases like the Barnsley case of 1975, when an
"exorcised" man went home and murdered his wife in a particularly horrible
fashion, there have been numerous other stories emerging from Charismatic
churches where enthusiasm for this ministry has caused damage and abuse.
I investigated some of these cases when I was doing research for my book
Ungodly Fear at the end of the 1990s. What I found, apart from
individuals whose lives had been traumatised by a diagnosis of demonic
possession, were churches that were functioning in what Professor Andrew Walker
calls a "paranoid universe". This paranoia had been inculcated by listening to
numerous sermons on the pervasiveness of evil in the world, where Satan, it
seemed, had free rein and was held back only by the prayer of faithful
This paranoia was also being fed by the popularity of the novels of Frank
Peretti, the evangelism of John Wimber, and the ideas of Peter Wagner about
territorial spirits. It is no coincidence that the height of the Satanic,
ritual-abuse scare occurred at the same time as the most grotesque preaching
about the power of Satan to possess and attack faithful Christians in many
When I was a student in the 1960s, exorcism and a deliverance ministry were
always associated with Roman Catholic or select Anglo-Catholic clergy. The
Evangelicals and Pentecostals might have spoken about demons in a metaphorical
sense, but dealing with them was left to others.
The early days of the Charismatic movement, which positively affected my
early ministry at the beginning of the 1970s, likewise had almost no rhetoric
about demonic possession nor advocated warfare against evil in a tangible form.
An attempt to discern when the "demonic" dimension entered into parts of the
Charismatic and Evangelical world leads one back to the influence of the "Fort
Lauderdale five" in the early 1970s. This was a Charismatic group of prominent
American leaders, such as Derek Prince and Bob Mumford, whose ideas on
shepherding had a decisive and often baneful effect on much of what transpired
within the movement in the US and the UK.
The ideas of possession seem to have been taught from the same source and
passed on through the same networks, most notably the Dales Bible Weeks of the
1970s and 1980s. The pace increased with the American publication of a book in
1980, Michelle Remembers - a work of "religious pornography" that
purported to contain the memories of a girl who had been Satanically and
ritually abused. The book was later found to have been a fabrication.
The effect of this and other books published in the early to mid-1980s could
have begun what one American writer called a "moral panic" among many
Evangelical and Charismatic Christians. Many conferences were teaching the idea
that Satan was alive and well, and that the only protection from his
depredations was to be found in the safety of a biblically sound church.
Eventually, the paranoia and fear engendered by these beliefs spilled out
from the churches into wider Britain, and social workers and police were being
lectured by "experts" on Satanic abuse from the US.
A string of television programmes also fed these ideas to a wider public.
The stage was set for the terrifying events of Cleveland and Orkney, and the
belief that children everywhere were being targeted by hundreds of
Eventually, the Government stepped in and commissioned a report from the
anthropologist Jean La Fontaine. Her 1994 report and the subsequent book
Speak of the Devil: Tales of satanic abuse in contemporary England
stopped the paranoia beyond the churches.
Within the Charismatic churches themselves, the demonic beliefs of the 1980s
and 1990s have been slower to disperse for several reasons.
First, the notion that everything we loathe and detest in other people and
in society can be attributed to Satan performs the psychological function
described as "projection". When evil is pushed "outwards" beyond the group, it
leaves those left "inside" feeling pure and good. Projection also has the
effect of binding the projecting group closer together. Such closeness
strengthens the leadership of the group or church.
Second, demonic belief can be attributed to the attractiveness of the body
of beliefs we call "dualism". Dualism has always been popular because it has an
attractive simplicity about it. Everything is good or bad, and moral dilemmas
are much simpler because there is no ambiguity, only moral certainty.
Certainty will always have an attraction about it, and will draw those who
want others to do their thinking for them. Sadly, churches often appear to be
havens for individuals who neither want to think for themselves nor accept
responsibility for a thought-out belief system of their own.
THE programme on Thursday of last week saw much evidence of a Christian
worldview that could only negotiate within the certainties of the dualistic
outlook. But a change could be observed from what would have been offered ten
years ago, in that there was a non-combative approach to evil in the programme.
Mr Newport, a deliverance minister from the church of Life Changing Ministries,
offered a gentle healing prayer for Colin without any of the high drama of
Charismatic exorcisms that have been described to me from the 1980s and 1990s.
When "deliverance" is offered as a gentle prayer ministry, and not as some
path to power on behalf of an ambitious Christian leader, there is little
danger of damaging its clients. Conversely, it may actually do some good in
bringing peace and wholeness to sad and vulnerable individuals.
The Revd Stephen Parsons, formerly Officer for Spiritual Deliverance for
the diocese of Gloucester, is now Rector of St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh. He was a
participant in the Channel 4 programme, The Exorcism, in February.
The Revd Trevor Newport