Devil is in the detail

02 November 2006

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 television.

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 Bible-believing Christians.

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 churches.

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 black-cloaked Satanists.

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


Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)