WHEN I attended theological college in the late 1960s, scepticism about the supernatural was the prevailing fashion. Nearly 50 years later, after many pastoral encounters, I believe that it is time that the Church was more positive in bearing witness to the powerful ministry of deliverance, which is as important pastorally as it is theologically.
Mistakes are well publicised, but effective ministry is largely hidden: many diocesan websites contain little information about where a troubled person can seek help. Besides being pointed in the right direction, people need, I believe, to be listened to and reassured that what they are experiencing, however strange, is not uncommon. Sometimes, there will be natural explanations. Sometimes, they will need to be directed to a doctor or a psychiatrist. Often, with discerning prayer, their problems can be overcome.
I find that many people are willing to listen to my stories from my time in East Africa, Argentina, and Papua New Guinea, but their response can be: “But that’s their culture — they believe in the power of the devil, and so they can be helped.” I want to assert strongly that these matters are not cultural. Exactly the same phenomena occur in sophisticated Oxford, rural Somerset, and inner-city Leicester as are exhibited in the faraway places that I have been privileged to visit.
There are differences, of course: in rural Zambia, many people who come for prayer exhibit some of the classic symptoms of demonisation, whereas in England people are more likely be concerned with disturbances in buildings. I have encountered spiritual unsettledness in many houses, two pubs, a factory, and an office.
THE Gadarene demoniac — the powerful story vividly recounted by Mark (5.1-20) — exhibited four main symptoms: an attraction to and repulsion from Jesus; speaking in strange voices; inordinate strength; and self-harm (although I am well aware that most cases of self-harm have very different causes, and that any ministry of deliverance would be inappropriate).
Without some of these symptoms present, I am doubtful that a person is demonised. These signs can also help us to distinguish such cases from people who are in need of psychiatric help. People with psychotic illnesses often hear voices telling them to do terrible things, while people with evil spirits often speak in strange tongues, including languages that they do not know. Of course, there are no litmus-paper tests, and we must always proceed with caution.
I have met many people who want help, and yet, because of understandable fear or indwelling spirits, they draw back. I have encountered people speaking in strange voices that are clearly not their own. In rural Zambia, a voice spoke through a woman in perfect Oxbridge English saying: “Go away. I am not leaving this person.”
In my study, a person spoke in a strange tongue, and immediately slithered across the floor like a snake. In the first case, what followed was a powerful spiritual encounter, helped greatly when a woman, with face glowing, testified to seeing an angel walking around the church. In the second case, a quick prayer brought complete freedom, and the person concerned is now a much respected parish priest.
I HAVE witnessed scenes of inordinate strength. On one occasion, we were entertaining a psychiatrist and her husband over dinner. A man came to the door and asked me to visit his wife, who, he claimed, he’d “just beaten up”. The man remained at my house while I visited the wife, who merely said, “Don’t worry, go back to your dinner party — he’s a binge drinker.”
When I got back to my house, I witnessed a strange scene: the dining-room table was on its side, and the man who had knocked on my door was growling and gnawing at one of the legs while four policemen tried to restrain him.
When he was calm, I asked if he had ever been involved in any occult activity. His temporary calm disappeared. He snarled and said he had used Ouija when in the merchant navy. He quietened again, and the police took him away for a night in the cells. Over the next few days, he allowed a doctor to help him with his binge drinking, and I was also able to visit him and attend to the underlying spiritual problem. He soon began coming to church.
Most such ministry is very quiet and undramatic. Usually a simple service, such as retaking one’s baptismal vows, will bring release. Obviously we proceed with prayer and care, and, in the Church of England, we act only under proper episcopal authority.
The causes of these problems are usually either that the person has dabbled with the occult, or that there are ancestral issues. With our medical knowledge of DNA, it should not be a surprise that people can inherit spiritual problems. I believe that the Church must be there to offer sensitive pastoral help to those who — either by opening themselves up to dangerous practices, or through no fault of their own — find themselves deeply troubled by things that they don’t understand.
Stories of deliverance
A FRIEND of mine realised, at a very young age, that she had an unwanted and disturbing “gift”. From the age of eight, she started to see a black frame appearing around the faces of people who were close to her. She soon realised that this meant that she would not see them again. Her mother had told her that she had special powers because she was the seventh child of a seventh child.
When this friend became a Christian, aged 15, the black frames greatly lessened, but did not disappear.
Some years later, she saw the black frame around four relations. She wrote: “I realised I needed prayer. With the help of others, I renounced evil, and offered the gift to the Lord to do with as he will. Using the sword of the Spirit, I was cut free from my mother’s generational line, and the enemy was told he had no authority over me and to go to the place that Jesus had prepared for him.
“We asked the Holy Spirit to fill me, and to give me one of his gifts in place of the psychic gift; I believe he has given me a gift of knowledge.”
I PRAYED with a distressed woman who was a refugee from an African country. Her parents had visited a witch doctor to ask for help with conceiving her. She, too, had been sent to a witch doctor by her mother-in-law (who was worried about inherited infertility) at the age of 14.
Some years later, the woman’s husband — a successful businessman — was the victim of a political assassination. She fled to the UK with her youngest two children, but struggled to make a new life. When I met her, the main problem appeared to be her inability to forgive. We prayed and prayed, but seemed to make no progress. I remember feeling utterly defeated.
Then an African-sounding word came into my mind which I wrote on a piece of paper. She looked at it, nodded, changed the sixth letter from a T to a B, and screamed, “That’s it!” Then she began to behave like a powerful witch doctor: screaming, chanting, eyes blazing.
We prayed quietly, and about ten minutes later she calmed down and said that clearly the spirit had been released. When I next saw her, she said that she had slept for a week after the “spiritual operation”. She also said that she was ready to pray to forgive all those who had hurt her.
I WAS once called to a factory that manufactured medical equipment on an industrial estate. It had recently changed hands, and the new manager and his staff were being distracted and frightened by a number of phenomena. These included strange smells, particularly of cigarette smoke (although smoking was forbidden in the factory); people hearing footsteps, especially on a staircase; inexplicable electrical failures; a large girder crashing to the ground, which had seemed securely attached; and a door set on a security code swinging open inexplicably.
There was also said to be a sense of evil and darkness in parts of the factory. Some of the temporary electrical workmen were so terrified that they refused to carry on with their contracts.
Although sceptical about any supernatural cause, the manager was sufficiently disturbed to contact the diocesan office and ask for help.
I did some investigating, and found out that similar things had happened a few years earlier at another factory within a quarter of a mile. But, otherwise, there was no obvious explanation.
It took three sessions of prayer, culminating with a communion service on the factory floor — which was attended by the managing director — to bring calm and peace. A year later, all was reported to be peaceful and the business to be doing well.
John Woolmer is author of The Devil Goes Missing (Monarch Books, 2017). He was Rector of Shepton Mallet for almost 20 years, where he also chaired the diocesan healing group. Now retired, he still serves on the diocesan deliverance team.