EXORCISM might be an activity with obvious appeal to the makers of horror films, but it is not a word that crops up much in conversation about deliverance ministry in the Church of England. The need for major exorcisms is rare, the Archbishops’ Adviser for the Healing Ministry, the Revd Dr Beatrice Brandon, says. Most of deliverance ministry is about “really good pastoral care for those who are spiritually distressed”.
Current practice dates from 1975, when the Bishops issued guidelines for the ministry. The classic horror film The Exorcist had been released in 1973, and a notorious exorcism in Yorkshire hit the headlines the following year. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, drew fire in some quarters for voicing his approval of exorcism if it was done in a controlled way. He believed that the publicity around the case had forced people to think about the powers of evil, and how to deal with them.
The House of Bishops’ Guidelines emphasised that, when exorcism was called for, it should be carried out in collaboration with the forces of medicine, in the context of prayer, never in the light of publicity, and always by an experienced person authorised by the Church. Those principles are still the solid framework of the Guidelines, which were reviewed and reissued in 2012 to reflect increased awareness of a wide range of areas that included mental health, safeguarding, and the professional conduct of clergy.
“Jesus, in his life, suffering, and death, and in his resurrection and ascension, defeated evil and brought the hope of salvation to everyone. So we can be confident that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer for deliverance from evil, God hears us, and that praying with people for their needs and protection is often an appropriate way of ministering to them,” the Guidelines suggest.
They go on to say: “Some people, however, seek specific help when going through times of suffering and anxiety, or when distressed by what seem to be continuing experiences of evil within them or around them. For these people it may be right to ask for God’s saving help through the Church’s deliverance ministry.” The bishops warn that “particular caution needs to be exercised, especially when ministering to someone who is in a distressed or disturbed state.”
COMMON WORSHIP provides Prayers for Protection and Peace in the context of wholeness and healing, offering material that can be used where it would be pastorally helpful to pray with those suffering from “a sense of disturbance or unrest”.
These ancient and beautiful prayers reflect the Church of England’s acknowledgment, in language that has stood the test of time of the presence of evil. The prayers call for protection and deliverance “from the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits, from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil, from all passions that beguile the soul and body”.
They can be used by any minister, as appropriate — but, crucially, the ministry of exorcism and deliverance can be carried out only by priests authorised by the bishops to act on their behalf. Every diocese is recommended to have a deliverance ministry team, and nobody works in isolation. The teams do not deal directly with members of the public: first contact is always through the parish priest.
DELIVERANCE ministry is considered to be part of the healing ministry of the Church. Dioceses are at pains to say that it is neither unusual nor abnormal. The vocabulary varies: the diocese of Worcester, for example, offers “help for those who feel they may be haunted, cursed, or oppressed”. It points out, first, that ghost stories and horror films can be scary but are usually told as a bit of fun.
It notes some of the unexplained disturbances that might be happening: “There might be smells or noises you cannot explain. Parts of your home might feel colder than others. Things might move round the house by themselves, disappearing from one place and turning up in another. The cupboard doors might open and pots and pans fly across the room. The washing machine might switch itself on and off and the television keeps changing its channels.
“Strange objects appear on home videos or photographs. You might sense a presence, see ghostly spirits, or hear voices calling out your name. You think people will laugh at you if you tell them. You might think you are going mad. You might even feel you are in danger.”
Do not panic, it reassures. “Look for any rational explanations first, like checking electrical appliances. Make sure you are not falling victim to a practical joker. If strange things are still happening, help is available free of charge. If you don’t have a connection with a church in your area, contact your local Church of England priest, so that he or she can get in touch with people in the Diocese who specialise in [these] phenomena.”
DR BRANDON, a pastoral theologian, was awarded the higher degree of Doctor of Divinity in 2012 for her pioneering work in the healing ministry, and was the co-
writer and senior editor of the
C of E report A Time To Heal, in 2000. She has researched deliverance ministry across all the dioceses, is adviser to the Bench of Bishops in the Church in Wales, and has also done the only course recognised by the Holy See for the training of exorcists, in Rome. Her first report on deliverance ministry in the Church of England was presented in 2010.
“The ministry is discreet, because when people come to us in a distressed state, they are vulnerable and need to be given appropriate pastoral responses, not to be subjected to unhelpful attention,” she says. “It’s not secret, but it is confidential, and it’s done with the minimum of publicity.” Its primary purpose, she emphasises, is “actually to bring someone into a closer relationship with Christ”.
Most cases that are presented have natural explanations for what is going on, and deliverance ministers will always look for those, before going on to consider the supernatural or demonic.
”Paranormal” is an interesting word, Dr Brandon says. “I simply regard it as saying that this is not within the sphere of widely accepted scientific knowledge — in other words, something may be paranormal, but that doesn’t mean it’s demonic. It’s such a complex area. Some are quite quick to see the demonic and make assumptions about it when it isn’t actually there. To demonise what is not demonic is not an appropriate pastoral response.”
She goes on to reflect: “In the case of someone who is mentally unwell, for example, their mental health is taken into account. There are different ways of understanding the same experience: the medical way, the spiritual way, the paranormal way. Our priority is the spiritual care of people, which is why we don’t really get into the detail of paranormal phenomena. There are other groups who would do that.”
YEARS of working in this field have convinced her that deliverance ministry is “a marvellous opportunity to preach the gospel into a situation. We’re not simply providing a social service. We’re not attempting to be mental-health providers.” The public’s fascination with the occult, the supernatural, the sub-natural, and the demonic, and with the big questions of life and death and what lies beyond, are opportunities for the Church to engage with some of the biggest questions in society, she suggests; and the pastoral response is crucial.
“When people come to us for help, we need to be ready, equipped, and willing to be alongside people and help them in their faith journey — not to be reductionist about it,” she says firmly.
Deliverance groups are recommended to be multi-disciplinary. In the case of someone who is already receiving mental-health care, there should be a willingness to work with that mental-health provider.
“Quite often, people are encouraged to have their general well-being professionally assessed,” she says. “There’s actually something very holistic about deliverance ministry, in that we take the person’s life history, the things they’ve been involved in in the past, their well-being at the present moment, their hopes and fears.”
THERE is respect among other professionals for the C of E’s ministry here, and also for the guidelines under which it operates, and especially for the recommendation that every diocese should have a group of suitably appointed, authorised, and trained people. The multi-disciplinary approach makes good use of health care and medicine; nor is there any suggestion that, in all-member ministry, everyone could do it: the boundaries are strict.
The safeguarding aspect is a further reassurance: “We are a good place to come if anyone is troubled about these issues of paranormal and deliverance concerns. These people can see what we are about in that respect,” Dr Brandon says.
When it comes to fears and misconceptions, people who have spent years trawling the internet and watching spooky films will have a different view of what the Church does, she acknowledges. “A significant proportion of people approaching it for help with these issues are not regular churchgoers: their understanding of the ministry being offered needs to be accurately reinformed. They need to know so that they can give informed consent.”
Bishops choose who is going to carry out deliverance ministry on their behalf. The need is for “mature Christians who are priests, with a track record of being reliable, trustworthy, professional, and with a sound knowledge of Christian theology”, Dr Brandon says. A knowledge of health care is also considered useful.
Bishops are encouraged to have three advisers per archdeaconry, of both sexes, and to have advisers from, and willing to work across, the broad spread of church traditions.
CURRENTLY, appointed deliverance advisers are not encouraged to talk to the media about their caseloads, or even to refer in general to cases that they have been involved with, mostly to avoid the danger that people identify with particular case details and then try to self-diagnose, or make assumptions about what their own problems are.
“Each person seeking help is unique, a child of God who needs to be responded to appropriately according to their own particular circumstances,” Dr Brandon says. “Once we get into publishing anecdotes, it sets too few benchmarks against which such a diverse group of cases might be measured.”
With a wealth of material on the web to feed the interest, the Church has to be constantly up to speed with what contemporary society is doing, she says. There are scientific and medical advances in this field, too: MRI scans, for example, can sometimes disclose conditions of the brain which might manifest as symptoms of possession, but which are physiological. “Part of our calling is to help people unravel what is of God, and what is not of God,” she says.
There is no statutory regulation of exorcists, nor is it unlawful for anyone to call himself or herself an exorcist.
“I’d love people to come to us first rather than trying out some of the more extraordinary things there are out there, like freelance exorcists,” she concludes. She reiterates: “I would like deliverance ministry not to be tucked away in
a dark corner, but to be understood as a way of expressing the gospel and bringing people to Christ.
“Helping people to understand that their life experiences have a spiritual dimension, and that the Church is willing to engage in conversation about these is important — especially if they don’t feel they have the right vocabulary.
“We need to help them to understand what those experiences are, and to develop their own spiritual discernment about what is going on in their lives.”