Fr Jack in the BBC drama Apparitions it isn’t:
an FiF priest gives a brief account of one of the less well-known ministries within the Church of England
I am, along with the other jobs one accumulates with age, one of my Diocesan Bishops two Advisors for the Ministry of Deliverance. Each diocese will have such a team, not generally publicized, but available through the bishops office.
One very modern reason for such appointments is that no one, other than the Bishop and his two advisors, is insured to perform an exorcism. If it ever got to court (and it has done, which is why things are set up as they are) then the definition of an exorcism would not be yours but a lawyers. My clear advice to anyone, perhaps especially clergy, is don’t even lay on hands on someone who claims to be possessed.
Our job, however, is not to zip in and zip out as a couple of magic men, but to provide the back up and support for parish clergy and congregations, when they encounter situations too new or complex, or frightening. The key person is always the parish priest.
Scepticism is the most popular antidote to talk of spirits and poltergeists, and one I can easily identify with – I have never seen a ghost and don’t seriously expect to – but it is not the most helpful approach, certainly not from the Church. That a disinfectant can destroy 99% of all known germs is irrelevant, if it is that final and elusive 1% that is going to kill you. Modern, scientific, secular scepticism can only go so far, and then it is useless.
You will find, instead, that among Bishop’s Advisors in the CofE, there is a high proportion of orthodox believers. There are few liberals: which is what you might expect – for if you have difficulty believing in the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth you are unlikely to find spirits and demons any easier. But the issue is less about individual exorcists, and what they may or may not believe, than the Church as a whole; and the Church of England has rather a good record at the moment – the image of the dull, sensible vicar, rather old-fashioned but with a certain practical wisdom is a good one.
In this area, they are the sort of people you want around; rather than the traditional man in black (television’s preference) with a crucifix in one hand, holy water sprinkler in the other, and if possible chanting in Latin; or outside the church the New Age woman in her forties, full of charm, a nice bit of sex appeal and a soothing ability to empty your wallet. Odd as it may seem, sensible vicars are rather a good thing.
The foundation is this: the Church stands on its faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered death, who reigns in glory over all creation, over all things visible and invisible. There is real, practical power in the Gospel message. Christ has conquered! And this is the healing and saving power that we are appointed to share with others.
It is not a Gospel message that we proclaim explicitly. There is a real danger, as imported Pentecostal churches have sadly shown, that it can become an invitation to all kinds of violence and abuse. It is worth remembering that the second most frequent category of work to which we are called is failed exorcisms from other groups and sects. Exorcisms are genuinely dangerous.
We may not proclaim it but we do believe it, and we can act on those beliefs, for there are real phenomena that truly frighten people: poltergeists; ghosts and place memory; the unquiet dead; occultism and psychic phenomena; Satanism and witchcraft; possession and abuse.
My own approach – very roughly – is to hold to the fullness of the Christian faith and the power of Christ, and so be enabled to talk down the particular instance before me. If one holds this context of faith, many of these phenomena, once understood, are not as overwhelming nor as difficult to deal with as first imagined. But it is important to know exactly what is going on: people are not always the best judge of what is troubling them. So the key part of my job is the discernment – that careful questioning and listening which takes a lot of time, and can be very demanding and sometimes seriously frightening.
‘Talk down may seem a dismissive way of putting it, but there is really no need for a full-scale battle with the demons -that is far too Hollywood for ordinary life. Most problems have grown up over some time and drawn in a whole lot of other baggage.
What the Church offers is Christ’s victory, and the help to lessen the fear, the oppression, the possession, and so on. It took time to build up; it will take time to dissipate. It is healing and salvation that Jesus offers, not drama and excitement. And too often there are those who want the excitement more than the healing: always beware those who ask for an exorcism just for the excitement of it.
Expressions of faith
This is a work that the Church should offer a world with little grasp of the spiritual. We should also be involved in politics and the environment, but you don’t need Faith to do that; whereas in the world of spirits and demons, ghosts and witchcraft, you do!
An aside. I nearly always pray with the person, as you would expect. I nearly always use formal, set prayers – never underestimate the power of the Lord’s Prayer, prayed slowly and carefully, with someone who is not a churchgoer. But I also look for clues as to what will connect with someone who is clearly troubled. It is astonishing how figuratively empty are so many people’s homes these days, ’empty, swept clean and put in order’ to quote Jesus’ warning [Matthew 12.44].
But then, do our own homes welcome the Lord Jesus, his love and his power? I am serious: one of the things that would help this ministry of deliverance would be if more believing Christians expressed their faith, gently and unobtrusively, in their own homes – do you have a crucifix visible, a figure of Mary with her child?
‘Visit we beseech thee, O Lord, this house, and drive from it all the snares of the enemy; let thy holy angels dwell herein to preserve us in peace; and may thy Messing he upon us evermore!
Do our homes offer that assurance?