Friday, 21 August 2009

Among the Exorcists

The committed atheist Adam Rutherford's matchless skewering of the Alpha Course for CIF Belief continues apace. The latest session, however, took an unexpected turn when the course leader - supposedly discussing personal experiences of God - started talking about demonology.

We go off-piste again with Toby talking about how he's been involved in exorcisms. I am utterly bemused. I had no idea, but dioceses are required to have an exorcist. We're talking about demonic possession here. He explains that most are clearly the product of psychiatric disorders, and they approach each with that in mind. But others were not so easily explainable. "You're talking about ghosts?" I ask. "Oh no, not if you mean the spirits of the dead spooking around houses. These were poltergeists," he says. "Is that not just a type of ghost?" I ask, looking around for support to see if I have gone crazy. Toby says "I've seen things that I simply cannot explain."

The growing willingness to believe in the activity of demons is on the face of it one of the more puzzling aspects of modern Evangelical Christianity. In former centuries, demons provided a ready explanation for many psychiatric diseases, as well as phenomena for which there was as yet no scientific explanation; but as knowledge has advanced belief in the supernatural ought to have retreated, at least from those areas. That is not, of course, to say that exorcism doesn't work: for some mental conditions, the panoply of exorcism, with its drama and supposed divine power, can be a most effective placebo. But it is perhaps especially surprising to find the sensible old Church of England giving its endorsement to such nonsense by requiring all dioceses to have an official ghostbuster.

Father WeepingCross, whose absence from these debates in recent weeks has apparently been down to a rather protracted job move, once very kindly sent me an article of his about exorcism in the Church of England. What he makes clear is that, far from being a survival of medieval and older Christianity, exorcism in churches today is actually a modern phenomenon. I hope he won't mind if I reproduce a few extracts.

He begins by noting that the vicar at the Chatham church he attended prior to his training for the ministry had occasionally conducted exorcisms, but "tended to keep quiet about it, partly because he found the process unnerving, and also because he was reluctant to arouse more irrational religious hysteria than already existed." However, "he was adamant that there were evil entities that required it". This "willingness to combat the diabolical marks a shift of attitude, paticularly in the Anglican church, over recent decades".

Exorcism was an entirely normal part of early Christianity...The change in attitude in the English church came with the Reformation. Protestants tended to deny that the church could share actively in God's work rather than passively receiving his grace. Those with rationalist sensibilities also had to cope with the difficulty that their reason revolted against the concept of demonic possession, a thing Jesus happily accepted. Elizabeth's archbishops Parker and Whitgift kept their scepticism very quiet in public, and it took a layman to put forward a coherent anti-exorcism argument. Reginald Scot's book The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) suggested that the power of exorcism granted to the apostles was restricted to them alone and was no longer operative.

There were Protestant exorcists, indeed, but they tended to be unofficial enthusiasts such as John Darrell, whose career "came to an end in 1597 when one of his clients declared that his deliverance had been a fraud and that Darrell had trained him in behaving as a demoniac." Although Darrell protested his innocence, the Anglican hierarchy "leapt on the case as proof that all exorcists were charlatans". In 1599 Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London, wrote a book about Darrell's "Fraudulent Practices", following it up four years later with the gloriously titled "Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures".

And so it remained. The religious extremism of the 1600s produced a reaction in favour of rationalist peace and quiet in the Anglican hierarchy, and the discoveries of science made the idea of devils seem ridiculous. It did not resurface among the sects to any great extent, and even the most obscurantist of Victorian High Church revivalists scrupled to bring back this particular aspect of the faith of past ages. RR of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1814 treated the subject with jocularity and quoted a Catholic argument that possession was absent from England largely because "the Protestants the Devil hath alread, and the papists are so holy that he dares not meddle with them". He sniffed at the recent exorcism of George Lukins of Bristol "he was, I presume, a Dissenter, as the ceremony... was conducted by five ministers who were not of the established church. By 1925 the ardent medievalist Montague Summers could sneer, "I do not conceive that at the present time many, if any, bishops of the Church of England would license exorcism. Certainly, the more scientifically minded and modernistic lords spiritual have rid themselves of such an idle superstition..."

Now, however, there is an exorcist in every diocese and they have rarely been busier. Father Rattue attributes the revival in the practice in part to the abiding English fascination with ghosts, which kept up the link between the spiritual and the spiritualistic even when few would take seriously the possession of individuals by devils. He notes, for example, how in the early 1970s the Rev Bacon of Yeadon near Leeds "carried out two services at the offices of Air Heating Ltd", apparently with some success. However, "ghosts are not demons, and this sort of thing is now frowned upon". At the same time, exorcism of people, in the guise of "deliverance ministry", began to make a comeback:

A commission under the Bishop of Exeter published a report, Exorcism, in 1972, recommending that each diocese should appoint an exorcist, and three years later Archbishop Coggan reiterated in Synod that a bishop had to give permission for the ceremony to be held. There is reason to believe that some priests do not follow this order, but officially the keynote is caution. The Christian Exorcism Study Group will not even print the ritual for Major Exorcism of Persons, regarding it as too dangerous.

(Wow. They have a ritual for Major Exorcism! Is it like on The Exorcist?)

Nonetheless, the acceptance within the church that demonic possession is possible, if very rare, is a change from centuries of top-level denial. The source of this seems to be twofold. Firstly, the emergence of Satanism early last century and the popularisation of its imagery through novels and films has given clergy a cause for jitteriness which did not exist before. Often this leads to mistakes. Less politically-aware priests have misinterpreted anarchist symbols as Satanist pentagrams. Some acquaintances bought an old house near Wimbourne in Dorset after it had lain empty for many years. Like many isolated, deserted houses, it had become known among local children who told stories of ghosts and witches about it. The local vicar took this as evidence of actual devil worship and took it upon himself to break in and conduct an exorcism.

(So, the C of E employs people who can't tell the difference between fiction and reality? I suppose some might think that was a qualification for the job, but I couldn't possibly comment.)

A similar experience is reported in the comments to the Rutherford article by President Gas:

I was visiting an uncle of mine a few years ago, who is a retired CofE vicar, of a fairly evangelical bent and acting Rural dean of the place he retired to. He was talking about various social problems in this particular small Derbyshire village, and he suddenly announced that the cause of the social problems was the reactivation of pagan worship in a stone circle that is located just over the hill from his house, by new age traveller types. I was astounded, but prompted him to go on, and it turned out that he had been the resident exorcist for his diocese, and others in the area, throughout much of his tenure.

The second possible reason for the revival is the Evangelical revival, which Fr Rattue dates to Billy Graham's crusades of the 1950s and which "has led to an increased emphasis on the experiences of the early Christians, and an acceptance that the supernatural claims of Christianity may actually be true. Such an attitude "opens the gates to all sorts of eccentricity", such as the Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow - a friend and mentor of Tony Blair's who garnered some embarrassing headlines a couple of years ago when he claimed that the flooding that hit parts of Britain might be a divine punishment for the introduction of gay civil partnerships:

Dow states in his book Deliverance that devils are widespread in Britain. He lists twenty-nine telltale signs for picking out the possessed, including "a persistent preference for the colour black"; he states that "it is possible to see evil in a person's eyes" and for children to inherit devils from their parents. Some Christians seem to ascribe all diseases or psychological difficulties to devils, turning the whole scientific mentality on its head in a way which is completely contrary to the evidence of the Bible itself.

Fr Rattue carried out a survey among local clergy, which found "marked support for Bishop Dow's statement that 'evil spirits are widespread in Britain'... only one minister, a Nonconformist, was entirely hostile to the notion and would refuse to carry out any such service...the others accepted that deliverance from actual demonic entities was a real possibility." He finds this "level of theological orthodoxy" to be "a corrective to those who have the impression that Christian ministers no longer believe in anything very much".

On the contrary, this revival of belief in demons and exorcism doesn't strike me as showing any great confidence in the Christian message. It shows, rather, a similar turn of mind (though from a different theological starting-point) to that of the liberal clerics who wish to embrace such innovations as women bishops and gay blessings. Likewise, the influence of cultural artefacts like The Exorcist may be a factor in the willingness of some religious leaders to embrace demonology (just as UFO sightings peaked at the same time as the popularity of The X Files), but that raises problems of its own. It isn't just, as James Rattue suggests, that a minority of ministers have their minds turned to thoughts of the devil by watching or reading fictional (indeed, explicitly fantastical) presentations of the supernatural. Rather, such stories inhabit the post-Christian, postmodern, anti-rational and relativistic culture of the contemporary West. The famous phrase attributed to GK Chesterton, that "when a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing, but believes in everything", applies with equal or greater force to those who do still believe in God. The common view of conventional piety as an inoculation against the wilder shores of unreason simply does not hold: Christians, no less than agnostics, are vulnerable to belief in fairies.

The Evangelical fascination with the spirit world, as evidenced by Rutherford's recent experience, may seem to be rooted in the Bible and in the beliefs of the ancient world which Jesus himself seems to have possessed. But Christians - in England at least - managed perfectly well for centuries without it. Indeed, an earlier generation of Christians - the missionaries who went out to Africa, for example - saw belief in demons, witches, ghosts and the like as the sort of thing they were fighting against, part and parcel of the superstition that was to be dispelled by (as they saw it) the light of Christ. It was in a similar spirit that the Anglican church of the Victorian age made a surprisingly easy accommodation with Darwinism, to the extent of allowing Darwin himself burial in Westminster Abbey. They lived in an age of science, when progress and knowledge were seen as unquestioned goods and before the notion got around that all points of view were entitled to respect. Their religion reflected the prevailing rationality. Those who wanted to believe in contact with the spirit world were looked upon with derision, and were forced to set up their own "spiritualist" churches.

Now, however, unreason is fashionable. Scientists, and those who promote the scientific worldview, are dismissed as arrogant or rigid, while Karen Armstrong cultivates a reputation as a sophisticated thinker by claiming, in more emphatic terms than any evidence allows, that "belief" and "truth" are concepts that no-one living before the Enlightenment would have understood. Peddlars of bogus alternative remedies (for which there is usually not a jot of evidence) have gained not merely market share but, latterly, statutory recognition and wide acceptance. Millions of people read their horoscopes every day. There is a huge appetite for the supernatural and the fantastic - more, probably, than there is for the certainties offered traditionally by religion. And so, as has always happened, religion adopts the patterns of the prevailing culture, but with a twist. In this case, the references to demons in the New Testament provide a useful point of entry, and a defence. After all, it was good enough for Jesus.