Thursday, 13 November 2008

Frightened by 'Apparitions'?

I have just whiled away an hour, following my return from the Proclamation Trust preachers’ conference (see this post here), watching the first episode of Apparitions on BBC1. This stars Martin Shaw as the Roman Catholic ‘Chief-Exorcist-in-waiting’ coming up against the forces of evil (as you would).

As drama went, it wasn’t the worst ‘exorcists and demons’ drama I’ve ever seen — better than End of Days, anyway. Shaw was the sort of ‘reassuring wise uncle priest’ you’d like every one of them to be (no shades of Fathers Ted, Jack or Dougal here). It was slightly unnerving seeing 1st Lieutenant Harry Welsh from Easy Company turn up, but that’s the problem with using actors, they tend to take on different roles — in this case, Rick Warden as the devil, making yet another British actor who I now know persuasively played an American soldier in Band of Brothers, alongside Damian Lewis, Dexter Fletcher and, most amazingly, Simon Pegg. But I digress.

The reason I found myself sitting through this was that earlier today I, along (presumably) with all the other clergy in our Diocese, received an e-mail ad clerum (a circular to the clergy) from the Bishop of Chelmsford warning that this series “could stimulate interest in the Ministry of Deliverance, especially” it added ominously “among vulnerable people.”

“Other aspects of the series,” it went on, “are likely to cause serious offence with graphic scenes of murder, sexual activity, including the use of Christian and pagan symbols.”

Well, there was certainly a shocking scene at the beginning and a gory murder at the end, but no sex this week. As to the use of Christian and pagan symbols, well, it was about Roman Catholicism so no surprise there.

Nevertheless, we have been warned that the series “could generate expressions of concern, including complaints based on previous experience of Deliverance Ministry beyond the main denominations.”

Now I have to say at this point I’m not quite clear what is meant. Are we to watch out for people complaining of exorcisms that didn’t work, especially if some other bunch carried them out? Later the letter suggests, “Some denominations regard the Church of England as having particular expertise in Deliverance Ministry, so there may be an increase in contact from clergy of other denominations seeking help or assessment.” So if the phone goes ...

On the other hand, we have been told to “Avoid public statements which encourage fear of, or fascination with Deliverance Ministry.” (Does that include this blog?)

Most importantly of all, the letter finishes with a clear admonition:


Emphasis original, as they say.

Now I really don’t want to imply there is nothing to worry about and that the devil is a figment of the imagination. On the contrary, I have come across a few (very few) situations in my own ministry where ‘deliverance’ was definitely called for, and promptly provided (I prayed, Jesus delivered, as per Acts 19:13). I am also well aware of the ‘unpleasantness’ back in 1974 which led to the panicky introduction of all sorts of diocesan rules and regulations to prevent ordinary clergy getting the church into more trouble.

But I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t (a) a bit over the top and (b) rather wide of the mark as a response. I always love this quote from Luther’s commentary on Galatians:

When I was a boy, there were many witches who cast spells upon cattle and upon people, especially upon children. They also damaged the crops through storms and hail, which they caused by their sorcery. Now that the Gospel has been revealed, such things are unheard of, because the Gospel drives the devil and all his illusions from their seat of power.

Luther does not deny the existence of either the devil or his works. But he does not appeal to exorcisms as an answer. Rather, it is the gospel which drives away the devil.

The whole world lies under the power of the devil (1 John 5:19), so in that sense everyone needs an exorcism. But the devil is overcome by Christ and the gospel. Exorcism without the gospel, however, is of no real use. Interestingly, even Apparitions said as much, where Martin Shaw’s character read from Luke 11:24-26:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.

So if anyone is frightened about the devil as a result of watching TV tonight, I’ll be glad to help. But I’ll be reaching for my Bible and Two Ways to Live before I fetch the bell and candle.

Revd John P Richardson
13 November 2008

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  1. Would it be inappropriate, John, for me to suggest a booklet recently published by us at Twin Books? It is Malcolm Ball's Deliverance. The Churches' Secret Ministry, £4.00, from Twin Books PO Box 3667, Wolverhampton WV3 9XZ. This looks at the whole question of authority, and other issues, and surveys the policy positions of the UK churches.

    John Thomas

  2. John, thanks for your offer. I will try to read it if you're willing to send it. My address is in Crockford's Clerical Directory, but you can send it to 39, Oziers, Elsenham, Bishop's Stortford, HERTS CM22 6LS.