Next in our series of ‘Big Questions’ Fr Ian takes up an issue often raised by people outside the church – Exorcism.
The Bishop of Norwich, John Parkhurst, ordered a public exorcism to be held in Norwich city to expel demons possessing a son of one of the city’s aldermen. This was in 1574. The practice then was certainly not unusual in the Church of England, or indeed in other churches. Bishops, clergy and laity frequently used such terms as ‘casting out devils’ and in doing so, they could claim Biblical precedent.
Times have changed and today’s Bishop of Norwich is unlikely to advocate such measures. However, the language of demon possession and one of its remedies, exorcism, is still used especially beyond the boundaries of traditional churches, and among the ‘unchurched.’
Have you ever performed an exorcism? I was asked recently and just a few days ago two young curates told me they had been concerned about what to do when they, separately, had been asked by different people to perform an exorcism.
Years ago, when I was chaplain of a young offenders’ prison I was called into the prison one night. Three prisoners, trying out a Ouija board, had terrified themselves. They had sensed a frightening presence which had caused absolute havoc in the cell where the men were. To see three ‘tough men’ so afraid was extraordinary and challenged the prison officers, and me, the chaplain, in our beliefs and understandings. What had happened?
By 1604 the Church of England had marginalised exorcism, and introduced controlling rules requiring a bishop’s permission before it could be considered. This was probably wise. However, the official suppression also contributed to a suppression of the popular vocabulary used to articulate and interpret the experience of evil.
As a prison chaplain in a large maximum security prison I was forced to confront some very gifted people who had done very evil things. What had ‘possessed’ them to do the things they did? Recent history also shows how groups of people, nations even, can appear to be in the grip of evil.
The Church encourages people to consider that there may well be ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in’ their philosophies.’ It is clear that a great number of people believe in evil forces, places and presences. Some of this is fed, of course, by books and film. Nevertheless through its history the Church has taken such experience seriously, and helped people especially through prayer and sacrament.
Hopefully the Church will continue to be able, in appropriate ways, to help people who experience deep spiritual forces to talk about them, to pray and to receive strength from the Church’s ministry.
Have I ever performed an exorcism? Using an official form, no. Unofficially I don’t know. Not a clear answer, I admit, but an honest one.
Some questions for thought: Do you agree or feel that there are evil presences, places or forces? Has prayer, or the sacraments, brought you comfort in troubled times? Comments and thoughts to join in the discussion on this are welcome, in our Facebook group please: click here.