Exorcism, and my 'Inner Crowd'.

Out of Many, OnePeople, from John Root

Out of Many, OnePeople - # 5- 26/11/20

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John Root

Exorcism, and my ‘Inner Crowd’.

A friend contacted me to discuss his concern that a session on exorcism at his training course had taken a very cautious and conservative line over the use of exorcism, which he and several other minority ethnic members thought failed to take seriously the much greater place of exorcisms and ‘spirits’ in their cultures.

On the same day I read these words in a blog about management: “Many decisions rest upon people’s ability to make estimates of some unknown quantities”. (Such as the reality of spirit possession?) The blog continued: “We find taking a disagreeing perspective prompts people to consider and adopt second estimates they normally would not consider as a viable option. . . Our results suggest that disagreement, often highlighted for its negative impact, can be a powerful tool in producing accurate judgements.”

The article also suggested this was the case not only between people, but also inside one person’s head – ‘the wisdom of the inner crowd’. So here is what the ‘inner crowd’ within me has to say about exorcism.

Voice 1: Exorcism has been of little significance in my experience.

My only specific experience was many years ago as minister on the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney when a slightly drunk Glaswegian was distressed by unsettling happenings in his flat following his use of a ouija board – tv switching on and off in empty rooms and so on. A colleague and I prayed over him to cleanse him of any evil spirit. A week or so later he was more distressed as the happenings had continued. He was more sober this time and I realised it was exorcism of the flat that was being sought rather the man himself. I carried out a simple exorcism in the flat and the happenings finished. My only conclusion from this distant, rather sketchy sequence is that if the problem was entirely in the man’s head, why was it not solved at the first attempt rather than the second.

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin once recounted how he was lecturing on the gospels to a group of Indian clergy. From the heights of his Cambridge theological education he explained how of course we no longer held the beliefs in demons and exorcisms that were common in the first century world. The pastors were amused. They explained to him that carrying out exorcisms was a routine part of their ministry. I was once able to ask Lesslie Newbigin how he accounted for the apparent rarity of such phenomena in Britain, and their frequency in other parts of the world. He tentatively replied (as I best recall) that perhaps evil forces found they worked best in the west if they kept themselves hidden.

Around the same time, I went to Gujerat in India on a ministry visit with a strongly charismatic bishop, wondering if the picture would become clearer, and possibly dramatic; but despite ministering to thousands of Christians at a convention in a tribal area, there was no evidence of (inaccurately termed) ‘supernatural’ phenomena.

So, exorcism has been of negligible significance in my ministry.

Voice 2: Exorcism is very significant for people in many parts of the world.

Scholars such as Philip Jenkins (‘The Next Christendom’, ‘The New Faces of Christianity’) and Andrew Walls have drawn attention to the much greater emphasis on the spiritual world amongst Christians in the Global South, as opposed to the ‘empty skies’ of western post-Enlightenment Christianity. The Nigerian theologian Matthew Michael writes: “The importance of rediscovering the basic New Testament belief concerning power encounter or spiritual warfare is made pertinent by our African context, where the existence, presence and activities of these demonic personalities have cultural credence” (‘Christian Theology and African Tradition’, p 98).

Unexpected testimony to such credence comes from Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book ‘Cosmopolitanism’. He has a Ghanaian father and English mother. He is Cambridge educated, a lecturer in philosophy at Princeton, married gay, a Reith lecturer: very much a part of the cosmopolitan, liberal, secular elite. Yet when his mother died his sister was so convinced that it was due to a curse by a family enemy that she insisted he should not eat any food sent by that family. The food was not poisoned, it could be eaten by others, but for his family it was imbued with a targeted, malignant spiritual presence that would be lethal.

Accordingly, as regards Britain, Chigor Chike has written: “Africans are very conscious of evil spiritual powers around them, and so a powerful spiritual figure is vital for their protection” (‘African Christianity in Britain’, p 70). 

In “Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in the Light of Pentecost”, Craig Keener includes ‘Spirits’ as a Case Study in his chapter on ‘Some Valuable Majority World Insights’. Keener, a widely published white theologian, married to an African and a member of a black American church, refers to the experience of the anthropologist Edith Turner who now “rejects her former dismissal of spirits as cultural imperialism.” Keener concludes “Even in the West, there is no unanimity regarding the meaning of possession experiences. . . interpreting the data is often a matter of worldviews. In many cases, indigenous approaches prove closer to the deliverance narratives of the Gospels than do western materialist interpretations”. Keener himself adds: “My own views on the subject were forced to shift after an unexpected and world-view shattering experience of power relating to traditional African curses in December of  2008” (pp 90-92).

Listening to both voices.

So, I am genuinely in two minds. How then might the voices of my ‘inner crowd’ be a guide today?

1. Those who are positive about exorcism need to be cautious.

The day my friend spoke to me (and the day I read the management blog) The Times carried an archly amused article headed “Exorcism at home is the devil of a job, says church” about the Russian Orthodox Church’s discomfort with D-I-Y exorcisms. But serious issues were raised, including incidents where people had been killed in the process of exorcism; a chilling reminder of the abuse of exorcism in the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 here in Haringey. The attempt of a Nigerian bishop at the 1998 Lambeth Conference to exorcise Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in front of tv cameras discredited the practice further in the eyes of coolly moderate (‘empty skies’?) Anglicans.

But it is possible to be both positive and discerning about exorcism requests. I remember a veteran black Pentecostal pastor recounting how an emotionally troubled member of his church believed she needed to have evil spirits cast out of her. He counselled that she was newly married, setting up a home, working fully, and studying for a qualification, and that she needed rest not exorcism.

2. Those who are cautious about exorcism need to be more positive.

The response of the minority ethnic theological students I mentioned at the start of this article voices a constituency that the Church of England seriously neglects. It is a reason why a former chaplain to Nigerians in Britain spoke of continuing Anglican Nigerians in this country as ‘the remnant’ – so many of Anglican background had moved into Pentecostal churches. The chaplain of the University of Kent has estimated that the largest slice of Christian activity in the University is with African Christians meeting in a variety of Pentecostal groups, outnumbering combined attendance at both chaplaincies and the Christian Union. Further, this separation was not a response to ‘racism’ in any of the usually understood meanings of the word but rather from the wish to express their own much more ‘supernatural’ and dynamic theology and spirituality, which was much less evident amongst the ‘empty skies’ of western Christians. Of course, the neglect, and possibly contempt, of such theology and spirituality amongst many Anglicans can stem from the patronising assumption that ‘eventually they will grow up into our world-view’, which is an insidious form of racism.

This is to say that the church and its theological institutions needs to enlarge our understanding of what it means to eschew racism and be multi-cultural. We accept the ‘soft multiculturalism’ of diverse styles of music, food, decoration and the like; and increasingly we give weight to the important social, organisational and representational injustices which are expressed in ‘black theology’; but which fits fairly comfortably in the milieu of western academia. But we often avoid the ‘hard multiculturalism’ of giving weight to world-views and understandings of the ‘supernatural’ which (despite their strong biblical roots) prove uncomfortable to both the leaders of white/western opinion, and often to leaders and policy makers the church.

A final reflection: over the past decade as I have increasingly prepared African families for baptism so the ancient theology of the words in the post-baptismal prayer: ‘May Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness’ have had increasing resonance, as they speak into a culture that is conscious of the personal nature of the ‘powers’. Only for the words to be removed from the revised baptism liturgy as being too alien for modern western consciousness. With well-meaning intentions, we have nonetheless severed one more link with cultures other than our own.

Many organisations now submit their proposals for change to an ‘impact assessment’ for their possible effect on ethnic minorities. At present no-one does this job for the Church of England.


Quote of the Week: Rowan Williams: “Jesus is both a native and a stranger in every context”. [In ‘William Stringfellow in Anglo-American perspective”, ed. by Anthony Dancer; quoted in Church Times 30/12/2005).

Your Comments, please. The obituaries for Rabbi Jonathan Sachs have rightly pointed out his great capacity to be at home in two different worlds. He was both very English (Church of England grammar school, philosophy at Cambridge) and very Jewish (chief rabbi, staunch defender of the state of Israel). This has sometimes been widely referred to, and commended, as possession a ‘dual identity’. The sociologist Stuart Hall, initially from the Caribbean, identified the strength and enrichment such experience gives when he spoke of "the experience of being inside and outside, 'the familiar stranger'”. Sachs himself portrays the experience in a delightfully elegant phrase: "a delicate interplay between our second languages of identity and our first language of common citizenship”. Am I right in thinking that in a society increasingly polarized over identity this sort of subtlety is being lost? Or am I just grumpy?