The Church of England is legitimising spiritual abuse

Posted: Thu, 10th Aug 2023 by Alejandro Sanchez

The Church of England is legitimising spiritual abuse

The Exorcist director William Friedkin died at the age of 87 this week. His seminal film immortalised the concept of exorcism in our popular culture. But you may be surprised to learn the practice is alive and well in our established church.

The Church of England – the church which our head of state swears to maintain and which has formal representation in parliamentpractises a "deliverance ministry" to this day. As of 2011, the Church of England had 44 exorcists, one per diocese, each appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury.

Indeed, the late Anglican exorcist Ken Gardiner said: "I have seen exorcisms succeed. People came to me in a state and, in the name of Jesus, I've commanded whatever was there to leave."

The Church's 2023 guidance allows parents to consent to "formal rites of deliverance" for their children, "including those involving touch". The "laying on of hands" may be deemed necessary to cast out "demons", it says.

Traumatising a child by telling them they are possessed with a demon, and that a priest needs to touch them to cast the demon out, is surely inherently abusive.

On top of this, the guidance asserts that, in the "majority of cases" of 16-17 year olds, the consent of parents does not need to be obtained. Medical advice must be sought but there is no explicit requirement to follow it. Perversely, there is only one third party whose permission is required: the local bishop.

In recent months, the Church has been publicly shamed by its abysmal record on child safeguarding: the ever-mounting allegations of sexual abuse at Soul Survivor church, the suspension of the former archbishop of York, the decision to sack its own Independent Safeguarding Board – to name but a few. One might expect they would know better by now.

Exorcism is also linked to the harmful and homophobic practice of so-called 'gay conversion therapy'. Just last year, Matthew Draper alleged he had been subjected to exorcism by a church in Sheffield in order to rid him of "the demons of homosexuality". The claims are now being investigated by the Diocese of Sheffield.

For the avoidance of doubt, Professor Sir Robin Murray of Kings College's Institute of Psychiatry has said he knows of no "scientific evidence that exorcism works".

The probable harms of Anglican exorcism are not limited to its own congregations. The Church's "deliverance ministry" legitimises more extreme forms of spiritual abuse by other faith groups.

Earlier this year, a newly registered religious charity in Belfast posted a Facebook picture laying out the "five kinds of witches". The post draws on a sermon given by Nigerian pastor Daniel Kolawole Olukoya. In an unhinged screed, Olukoya pontificates on "eaters of flesh and blood" and "the register of darkness" as parishioners nod approvingly. He enjoins his rapt followers to receive "deliverance" from demonic witches and wizards.

It would be easy to dismiss these beliefs as eccentric but they are, in fact, treated with deadly seriousness by some adherents here in the UK.

In 2000, Victoria Climbie was tortured to death after a Christian preacher convinced her family she was possessed by "evil spirits". The pathologist who examined her body said it was the worst case of abuse he had ever seen.

In 2015, Kristy Bramu was accused by his sister and her boyfriend of 'kindoki' - a Congolese form of witchcraft. He drowned in a "ritual cleansing" bath after being subjected to "sadistic" and "prolonged" torture.

In 2021, as part of an Islamic ruqya exorcism, anaesthetist Hossam Metwally put his partner Kelly Wilson into a coma and nearly induced cardiac arrest.

To our knowledge, Anglican exorcisms have not, in recent years, had fatal consequences. But they are inspired by the same sinister belief: that people can be by possessed by demonic forces and these forces can be overcome through religious intervention. The deliverance ministry of the established church, an arm of the British state, gives succour to the most dangerous forms of spiritual abuse.

Today, August 10, is the World Day against Witch Hunts – a day for standing up against the abuse and killing of people believed to be witches or 'possessed' by evil spirits. What better occasion for us to challenge the Church's perpetuation of spiritual abuse? Exorcism should be the preserve of fiction and future Friedkins, not the established church.

Image: Francisco Goya, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tags: Abuse, Disestablishment