Invocation - The Revd Dr Jason Bray
From St John’s Gospel, chapter 11, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.”
When things go wrong, most of us don’t like taking responsibility, and we will look for pretty much anyone else who might be to blame: this might be the college cat who infiltrated himself into your room and deleted your essay by sitting on your keyboard when you weren’t looking; to the fact that you next door neighbour was playing Mahler at high volume until all hours of the night, which meant that you slept in and missed your tutorial; or you blame your cox, who took a wrong turn which meant you, and the rest of your crew had to be rescued from Norwich – I have myself used one of those excuses, I will let you imagine which! On a more fundamental level, you might like to blame your parents who brought you up the way you are, or your genetic make-up which means that you suffer from occasional bouts of that most distressing of all ailments, malignant lethargy which, being genetically pre-determined is beyond your control. We all do it, we all find someone or something else to blame, and it may not surprise you to discover that clergy do it as well, although most of the time, we try not to blame God – everyone else seems to do that, so clergy feel that no one would believe them if they did! No, clergy find more subtle ways of shifting the blame: it was the fault of our training vicars who failed to mention it in three years of intensive on the job training, or, in this particular instance, it was the fault of my theological college who willfully avoided the subject. Picture the scene, your Dean and I with a whole host of others were waiting eagerly for the promised session on the ministry of deliverance, only to be told by the Principal that we weren’t going to be doing it all – there was, after all, not very much call for this sort of thing. So, yes, I blame Westcott House, although after about fifteen years being a deliverance minister, maybe at this stage I have made up for the deficiency, mainly because my first experience was in the house I lived in as a curate, where, like most of the people I try to help in this way, I had no idea what was going on!
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about (and this frequently happens to my victims – sorry, parishioners), the ministry of deliverance is what we in the Anglican Church like to call what other people rather crudely call “exorcism”, a word that we avoid at all possible costs – using it would be a bit like admitting the existence of God in public – we just don’t do things like that! So basically as well as being a jobbing vicar who does all the normal things involved in running a large parish church pretty much single-handedly – weddings, funerals, lots of services, parties of tourists, the mayor and corporation, random military bods, school visits, as well as a whole host of other things, as I said, in addition, I find that I am the person who also gets called in to deal with basically paranormal activity: if you're on my patch, and you experience things moving randomly round the room; if you see ghosts of past residents walking around the kitchen at lower than present ground level; if you walk into the bathroom and find your now deceased ex-boyfriend standing stark naked under the shower (that was a real example, by the way), or if you think you are possessed (or that someone else is), I may be called in to deal with your problem. In fact, across the Anglican world, each diocese has its own designated deliverance ministers who will listen, advise, pray and with any luck make it all go away.
We also try to do this with the minimum of fuss and publicity, mainly because the people who are experiencing this sort of thing are usually terrified, and will very often turn to the Church as a last resort, after having been through psychic mediums, spiritualists and a whole host of other people who will try to help by telling you something like, “Don't worry. It’s just a lost child looking for his mother” – which you may find reassuring, although you may feel that, if that’s what the child is doing, you really don’t want to meet mum! There is also the feeling that those of us who are in this line of work – I mean priests in general – really don’t like being told we are preying on the vulnerable, and are making the whole thing up – and if this is true of clergy in general, it is even more true of deliverance ministers: it’s even worse when it happens to you on live national radio (as happened to me on Tuesday), not greatly helped by the fact that I then bumped into my Archbishop later that day (such are the exalted circles in which I move) who told me he had been listening!
At the same time as all this, I admit to maintaining a healthy scepticism, but have also developed enough experience to deal with people pastorally and sensitively, and to try to guide them through what it happening to them in a rational way. So, for example, poltergeist activity, as we call it, when things move round or lights turn on and off is very common, and is always caused by someone alive and present at the time, even if they will not be aware that they are generating the effect. I often use the analogy of static electricity which has to be earthed, but these energies seem to be created by fear or stress or tension, and in extreme cases, they manifest themselves in physical objects – hence poltergeist activity. Those weird place memories, as we call them, when Roman soldiers march through the basement, or when someone who has lived in a place is seen going about their business, these are more difficult to explain, but they frequently occur when structural work has been done, when walls have been moved, or staircases realigned, or when graves have been disturbed, as had happened when the house we lived in was built – with unpleasant results. Sometimes, such place memories might be more active, but most of the time, they are simply not there at all. The most active presences are usually called true hauntings, when there is some sort of attempt to communicate, to reassure or even to protect – hence the boyfriend in the shower – the person who saw it was comforted, although everyone else who saw him was terrified! And the fact that there is a pattern to those things, and that frequently they are experienced by more than one person means that I work on the assumption that there is something to it. Quite often, of course, we encounter people who are mentally ill, and we are trained quite extensively in metal health issues, so we can tell the difference between someone who needs a medical review, and a rational person who is experiencing paranormal activity. This particularly applies to people who claim to be possessed, which is quite a common thing in today’s world apparently, but, logically, anyone who goes to a priest and tells them they are possessed quite clearly is not: no self-respecting demon who has taken over your very being is going to allow you to do that, for goodness’ sake! This is not to say that there may not be a problem, but, a bit like the GP who has to endure patients who self-diagnose, the same thing happens to deliverance ministers too. But also, just like GPs, we need to know what will work in any situation: we know that, for example, antibiotics don't work for colds, so in the same way, there is no point in trying to exorcise something that is a physical or psychiatric condition, or is indeed part of the way someone is: it won't work, and is quite frankly dangerous. Despite this, there is a fashion amongst some Christians to talk about someone being possessed with a spirit of homosexuality or a spirit of lust or drunkenness, or something like this, and once the spirit is “named” it can then be exorcised. I won't tell you what I would like to do to people who peddle such notions, but being strapped to a chair for a traditional exorcism would be far, far too kind!
So how do we help? Well, one of the faintly embarrassing things about priests is that we deal in the supernatural all the time, because if God isn’t somehow supernatural, and I’m not what sort of definition you are using. But at the same time, it is the consistent experience of people of faith that God does not act in the world except through the agency of human beings. The Bible is pretty consistent about this: think of the plagues of Egypt, or the crossing of the Red Sea, yes, the Bible says that God was behind them, but on each occasion poor old Moses has to do something before it happens. This is also the case with the New Testament, that fantastic story we have heard this evening about the raising of Lazarus: the miracle happens through the agency of Jesus, the God-man of Christian theology, but the question needs to be asked, does it happen because Jesus is God, or because he is human? The latter would be more consistent with not only the pattern of scripture, but the experience of the Church. So, in my case, what I am doing when I go and see these people, and listen to them and sort their problems, is that I am acting for God. And sometimes, what I experience is more weird than what they have described: sometimes when I stand in a house, bless it, and as I am saying the Lord’s Prayer, I can feel the external temperature rise and see the difference in the quality of the light around me, as the presence of God somehow floods back into a place which has been invaded by a presence of some description, which has manifested itself in cold and in darkness. And, just to reassure me that I am not going mad myself, the people with me will also feel the same thing: thermostats are turned down, and lights are switched off: people relax and laugh again as what should be there is restored.
I'm never quite sure about the theology of the presences themselves, although the Bible freely and frequently refers to ghosts which seem to be souls which have failed to move on (and of course to demons), but the fact that they are part of the experience of the Church means that somehow they are encompassed in God. At the same time, I am sure about the theology of the ministry of deliverance. What we seek to do, is in fact what all Christian ministry seeks to do, to act as a mediator between God and humanity, in this case to invite God to work, and to proclaim that where Jesus is, there is resurrection and there is life, just as in the gospel reading we heard earlier, because in it, the years fall away, and rather than hearing about something that happened once to Martha two thousand years ago, it is as if Jesus himself comes and stands amongst us: “I am the resurrection and I am the life”, he says, “anyone who believes in me even though they die will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. And he poses to us the same question: “Do you believe this?” And like Martha we answer: “Yes, Lord, we believe.” And that surely is enough.