A Fresh Look at a Remarkable Document: Exorcism: The Report of a Commission Convened by the Bishop of Exeter

By Malia, Linda | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

A Fresh Look at a Remarkable Document: Exorcism: The Report of a Commission Convened by the Bishop of Exeter


Malia, Linda, Anglican Theological Review


The much-publicized rerelease of the movie The Exorcist, complete with eleven minutes of previously unseen footage, reflects a resurgence of interest within both the Church and popular culture in the topic of exorcism. Within the Roman Catholic Church it is strikingly evident in the Vatican's newly revised eighty-four page Latin ritual for exorcism, "De Exorcismus et Supplicationibus Quibusdam" ("Of All Kinds of Exorcisms and Supplications"), which replaces Chapter XII of the Roman Ritual, and which will eventually be published in vernacular editions for use throughout the world.

Within the Anglican tradition the Church of England's inquiry into an increasing number of requests for exorcisms has forced the Church to contend also with the problem of a corresponding increase in unauthorized exorcisms by clergy. The result has been the assignment of a twelve-member working party, the Christian Deliverance Study Group, cochaired by the Rt. Rev. Dominic Walker, the Bishop of Reading, to consider the issue of the growing demand placed upon clergy by individuals seeking exorcisms or relief from phenomena of an apparently paranormal nature. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that the latest report by the Church of England on the Church's ministry of healing, A Time to Heal,1 contains a chapter on the subject of deliverance.

Surprisingly, despite the amount of attention given to the subject of exorcism by the Church of England, and in light of the wealth of material dating back to the 1960s from Church of England sources on the topics of deliverance and exorcism, the only official direction on the part of the Episcopal Church on this subject consists of the rather brief rubrics on page 170 of The Book of Occasional Services. One can't help but wonder at the reason for the disparity between this clearly documented ongoing interest and involvement in the subject of exorcism on the part of the Church of England and the contrasting silence regarding the subject on the other side of the Atlantic. However, closer examination will reveal that the answer lies in a complex sequence of events which include the aftermath of two World Wars and a cultural revolution, as well as a horrifying and bizarre murder in a quiet Yorkshire town which would bring the subject of exorcism in Great Britain to the attention not only of the media, but eventually of Parliament itself.

Within the Church of England canon law had, until 1969, allowed for the use of exorcism, provided that permission was obtained from the diocesan bishop. In reality, however, the unofficial policy appears to have been one of "Don't ask-don't tell." Such permission was hardly ever requested, and for the Church of England, as well as for the Roman Catholic Church, exorcism remained something of an embarrassment. There had been no attempt to formulate new laws for its use. This whole area was something which the Church of England was reluctant to tackle officially, although certain parties such as Prebendary Henry Cooper2 had, as far back as 1958, urged the Church to consider the place of exorcism within its healing ministry.

Unofficially, however, since the early sixties it had been the subject of considerable discussion. This was due in part to an explosion of interest in the occult and the paranormal in Great Britain, as elsewhere, fueled by reports of a disturbing number of cemetery desecrations throughout the country, which themselves were accompanied in the media by sensationalistic stories of Black Masses and witches' covens.The Rev. Elijah White's Exorcism as a Christian Ministry quotes Dom Robert Petitpierre, the Exeter Report's editor, as saying that "incidents of demonic interference, particularly with individual personalities, were sporadic from the 1920s and since 1960 have become `virtually an explosion.'"3

The doctrine of "deliverance"-roughly equivalent to what the Roman Catholic Church would term "minor" or "private" exorcismhad been gaining a growing acceptance within the religious mainstream. …

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