Kirk plans to tackle taboo of possession by evil spirits

Campaigners feel church could add to stigma over mental illness
The Glasgow Herald (Scotland), Mar. 4, 2003
http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/archive/4-3-19103-0-23-17.html
HELEN PUTTICK

Saving those suffering from demons through the power of exorcism – the mission sounds like a quest from the Middle Ages.

In fact this is the drive behind a new study launched by the Church of Scotland amid concerns it is not doing enough for people who have been possessed.

Revisiting the controversial area for the first time in 15 years, a panel of ministers and psychiatrists has been formed to see what more the Kirk could do for people assumed to have a mental illness, but who some feel could instead be gripped by evil spirits.

It is hoped the work could lead to patients who are tormented but not diagnosed with psychiatric disorders being referred to the Church.

However, some psychiatrists and mental health campaigners feel the Church’s move smacks of the medieval demonisation of health problems and could add to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Called the Deliverance Group, the new committee has grown out of the Church of Scotland’s board of social responsibility, which describes itself as the country’s largest volunteer social work agency and employs 1600 people.

Over the next 12 months it will examine how other churches help people through exorcism, consider how to tackle scepticism and how to resource ministers to do more work in this area. A report outlining its conclusions will go to the general assembly.

Douglas Irving, convener of the group, which met for the first time last week, said guidelines on how to help the possessed were last drawn up in 1976 and needed to be reviewed.

He said: “There is a perceived need on the part of our study group to revisit this subject because we believe that the present understanding of the Church of Scotland in relation to this area of ministry is wanting. In view of the present climate, with so much abuse and cult activity, we need to revisit it.”

Stories of ministers not knowing where to turn when asked to help people thought to be possessed by evil spirits have also fuelled the move.

Mr Irving, a former solicitor, described one case where a minister was asked to help a girl whose bedroom walls were covered in expletives and in some places excrement. Ultimately, the minister turned to a Roman Catholic priest for help.

On another occasion he said a patient diagnosed by a psychiatric hospital as not suffering from a psychiatric disorder was referred to the Church by a parishioner. Mr Irving said the girl had sought help from a hypnotist to overcome an addiction, but the hypnotist had taken advantage of her. After prayers were said, the girl made a full recovery and was now an active member of the Church, he added.

Deliverance ministry usually involves surrounding the patient and “offering prayer in the name of Jesus to bind the evil spirit and to ask it to depart”. Physical contact is not necessary. Practices do vary according to circumstances, but dramatic ceremonies are discouraged.

Mr Irving admitted the deliverance group was likely to encounter scepticism from the medical profession and that instances of possession were rare.

He said: “We would recognise that in a lot of cases people are mentally ill, but there are situations we do affirm in the Church where people are not sick in the mind but they are diseased in spirit and we as the Church fail such people if we do not put such a truth before society and assist psychiatrists in a holistic approach to healing.”

Denise Coia, chairman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Scottish division, said believing to be possessed was the most common delusion among psychotic patients and, with leaps in the understanding of brain disorders, such problems could be treated with drugs.

She said: “It is so treatable that I would hate to see that group of people being caught up in church deliverance.”

However, she added: “Having said that, there are a lot of people who do get into the psychiatric system who do have quite strange experiences which it is dangerous to categorise as psychotic illness, and that group of people can be helped with a degree of care and empathy.

“I could see that is where the Church could be coming from.”

Richard Norris, director of policy for the Scottish Association for Mental Health, said the Church of Scotland should consult patients as part of their research, adding: “To talk about devil possession conjures up some quite disturbing and medieval ideas about mental health which will not be welcome to many.

“On the other hand undoubtedly for some people there has been a spiritual dimension in their understanding of their mental distress.”

A few of Scotland’s 850 priests are permitted to conduct exorcisms.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland described the Kirk move as an “interesting development”.

He said: “This is something that has been available in the Catholic Church for an extremely long time. There are a number of priests in Scotland able to perform exorcisms and they are called on occasionally.”

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