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We asked British exorcists to tell us what they do

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David Cornish
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Halloween is in the air. The pumpkin has been carved, the pick'n'mix sorted, and you're trying find your DVD of The Exorcist - a film you've still never seen all the way through because of how much it messed you up as a kid.

That film, and its subject matter, continue to be a subject of curious fascination to many. Every time Halloween rolls round, the topic of exorcism is bound to spring up. Right on cue, the Irish Mirror has run a story with the headlineCatholic Church in Ireland has specially trained priests to carry out EXORCISMS and banish demons. Exorcisms is written in capital letters. The story doesn't really add much detail beyond its headline: the Catholic Church of Ireland employs a "number" of exorcists, who have "carried out actual exorcisms in the past - though incidences are rare". How rare? "Maybe as few as one in the course of a year," though it's been "a few years since the last one was performed".

Which is disappointing, right? We wanted to hear about heads spinning 360 degrees and kids crawling up walls and demons and stuff? Because - deep down - we want to understand what the heck an exorcism is and what's really going on. Which is why, in 2012 I spoke to a number of exorcists to form part of an MA dissertation on the subject of exorcisms in the UK. This is what I found out. 

How do you become an exorcist?

There's variation between the denominations of the church, but exorcists are normal priests/minsters. When training for ordination (becoming a minister) they may receive some basic instruction on 'minor exorcisms', or prayers of deliverance. Exorcisms are, very simply, a particular form of prayer, delivering people from an external force, and so any ordained minister learns how to 'do' an exorcism - however, there are structures in place that mean that certain individuals will act as an exorcist for a particular region of the country.

In the Catholic Church, individual priests might be asked by their bishop to look after requests for exorcisms in their area, while in the Church of England, deliverance teams will look after requests in different areas, again, appointed by the bishop of their area. Neither branch provides numbers on how many exorcists are employed, nor how many requests they receive, as this information is regarded as confidential. 

What's the most common type of exorcism?

As the Irish Mirror piece suggests, major exorcisms - in which a person thought to be possessed is released from an external force - are incredibly rare. The Church of England has a set of guidelines, written in 1975 by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Donald Coggan, which must be followed if a major exorcism is proposed. The guidelines suggest a report is submitted to the bishop, outlining the recommendations of the deliverance team and a medical professional. The bishop may then permit an exorcism to take place if it is appropriate. 

When speaking to several exorcists (all anonymously - most branches of the church prefer exorcists not to speak to the media for fear of sensationalising the ministry), the most common form I was told about were cases involving an ‘unwanted presence’. A shy and softly spoken 68-year-old vicar of the Church of England, Reverend A, told me about her first experience of a deliverance while training for ordination in 1996.  

"I grew up in a liberal tradition, so I’d always faltered in my understanding of demons and spirits as you find them in the New Testament. I wasn’t quite sure how ‘real’ they were, so to speak – were they just something we had demythologised and now understood as psychological issues?"

The Rev A's mentor was a member of the diocesan deliverance team – a multi-disciplinary group of clergy and medical professionals tasked with responding to exorcism requests made of the Church of England. Rev A was asked by her vicar if she would accompany him on a visit to a family who had reported feeling an ‘uncomfortable presence’ in their home. He required her prayer support and suggested it would be a valuable opportunity to widen her experience. 

On arriving, they made their way around the house to look for any rational explanation to the family’s complaint – expanding pipes, loose floorboards and shifting foundations often the cause of many suspected spirits. After finding no corporeal explanation, the vicar began reading a prayer to bless the home:  

"Everything got a bit dramatic," she said, recalling the event. "Things jumped off the walls of the room we were in and started moving around. The family, who were in the room with us, seemed to become tied together as if by ropes." 

To the relief of Rev A and the family, as the vicar finished reciting the blessing the unusual activity stopped. The family didn’t report any further disturbances after their visit.

Now part of a deliverance team of six clergy, Rev A often finds herself struggling to keep up with her caseload, overseeing the exorcism requests of three counties. She claims that in the last 5 years the number of exorcists working in the Midlands has tripled to cope with demand for the ministry: 

"There are a growing number of people dabbling in the Occult. Some people are just far more sensitive to this sort of thing than others, with young people in particular getting into stuff that scares them. They can be deeply affected by TV shows and videos on the subject. I groan whenever I see a pub advertising psychic evenings. The deliverance team gets busier all the time, and there’s a growing need to recruit more people."

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In the UK, three branches of the Christian Church have a framework for performing exorcisms. 

The Catholic Church, broadly speaking, deems an exorcism as a specific form of prayer that the Church uses against the power of the devil. These are divided into 'minor' deliverance, for which an appropriate prayer can be said by any ordained Catholic minister, and 'major' deliverance (the 'casting out spirits' stuff that horror films love) which must be approved by a bishop.

Minor deliverances can address anything from freeing an individual who feels they are struggling with an oppressive forces, to the spiritual cleansing of a physical place such as a house. A practising Catholic priest I spoke to suggested that in the 10 years he'd been serving as an exorcist (in addition to his usual service as a priest), he'd had between 30 or 40 cases, all of which either required prayers of minor deliverance, or were referred to medical professionals or psychologists.

"Before I was asked to take on the role I wasn’t aware there was so much of this healing needed – I knew it had always gone on, but just not to this degree. After the bishop appointed me I asked him if this was unusual. He simply said, ‘It goes on more than people know’." He said he had never performed a 'major' exorcism. 

The Church of England operates deliverance ministry in a similar format; every diocese (the C of E divides the nation up into 'diocese' areas, like boroughs) has a deliverance team, which will respond to requests of minor or major deliverance they receive.

The Greek Orthodox church of the UK also has a system for administering exorcisms to for its members, but a Greek Orthodox deacon of 45 years experience I spoke to suggested that most exorcisms are widely misunderstood in the Western world, as they usually centre around blessing someone.

"It may be that someone feels that things just aren’t going all that well for them, or that they’re depressed or feeling oppressed by something. Sometimes people invite a priest to their home for a blessing with Holy water and ask for an exorcism to be read – in other words, that the evil influences that they think are around them may be dispelled. An individual will usually sit or kneel before a priest, or lie in bed, and a prayer is read over them."

So, are demons real?

None of the exorcists I spoke to believed they had encountered a 'demon' when carrying out their work. The 76-year-old Catholic priest I spoke to had only encountered on possible case:

"He was just staring about the room with a look of anger. As with all cases, I do my best to talk through with the individual what they’re feeling and experiencing. At the end of that I try to make a conclusion as to what sort of prayer, liturgy and care they might need.  

"When I began speaking to him, he started being abusive with his language: ‘You can’t help me, what are you doing here’, then cruder, blasphemous things, against God, the Church, against priests. Then quite suddenly he snapped out of it and talk normally about his work and life."

After a short conversation, the man lapsed back into an aggressive state. Without warning, he took hold of the exorcist by the collar and forced him against the wall. The priest made no attempt to react, and was eventually released with the help of the man’s minister. 

"I still couldn’t make my mind up about his condition, but I didn’t think he was ‘possessed’ as such. I told his priest that I thought this man needed psychiatric help – which he was getting."

The exorcist decided to conduct a prayer of minor exorcism and insisted that the man continue seeing a psychiatrist. The man’s priest had since reported that he’s doing well. 

Isn't it all psychological?

By and large, yes. Every exorcist I spoke to had worked with psychologists and doctors during some part of their ministry; should the Church of England ever receive a request for a major exorcism, the case must be referred to a team in which a medical professional also reviews the individual. 

"Many people have dissociative symptoms where they don’t feel themselves or can’t remember what they are doing," explained a psychiatrist (again, anonymously) who has worked alongside exorcists. "An individual can consciously or unconsciously resort to be being out of control – or in extremes ‘possessed’ – as a way to express themselves when they are very hurt and have a poorly formed personality, which is often the result of traumatic early life experiences. 

"Psychiatrists will generally assume there is no spiritual component to these symptoms and will treat it as a dissociative disorder. If it looks like possession, then it will be diagnosed as ‘possession disorder’ – a medical description rather than a theological statement."

In addition to psychological care, individuals requesting support are often given appropriate counselling. Rev A described the work as "far from glamorous".

"Some people who come to you are mentally ill or just mildly deluded. Some are unstable and attention-seekers. You’re often dealing with some really nasty stuff.” 

Rev A suggested that in recent decades, more people have felt able to come forward with issues relating to childhood sexual abuse inflicted by Satanists and Coven groups.  

"In the West Midlands there’s a specialist counselling organisation which deals specifically with the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. If they come across a client who has obviously had Coven experience they refer them to us straight away."

Why do they keep happening?

You'd have thought that in the year 2016, exorcisms would no longer have a place in the public domain. Feeling like something is getting you down? Do some yoga, read a self-help book, see a psychologist - no?

Another reverend I spoke to who worked on a Church of England deliverance team believed that the structure of modern society as the main contributor to the increase in requests:

"There isn’t the formal route for spirituality that there used to be. Three or four generations ago families were used to going to church on a Sunday. If things happened that were unusual, they had a ready made framework and point of contact for such problems to be dealt with.

"People will describe themselves as very spiritual despite not attending a religious service each week – which is fine, but it often means these spiritual yearnings are unfocused and unmet. People will happily watch films like The Exorcist or The Last Exorcism and be drawn in by the special effects and the pseudo-spiritualist atmosphere, which in itself can draw them into all sorts of things."

As with medical conditions and strange lumps that spark anxiety, the first place people turn to when encountering something 'spiritual' is often the internet. 

"Very often they’ll go to the website that’s got the flashiest advertisements and call in someone who’s more than likely a charlatan. They’ll tell the family just what they want to hear, take their money, and not actually solve their problem for them. If they fail to find a solution elsewhere, they turn to the Church as a last resort."

It's because of this lack of expertise, this general scepticism toward the paranormal, that exorcists such as Rev A believe the church must continue to have teams ready to respond to such requests. 

"Most dioceses may have kept one expert on their books, but didn’t really expect him to be called. Gradually through having ignored ‘the devil and all his works’ for so long, the incidences of hauntings, unquiet dead, possession and other paranormal phenomena have increased dramatically. That’s partly because it’s now culturally acceptable to have psychic evenings, play with Ouija boards and consult mediums. People are no longer frightened to mess about with contacting the dead, or the devil. It isn’t a no-no any more, and the Church is reacting to the situation in society."

Each of the exorcists I spoke to believed that what they were doing was important work. Some saw themselves as an instrument for helping vulnerable people, others hated the role, but thought it vital to the work of the church. They weren't nutters, nor did they want to sensationalise their accounts - if anything, they were reluctant to talk about their work. The Church of England in particular treats all deliverance work as confidential, and won't respond to press requests with anything other than guidelines that are already available in the public domain. 

You'll have your own thoughts about demons and Ouija boards and life after death. You might think its nonsense, or have far more rational explanations in psychology and superstition. But should you ever be concerned that something that goes "bump in the night" might be more than a lose pipe, rest assured that there are 'professionals' out there who'll take you more seriously than most. 

(Images: iStock)

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David Cornish

Shortlist.com’s esteemed Tech Editor. David has a keen interest in video games, Star Wars and stuff that runs on batteries.

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