Rev Dr Helen Hall explores some of the darker consequences of deliverance ministry and asks how we can keep each other safe.
There is a lot of diversity amongst Christian communities in relation deliverance, healing and demonic possession. Different traditions adopt distinctive doctrinal positions and practices, and it is also not uncommon for there to be a spectrum of opinion within a particular denomination. However, all groups have an interest in ensuring that the vulnerable people are protected.The state also has a responsibility to ensure that abuses and dangerous behaviours are kept in check.
Tragedies such as the murder of Victoria Climbié provide stark examples of the consequences of failing in this area. Victoria was living with her great-aunt, and was subjected to appalling physical and emotional torture because she was believed to be under malign spiritual influences.
Yet at the same time, it must be acknowledged that many groups practice deliverance ministry as a core part of their faith, and it is carried out in a consensual manner without any physical harm being inflicted. In light of this, how is it possible to strike an appropriate balance between religious freedom on the one hand, the need to safeguard those at risk on the other?
Legal protection would be of limited value if it only applied to beliefs which were considered mainstream and uncontroversial.
The Human Rights Act 1998 brings the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Article 9 guarantees the right not only to hold religious beliefs, but also to manifest these in a practical way. Obviously, this legal protection would be of limited value if it only applied to beliefs which were considered mainstream and uncontroversial. All expressions of faith come within its ambit, and therefore may only be limited where this is needed to protect the public good and the rights of third parties, and even then only to the extent that it is necessary. In practical terms, this means that neither the law nor public authorities will interfere in religious practices merely because some observers might regard them as strange or even undesirable. Consequently, it is not per se illegal for a religious leader, or even a fellow believer, to tell a person that they need exorcism, nor to assert that prayer can cure their cancer, diabetes or HIV. Yet there are some circumstances in which the law might step in.
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One of the most dramatic cases in recent years was that of Pastor Climate Wiseman who was eventually convicted of fraud for selling Covid 19 protection kits for £91, when these consisted of oil and red yarn, cost very little to manufacture, and more importantly, had no demonstrable power to shield buyers from infection as Wiseman claimed. If someone sells goods, or indeed services, and makes guarantees which are false or undeliverable, then the mere fact that this has happened in a religious context which will not enable them to escape liability. Furthermore, even in circumstances where no money changes hand, there may be legal consequences for cynical, exploitative or irresponsible behaviours.
Imagine, for example, a situation in which a minister regularly visits an elderly mother living with her adult son. Both the mother and son report that he has been hearing voices, haranguing him to take a knife and stab his mother, they are very worried and say that they are planning to get an appointment with the GP. The minister responds by saying that their problem is caused by a lack of faith, that going to a doctor will only make it worse, and that they should rely on spiritual measures instead. He offers some prayers of deliverance and assures them that all will be well. If the son subsequently attacks his mother during a psychotic episode and seriously injures his mother, the minister might conceivably be deemed liable in negligence.
Faith and reason can and should work together, to ensure that everyone gets the chance to flourish to their maximum potential.
Needless to say too, any behaviour which would otherwise be criminal and abusive will not be made legitimate purely because it is carried out for religious reasons, as the conviction of a doctor for poisoning his partner during a purported Islamic exorcism demonstrates. However, most faith groups would hope to do a lot more than simply steer clear of legal trouble.
The law sets the minimum standards, but it is to be hoped that the majority of communities would wish to do more than the bare minimum. The vast majority of Christian churches affirm that spiritual help should be sought alongside appropriate medical care and advice. Given how frightened and open to manipulation people can be if they are ill, or fear that they are being attacked by evil forces, any group wishing to keep everyone safe needs to have clear policies for dealing with these situations. Faith and reason can and should work together, to ensure that everyone gets the chance to flourish to their maximum potential.
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