It was good to be able to go on BBC Radio London this morning. The reason I had been invited was to accompany this year’s Lent art installation artist, Angela Glajcar, to talk about her work ‘Within the Light’ which will be with us until Good Friday (more about that after it has been installed). The thing is though that with these chatty shows you never quite know what topics have been talked about until you arrive at the studios and then you discover. As we sat in the waiting area we could hear the show going out and conversation going on about the devil and zombies! So when the presenter suddenly asked me whether I believed in the devil it wasn’t completely unexpected.
It wasn’t quite what I had been prepared to come along and talk about however. But I never mind responding to anything. The reason that the subject had come up, I believe, was partly because of the debate at the General Synod last week about the new alternative baptism texts. The way that they seemed to have been presented in the popular media is that the Church of England had ‘ditched the devil’ or no longer ‘believed’ in the devil. Obviously, the real story is more subtle and nuanced than that.
The reason that we have gone for some alternative texts, given that Common Worship is full of texts, is that the language that is contained in some of the provision already made is not easily accessible to those people who are not regular church goers, those who are on the fringes of the church, yet want their baby to be baptised. The Liturgical Commission had the particular challenge of how to explain and articulate essential truth in relation to baptism whilst making it more understandable.
It’s true that in the texts that we approved the devil isn’t mentioned. But it would be wrong to infer from this that we have ditched the devil or no longer believe in the devil. But using the language of the devil is not that straightforward given that there are some very powerful, popular images of the devil. When I talk about the devil I may mean one thing, but those listening to me may have very other ideas conjured up in their imagination.
The cinemas and the TV channels are full of images of the manifestation of evil but so often in terms of the supernatural. So this contemporary obsession with zombies or vampires, poltergeists and the rest of the ways in which people frighten themselves is a less than helpful introduction to the reality of evil. In fact if you want to understand the power of evil then watching the news gives us real examples of the ways in which the devil does his business.
Its the way that the power of the devil works in reality than in fantasy that we need to be teaching people about. Relegating the devil to the world of supernatural fantasy and forgetting that people are sometimes as driven by evil as by good and that so much that is bad in the world today is the work of the devil – and I do believe that – whilst not allowing that to be an excuse for people to step aside from the responsibility they have for their actions, that is the challenge we face. A Baptism service may not be the best place to do that as we ask
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
It needs a great deal more unpacking as a question than a simple response can do justice to. But in the right setting, on the right occasion, it is exactly the right question to ask, and a question that we should always be asking ourselves? For though Baptism is a once and for all sacrament – it can never be repeated – yet the battle for supremacy in our lives is a real one and rebellion against God always a possibility.
We stand on the cusp of Lent and on Ash Wednesday will begin in the wilderness with Jesus being tempted by the devil. It’s a reminder to each of us that the devil was real to Jesus so why not to you, why not to me?
The Indian prayer, the Christaraksha, is a powerful prayer for protection which we might use as part of our regular night prayer.
May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan,
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with me in my going out and my coming in.
By day and by night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places may it protect and defend me.
From the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver me.