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Sympathy for the Devil, as the Church of England bids him goodbye

Sympathy for the Devil, as the Church of England bids him goodbye

Matthew Bell of “The World”, a radio program from Public Radio International, has reported one of the more intelligent and balanced stories about the Church of England’s decision to “nix any mention” of the devil from its services.

An audio file of this story is available on the PRI site, as is a shorter written version of the story, in which Bell quotes the Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music:

As with the decision to allow the ordination of women bishops, the Church of England aims to update its theology to reflect modern values. Removing mention of the devil from baptism services is about not turning people away who might otherwise be receptive to the church’s teachings.

“By eliminating the character of ‘the devil,’ it doesn’t mean that the Church of England is trying to deny the presence of evil in the world,” explained Rev. Ruth Meyers of Church Divinity School in Berkeley, California. Meyers is also an Episcopal priest.

“If people get this image [of the devil], and it’s just a caricature,” she said, “it doesn’t help them recognize and really grapple with the very awful reality of war and famine and poverty, and the horrible things that people to do to one another.”

Do you believe there is a supernatural creature who is the embodiment of evil, or is Satan a metaphor?


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Dave Belcher

Prof. Meyers,

Thankfully there is no Enriching Our Worship alternative to the baptismal rites in TEC. While some have crafted alternatives (say, St. Gregory’s, San Francisco), we’re talking in this case not just of an alternative to but a paradigm shift from the 1979 BCP. Frankly, I do not see quite so stark a shift as you have identified in your own work in the 1979 BCP from previous prayer books—namely, the move from an emphasis on baptism as saving from original sin to a removal of emphasis on original sin; there’s a shift of emphasis, to be sure, but I don’t find the shift to be one from heavy emphasis to removal, but rather from one degree to another. (And I find Bishop Epting’s remarks on this subject downright puzzling, since it doesn’t make any sense, concretely, to suggest that original sin “doesn’t exist” or that theologically it is or should be defined as a “fall from perfection.”) But luckily Satan and the forces of wickedness are central to our own rites so that they form an unmistakeable part of our baptismal liturgy—hence removing these “characters” would indeed amount to a paradigm shift similar to what you see taking place with original sin.

Granting that we (or, rather, CofE) are talking alternatives rather than replacements, however, the quote from you in the article gives the distinct impression that you think we can do without these things in our own baptismal liturgies as well. I disagree strongly and I think Jim’s question, with all due respect, is a false option. Scripture presents the devil, Satan, the powers, principalities, and spiritual forces of wickedness, sin, death, evil, and more (there are many different scriptural “spiritual forces of wickedness” and they are not simply equivalent with one another) neither as “spiritual creatures” who embody evil, nor as metaphors—certainly not in every instance at least—nor even simply as the perversion of human systemic structures/institutions. The desired transparency “modern values” promotes vs. what I can only take to be the “mythological worldview” of the ancients is the product of a high form of rationalism I find to be rather pernicious (and at work in more than just this topic in the church right now, by the way)—and rationalism can be just as dogmatic and rigid as the most fundamentalist system. What Scripture calls sin, death, and evil—and the “rulers of this world” in all their different guises as deceivers, accusers, sly-talking serpents, and more—are complex realities embedded in our concrete experience of the world, in how we understand and interpret the self in relation to that world, in our experience of relation with others, and in relation with God. To remove these shadowy, scriptural figures from our liturgies would automatically numb this acute, complex reality into a blunt instrument for rationalistic explication, in order that nothing would be left unexplained. That is not all it would do, though. Because these figures and realities are integral to the Bible we read together daily in the church’s liturgies, removing them from, say, the baptism rite would create confusion and effectively render Scripture meaningless in those places in which Satan (or the Accuser) and the Devil are present and retained. Thus, we are talking about obscuring the proclamation of the Word at the same time that we would be simplifying the concrete engagement with the complex reality Paul calls the powers required for recognition and confession of Jesus as Lord. Paul’s baptismal question is essentially “Which world (and thus which Lord) do you serve?” Therefore, theologically, I think we would lose something essential by getting rid of “the devil” or “Satan” simply because people who hold modern-day values cannot understand what those things mean anymore. If that is the case, perhaps it is because we are failing in one aspect of what you have correctly identified as the 1979 BCP’s “baptismal ecclesiology,” namely, catechesis. And I would only add that catechesis is not meant to end at the moment of the final dipping in the water or with the sealing, but continues all one’s life; the church should never be done catechizing.

Another small note: “metaphor” and “myth” are not the same thing and it seems apparent to me that the question regarding Satan being a “metaphor” actually means myth and not metaphor at all.


Dave B

Michael Russell

While @Chris Epting argues for metaphor, I do not see the need. We believe in God as a Person whose existence transcends the physics we understand. Having bit that apple there is no reason not to believe that there are other non-corporeal beings in the cosmos that God made too, that are “persons” in a truer sense than say… Hobby Lobby… and function with various degrees of free will.

For all those persons we can say “there was a time when they were not” and expect that at the end of time they will come under the same light that we will.

We have no real issue with being possessed by the Holy Spirit, so why should be have an issue for being possessed by some other spiritual person?

There is no need to deny the devil’s existence, nor to render “it” a metaphor, any more than we need to prove God’s existence or make a metaphor out of the divine person.

The deeper issue is about personal responsibility. The Devil,Predestination,and TULIP theologies get us off the personal responsibility hook. The devil made me do it; I am just baaaad to the bone; or I have been damned from the start oddly set us free of an responsibility for what we do.

Very convenient that! Instead, why not just “man” or “woman” up and say “I did it, I’ll take the consequences, but I’d sure like forgiveness.” We sorta say that int he general confession, but that is set in a field of our general taintedness, not in one of agency.

Ruth Meyers

A colleague in the Church of England has pointed out that the C of E has not produced a new baptismal to replace existing rites (not just the 1662 BCP but also the more recent Common Worship), but rather is approving alternatives to present texts. For Episcopalians, think Enriching Our Worship rather than BCP revisions. While the alternatives don’t mention the devil, they still have rites that do.

Chris Epting

Which…is pretty much what it means to say that Satan is a metaphor. A metaphor for, say, “spiritual forces of wickedness.”

Now, shall we start a discussion about ‘original sin?’ Which, I do not believe, exists either. We did not fall from perfection; we have just not achieved it yet.

Michael Russell

Well there goes the Baptismal Covenant. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” The beauty of that renunciation is that the second half of the question defines the first. Anything that rebels against God is a spiritual force of wickedness, or Satan. One can view the SFoW and Satan as having embodiment or not, what matters is that we renounce forces that rebel against God.

Looking at the serpent and Satan in scripture we find the true heart of what “it” is up to. In the encounter with Eve, the serpent is a liar an deceiver, planting doubts in Eve’s mind about God’s truthfulness as well as Adam’s. SFoW goes on to suggest that disobedience will elevate us to be like God. These multiple attacks are certainly there in the world around us all the time. Heck they do not even need embodiment.

In Job Satan takes the role of accuser of humankind, but in his tactics we see the clearer pattern of how the SFoW work to destroy people. When people are afflicted and isolated it then they are most malleable with respect to deserting God. Pastorally we all know the corrosive and destructive power of isolation.

I would not want us to get rid of these classic forms of the Devil. Now getting rid of the silliness about devils and angels in the public sphere, ok, though even their the depictions usually include isolating and destroying people.

And besides, if we cannot blame the Devil for our misadventures we might have to accept responsibility for our own choices. Oh, wait, I forgot….. there is still that Original Sin – Total Depravity thing. Whew thanks be to God that if the Devil didn’t make me do it, Original Sin did. I am not responsible since I cannot be expected to govern myself.

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