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It has been a bad week for the devil. Or has it? Now that the General Synod has approved a new version of the baptismal liturgy in which all mention of the devil has been removed, what is to become of him? For we will no longer be required to say that we “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and that we “renounce the deceit and corruption of evil”. Instead, we will be asked to state that we “reject evil” and “turn away from sin”. Turning away is a mild sort of action. It is what I do when I am unimpressed or trying to curry a bit of dignity in the face of harsh criticism, especially when that criticism is fair. It is also what I do when matters of taste are at stake, for example when people boast at length about their clever tax avoidance schemes or have highly elaborate pelmets. Turning away conjures the profile of one with a clothes peg on her nose. Is that what the church is doing, rebranding the devil as a nasty whiff?
As the proud owner of 10 or 11 godchildren, ranging in age from four to 29, I have been to many christenings, Anglican and Roman Catholic, where I’ve been asked to renounce the devil. I’ve been encouraged to give short shrift to “all his empty promises” as though he were an undependable man in a country and western song. I have even had to renounce the glamour of evil, which is actually quite hard to do. Glamour has always had a strange pull for me.
I found myself thinking this morning how the devil would react to such a development. How would he (or even He) take to being dropped? He is not, I am certain, one for going under the radar. Or is he? Still, no one likes to be left out.
If you think of the devil as a looming, dramatic, larger-than-life character, played by James Mason or even Jack Nicholson (via Milton), being removed from the baptismal service could be seen as a provocative act. “If there is one thing worse than being talked about it is not being talked about!” might he huff and puff Wildely? In this new service he would literally be the bad fairy who has not been invited to the christening – quite a cliché that, and evil has always been sensitive to matters of style.
If the people who wish to change the wording genuinely believe that there is a presence called the devil whose job it is to wreak havoc and misery, do they not feel a little foolhardy in removing him from star billing? Do they have no grasp of basic psychology? Might being suddenly disinvited, after centuries of headlining at the event, make this complicated fellow more intent on revenge and ruin, transform him into an even more dangerous adversary?
I do hope not.
But if you think of Satan as suave and supersubtle, played by Cary Grant, perhaps, or George Clooney, insidious, overwhelmingly charming, his steely machinations operating under a smooth exterior, then banishing him from the service could be playing right into his little red hands. The current demotion might even be said to have been in his interest. He might have planned for it, or even lobbied and campaigned. Would he be happy to have achieved his goal of persuading us he is not real? Of course, it is possible this could be a masterstroke of cunning on behalf of the Church of England because, from what I’ve seen of life, happy people do less damage . . .
The devil is a problem for the modern church. If compassion lies at the heart of true Christianity – love your enemies – what do we do with the fact that evil always comes from hurt, and hurt is something that requires at least understanding if not kindness? I often think of Isaiah Berlin on Desert Island Discs saying that moral absolutes cannot coexist, giving the example of absolute mercy and absolute justice.
“You overcomplicate,” a cynical friend suggests. “The devil, like everyone else, has simply left the church.” Oh.
Yet I can see why the Church of England wishes to take Satan out of the service. It is always a shocking moment at a christening when the word devil is mentioned next to the body of a tiny baby clothed in white. The contrast seems so violent.
A Catholic pal comes to the rescue. “The devil has no reason on earth to feel left out. You mustn’t feel sorry for him. Only last week the International Association of Exorcists was formally recognised by Pope Francis and he often mentions Satan in his homilies. Nothing’s really changed.”
Why this was reassuring I do not know, but it was somehow.
More columns at ft.com/boyt