The other week the normal Sunday morning service at the church where I worship took the form of a healing service. On that Sunday I was reminded that services of healing are not just the preserve of the wilder charismatic fringe of the church, but belong to mainstream church life too. In words taken from the Church of England’s introduction to services in which prayer is made for ‘wholeness and healing’:
Healing, reconciliation and restoration are integral to the good news of Jesus Christ. For this reason prayer for individuals, focused through laying on of hands or anointing with oil, has a proper place within the public prayer of the Church. God’s gracious activity of healing is to be seen both as part of the proclaiming of the good news and as an outworking of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church. Such prayer needs to be sensitive to a number of simplifications or misunderstandings. It should not imply a simple link between sickness and sin; Jesus himself warned against the direct association of disability and sin (John 9.3). The receiving of forgiveness and the act of forgiving others may open the way to healing and wholeness. Prayer for healing and strengthening should not involve the rejection of the skills and activity of medicine which are also part of God’s faithfulness to creation (see Ecclesiasticus 38.9-12; Psalm 147.3). Prayer for healing needs to take seriously the way in which individual sickness and vulnerability are often the result of injustice and social oppression. Equally importantly such prayer should not imply that the restoration of physical wholeness is the only way in which Christ meets human need. Healing has always to be seen against the background of the continuing anguish of an alienated world and the hidden work of the Holy Spirit bringing God’s new order to birth. It is a way of partaking in God’s new life that will not be complete until it includes the whole creation and the destruction of death itself.
In the service I attended all the hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers were focussed on healing, but within the normal framework of Sunday worship. I found it a fascinating and challenging experience, because although over the years I have often prayed for the sick, I have never conducted a service of healing.
The preacher took as her text two verses from Revelation 22.1-2: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, following from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” It is a wonderful description of heaven. I love the idea of a heaven a river of crystal-clear ‘living‘ water’ running from the throne of God– a river so different from the polluted rivers of our world. The preacher used her text to talk about the multi-dimensional nature of healing – healing within the context of Revelation 22 relates not to individuals but to “the nations”.
As I discovered when I got home, the Pentecostal Gordon Fee in his commentary wrote: “Here imaged is the original ‘United Nations’, made possible through the blood of the Lamb”. The Anglican scholar, Stephen Smalley, had a different take: “Even in the dimension of the new Jerusalem there will be those who choose to remain out its gates (21.26-27; 22.15), and who will therefore need the opportunity to accept ‘leaves of healing’ by which to embrace God’s universal invitation of love”.
Perhaps wisely, our preacher did not attempt to wrestle with precisely what John in the Book of Revelation was seeking to say. Instead she linked Rev 22.1-2 with the Gospel Reading from Luke 11.1-13 where Jesus said to his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you”, and from this drew the lesson that Jesus always answers our prayers, but not always in the way we might wish or expect. “The one certainty”, she said, “is that God always brings love and compassion into every situation”. That certainly is true.
In the formal prayers of intercession which followed the sermon and the saying of the Nicene creed, the focus was on healing, peace, and wholeness. Then we moved on to the Peace and to the Eucharistic Prayer, where the introductory words chosen related healing to communion: “It is right to give you thanks in sickness and in health, in suffering and in joy, through Christ our Saviour and Redeemer, who as the Good Samaritan tends the wounds of body and spirit. He stands by us and pours out for our healing the oil of consolation and the wine of renewed hope, turning the darkness of our pain into the dawning light of his kingdom”. As a Nonconformist I am struck by the flexibility which Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England offers for how the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, a flexibility which is not to be found in many Baptist churches.
After the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, we came to “the laying on of hands and anointing for those who wish”. There was no ‘hype’ of any kind. The emphasis was on the ‘sacrament’ of prayer accompanied by the laying on of hands and anointing with a view to seeking God’s healing. Although I take issue with Roman Catholics and High Church Anglicans who speak of the ‘seven sacraments’ (baptism, the Lord’s Supper, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination), I have no difficulty in accepting that prayer for healing can be ‘a means of grace’ – just as, for instance, preaching can be too.
As the organ played and then later as we sang the Graham Kendrick hymn, ‘Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair’, to my surprise around a quarter of the worshippers lined up to be anointed and prayed for. It was clear that many people yearned for ‘healing’ for themselves or perhaps for loved ones. I was surprised that there was no space for people to share what was on their hearts with the two ministers who were praying and anointing – nor was there any opportunity for the ministers to engage in extempore prayer. It all seemed very ‘formulaic’, and yet there was a very real sense of the presence of God in the service.
As we stood outside in the grounds of the Cathedral drinking coffee together, engaging theologically with the preacher did not seem to me to be right. In no way did I want to come over as critical of any aspect of the service. However, at some stage I would like to find an opportunity to discuss some of the theological issues this healing service raised for me. Or maybe within the context of this blog, there will be readers willing to respond on how they believe churches might best fulfil Jesus’ command to the Twelve to “proclaim the kingdom of God and heal” (Luke 9.2).