Developing our ministry of healing

Eucharist with prayers for healing

As you know, for some time now the celebration of the Eucharist in the evening of the first Sunday of the month has had a special focus on prayers for healing. This was initially introduced for an experimental period, but has clearly proved that for a modest number of people it has an important role in their worship pattern.

For some time now we have been asking the question as to how we can develop this a little bit further and a couple of months ago the Dean of Southwell came to talk to a small group about a similar ministry that they have at the Minster. As a result of that we have already made some relatively minor alterations to the Liturgy.

However, we recognise that our service should not exist in isolation either from the rest of the ministry of the church or from those who in their professional lives are working in the area of health and wholeness.

Below is a sermon that I preached at the August service. It contains some reflections on why and how we might develop our ministry. This includes altering the Liturgy, drawing health professionals and those engaged in pastoral ministry into the service on a regular basis, and a much richer exploration of what we understand by prayer and healing.

A number of people have asked about the possibility of organising a Listening course - something which I believe was done some years ago - and I am looking into providing that either in the Autumn or early next year. Please let me know what you think!

James 5: 13-16; Mark 9: 14-29

So there it is - pretty clear instructions - if you are ill, pray; if you know others who are ill, pray and God will raise them up. Simple and straight forward, and if only it worked we could do away with all the doctors and nurses and hospitals and the church would be full to overflowing. And there are some who would say that if Christians are not healed when they pray, it is because they are not faithful enough, or they are not living good enough lives - and I remember telling the story in one of my first sermons preached here of the couple in my first parish who were told that and ended up readmitted to a psychiatric hospital as a result. If we are serious about engaging with the process of healing, then we need to know, and to know well, that we are playing with fire. And fire can be good and warming and restorative, and it can be dangerous and destructive and life-threatening.

Healing service

So what do we think we are doing in this service? Some of you here will have received a letter from me saying that we want to develop what we are doing in this area of healing. When this service was introduced, around three years ago I think, it was done so on an experimental basis. When I arrived, I was certainly more than happy to continue the experiment, and in the time I have been here it has been clear that these prayers for healing meet a number of people's needs. We are not a large congregation, but we are a fairly stable one. Some of you, I am sure, come because it is the main Eucharist of the day, and the special prayers are just an add on; but I suspect that these prayers, and the laying on of hands has become important to many.

I sense though - and I know I am not alone - that this service exists a bit in isolation. It happens once a month, and then nothing more is made of it till the next month. Of course, what is happening within individuals is another matter. Many of you may be reflecting on issues to do with your own health, and continuing the prayer throughout the month. Others may indeed be wrestling with specific problems, physical, mental or spiritual (or more likely, all of those mixed up together). Some of you are dealing, day by day, either professionally or voluntarily with other people's health. I hope that in some way you find this Eucharist helpful to your work. But once a month, in a fairly formal sort of way, does not seem to me to be to be the most fulsome way of engaging with the healing ministry - which is, I hope we can all agree, the very heart of what Jesus is about. Reconciling the human race - both individuals and corporately - into the fullness of God's overflowing and freely given love is the Gospel. It is what the Messiah is for. And surely it is the state for which we all yearn.

That is why I have specifically asked both those supporting the ministry of pastoral care in the parish, and those who are professionals in the sphere of health, to consider making this service a priority because if we are together praying for our needs, one another's needs and the needs of those who are ill or in specific difficulties then at a very basic level we are accepting the common purpose to which we are all called, and we are recognising, again at a very basic level that these various ministries - the prayer and liturgy of the church, the care that we as a community are able to offer, and the specialist skills and experience of professionals are interwoven.

But there is more too, and it relates to that last point. If together we are to build up a healing ministry - a ministry which is of service to the widest possible community and not just those who happen to come to church and have a Christian belief - then we must explore together and acknowledge together that interwovenness of spiritual, mental and physical care. And we must ask two very fundamental questions. First, what do we mean by health and second, what do we mean by prayer. I don't think I can answer those two questions in the course of one shortish sermon. Indeed I don't think I want to. I want us to explore them together, and I certainly do not want - even if I could - to come up with tailor-made answers, not least because half of you would then disagree and ignore them!

The nature of healing prayer

But let me make one or two points which may help us to get the discussion started. Firstly, if prayer is an integral part of a healing process, it is not going to be just the childish prayer 'Please God make me better', or 'Please God, make my Gran better'. Such prayer, or other versions of it, are quite understandable, and we all engage in them at times of crisis. But it places all the responsibility for healing on God's plate. Well, I guess God can handle that, just as doctors have to handle the outlandish expectations that we place upon them and my guess is that, if we rely on that sort of prayer, we will often get as disenchanted with God as we (as a society) seem to with doctors. It was the great father of psychotherapy, Carl Gustav Jung who used to tell his therapists: "The best we can do is to give the inner doctor, who dwells in each patient, a chance to become operative." That is not to say that modern medicine and technology and the skill of a doctor do not contribute to our search for health, but simply that if we transfer responsibility from ourselves to another, be that person divine or human (or in the case of surgeons, I am told, a mixture of the two) we will not make the progress that we could.

So an exploration of the nature of prayer, and especially of corporate and supportive prayer will be of the essence of any development we may make.

The nature of healing

Secondly, we must have an understanding or a vision of what we mean by health and healing. In a theological sense, we have to offer to the world the fact and the reflection that none of us will be fully well until that moment when the fullness of our unity in God is finally revealed. So all of us are on a journey through which we seek God's healing. And we need to understand that my lack of health or well-being is intimately entwined with others and with the world's health. No matter how skilled the doctor nor how intricate the technology nor however powerful the drug, I will not be made entirely healthy. And if my health appears to be good, I need to understand that that makes me no different, no better, no healthier than anyone else. And this opens up for us complicated questions about sin, repentance and forgiveness, of good and evil in the world, and the relationship between my personal spiritual welfare or struggle, and the brokenness of our society. Let me say that the struggle between that sense of wonder and appreciation at the beauty of another person, for instance, and the feelings of lust which can so often cloud our relationships, may for most of us be an internal struggle, but the sermon on the mount makes no distinction between that and the free expression of that lust which is so destructive of individual welfare and of healthy relationships and so often contributes to a sense of confusion in society, and not a little pressure on our health services. Or indeed, the enjoyment of good wine or beer, which sometimes (in my limited experience) can lead on to a cheerful sense of personal well-being (for a short time) - and which is in the end little different from the excessive misuse of alcohol which we see so much of in our city, and is the single most wasteful user of our limited health resources.

The point is that we must be wary, in seeking to exercise our ministry of healing, of either assuming that we are 'doing to' as opposed to 'sharing in', or that we are in the business of 'making whole' That is God's business and the sharing and the mutual support in which we can engage is to recognize that health is a societal thing just as much as an individual thing.

Working together

Thirdly and finally for now, there is no room for rivalry, and so far as we are able to build it there should be complementarity of ministry. We recognize and honour the skills of different disciplines. As one writer on the subject has said:

The medical profession cannot bear the expectations we often put upon it… healing is a multi-faceted process which implies co-operation between a variety of disciplines and workers in different fields; and humility and a recognition of the limitations of each discipline is the only attitude to be adopted if the deep and complex needs of human beings are properly to be served.

This writer goes on a little later to say:

The disdain which is often heaped by the medical profession on any but the most orthodox of medical techniques is only matched by the implicit superiority which enthusiasts for 'spiritual healing' implicitly claim over conventional methods of surgery and medicine.

I hope - and pray - that we can develop our ministry of healing here, continuing to pray as we have done, adapting the liturgy as we feel we need to, but supporting our formal prayer here with a much more integrated vision of our common journey towards the wholeness which is God's promise to the world. There is so much opportunity to form truly complementary partnerships and patterns of ministry which in their turn will produce growth and, in a real sense, healing for us all.

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 26th September 2002