John Richardson reviews the recent report
A Time to Heal
GIVEN THAT much of what is written about the ministry of healing is anecdotal, it is not inappropriate to begin this review with an anecdote of my own. Soon after my conversion I became a ‘card carrying’ Charismatic, largely (I would say these days) as a result of reading the wrong sort of American paperback. These books persuaded me that the age of miracles was not past. Rather, the church had simply given up praying in faith. With this view firmly in mind, I regularly offered to pray for people who were sick, fully expecting them to recover. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that they didn’t, but persevered whilst believing the problem must somehow lie with me. It was only some ten years later that I abandoned Charismatic theology with a sense of relief that I no longer had to try to live up to the unfulfilled expectations it constantly created. The lack of healing, I finally realized, was simply because that is the way things are.
I tell this anecdote to make the point that the absence of effectiveness in the ‘healing ministry’ is not necessarily the result either of a lack either of prayer or of faithful expectation. Nor, incidentally, does my revised theology mean I have given up prayer in this respect. However, I would certainly claim that my earlier naivety could have been prevented by a better grasp of theological reality. I now realize I shared the same problem as that of the early church at Corinth – an over-realized eschatology which expected the life of the coming kingdom to be fully manifested in the present age.
A Time to Heal
An appreciation of this reality would also, I believe, have produced a far better (and far smaller) report than A Time to Heal: A Contribution towards the Ministry of Healing (London: Church House Publishing 2000). This report has clearly been written both within and for a church influenced by almost forty years of the Charismatic movement. It is a report which sees the church’s ministry of healing as an area where, although progress has been made, much still remains to be achieved. This ministry is seen as an area where Diocesan specialists would be desirable, which can be taught in the theological colleges and where proper regulations and standards should be established. Both the ‘Introduction’ to the report itself , and the accompanying ‘Handbook’ which has been sent to all clergy in the Church of England, declare their subject matter to be “visionary”, “prophetic” and “dynamic”. The expectation seems to be that this ministry will be crucial in the future proclamation of the Kingdom of God. But what it fails to take into full account is whether the supposed ‘time to heal’ is actually now.
In the forty-two years since the last official report, there has clearly been an explosion of interest in healing in the Western church, yet there is no evidence of a corresponding explosion in actual healing. Despite the fifty-one general and two-hundred-and-forty-two specific recommendations contained in this report, in any given situation we still have no better idea how to invoke divine healing than in 1958.
A Different Time
The report is shot through with enthusiasm for its subject – and why not? We would all love healing and wholeness to be available to ourselves and our loved ones. And we all know that a key reason people give for rejecting God is the amount of suffering in the world. A predictable and effective healing ministry would not only meet our own most deeply felt needs but would surely be an effective evangelistic tool. Yet all we know for certain at the end of 412 pages of the main report and 58 pages of the handbook is that when confronted with sickness we should pray. This is not to deny that healing takes place in response to such prayer, and surely where there is more prayer there will tend to be more healing. But it is to question the assumption of this report that the ‘healing ministry’ can be quantifiably analysed and developed.
Much is said in the report about the nature of various kinds of sickness, including the physical, spiritual and psychological dimensions, but a paragraph on p 220 declares candidly,
We conclude, therefore, that it is practically impossible to provide scientific evidence to prove without question the effectiveness of the Church’s healing ministry.
Even claims to healing, this paragraph continues, must be treated circumspectly. Thus no one should throw away medication without seeking a doctor’s approval. However, it does not take a sceptic to suggest that at this point the report clearly relates to a different world of experience from that of the New Testament. Where healing invites the description ‘miraculous’, so-called ‘scientific’ proof becomes an irrelevance. I do not need ‘scientific proof’ even of natural healing – the healing is self-evident. Yet it is the fact that healing is so rarely self-evidently connected to divine intervention which distinguishes the contemporary situation from that found in the New Testament. Indeed, the report itself acknowledges,
… none of the doctors among us could recall any healing in response to prayer which matched the spontaneous miracles of the New Testament […]. (p 230)
If there were one church or one centre where such healing took place today, we may be sure that people of all persuasions would beat a path there:
As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went-into villages, towns or countryside-they placed the sick in the marketplaces. (Mk 6:54-56)
… people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. (Acts 5:15-16)
A Different Place
As Peter May has observed in The Church of England Newspaper (August 4, 2000), the failure sufficiently to engage with this difference is a fundamental weakness with this report. On the report’s claim that:
“…there is no way around” the belief that “what is happening now is the same as what happened in Jesus’ time” (p 21).
May rightly comments, “If there isn’t some way round this belief, we are in trouble”. For most of the church throughout most of its history, the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ has been consciously, if reluctantly, accepted. Thus even in the less ‘scientific’ sixteenth century, John Calvin wrote,
… it was fitting that the new preaching of the gospel and the new Kingdom of Christ should be illumined and magnified by unheard of and extraordinary miracles. When the Lord ceased from these, he did not utterly forsake his church, but declared that the magnificence of his Kingdom and the dignity of his word had been excellently enough displayed. (Institutes, IV, xix, 6)
And yet this report carries the implicit assumption that only an indefinable ‘something’ prevents such miracles happening today in the West. The quoted anecdote with which the report begins seems designed to highlight the perceived embarrassment of this situation:
‘How come you know Jesus and you heal nobody?’ The Sioux Indian Christian received no answer from his audience of American priests. (p 1 of the Report)
The contrast “Sioux Indian”/”American priests” seems to invite the comparison “simple faith”/”sceptical rationalism”. Yet as it stands, this anecdote begs serious question about the world in which we actually live.
In that world, both sickness and healing are normal. Look at any group of sixteen-year-olds, where a good number will have glasses on their noses or braces on their teeth, and you will realize how normal is sickness. But then consider how each of us survives numerous illnesses and accidents without any medical or spiritual intervention and you will realize how equally normal is healing. The problem actually lies in the questioner’s question, for surely no-one who knows Jesus would claim to heal anyone. It is as Peter said in Acts 3:12, “Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”
If I know Jesus and yet, in apparent spite of my prayers, no-one is healed, it is certainly not because I lack the power, nor even necessarily that I lack godliness. The answer this report seems unwilling to face is that, by the will of God himself, such miracles are not within the remit of the church today. And when it asserts that “Our mission to heal is given to us by Christ” (p 34) this report is in danger of ignoring the wider theological framework of the Bible which sees Jesus’ earthly ministry as unique:
As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work. (Jn 9:4)
When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything? […] But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. (Lk 22:35-36)
Three other things must be said in conclusion. First, the sole ‘Recommendation’ at the end of the chapter on ‘Healing in the Scriptures and Tradition’ forms such an extraordinary non sequitur that it deserves quoting in full:
We acknowledge the importance of the bishops’ role as teachers and guardians of the faith. Inherent in the episcopal office is a duty and opportunity to commend the ministry of healing to the Church and to promote it within each diocese. We recommend and encourage bishops to teach the scriptural importance of this ministry and its significance in furthering the kingdom of God (see page 261). (p 35)
Whilst it is possible to find this high view of the episcopate within a certain tradition, it is nowhere found in the scriptures, nor does this report even pretend to prove that it is. Yet this report can apparently make no other ‘recommendation’ from scripture.
Second, when I went to the Church House bookshop to buy a copy of this report, it was in stock and I was allowed to pay for it, but I could not take it home with me because it was “embargoed” until the next day. Instead, it was sent to me (free of charge) by first-class post that same evening! The pretentiousness of this performance is hard to credit.
Third, this is yet another contribution to the ‘report culture’ which now dominates the thinking of the Church of England. It scarcely matters today whether a report is good, bad or indifferent. It is merely enough that it is published and “received”. From then on, it is enshrined in the church’s self-referential canon. The truth is that we need more reports like we need more – well, I was tempted to say “more liturgies”. Enough, already! Even most Synod members had apparently not read this report when they voted on it. It is much to be hoped (though, sadly, hardly to be expected) that the new Synod will have the courage to exercise more control over a process which arguably has not increased the church’s understanding of anything in the last decade.
John Richardson is Assistant Minister to St John’s Stratford in the East End of London