Readers of this blog will note that I quite often speak about the tension between liberals and conservatives within the church. If we were to draw a line to represent the two opposite ends of opinion among Christians I do not believe that I would be quite as close to the liberal end of the continuum as some might assume. Although I accept ‘higher’ criticism of Scripture and am relaxed about certain definitions within doctrine, there is one particular place where I part company with many liberal Christians. The point of issue is the question of healing miracles and the possibility of healing today. Many liberals do not accept the reality of miracles either in Jesus’ day or today. Because this is something I have studied and experienced for myself I personally have little problem with the miracles in the Bible and can accept that they still take place in some settings. A belief in the fundamental reliability of the healing stories is not the same as saying that we must always understand mental illness as being the result of demonic possession! I see however no problem in believing that Jesus was a healer and that this was a crucial way in which he proclaimed the reality of God’s kingdom. Healing has always formed a large part of traditional religious practice in cultures across the world and I see no reason not to believe that Jesus made a considerable impact on his contemporaries through his practice of healing.
Clearly this subject is a vast one and I will not be able to start more than a preliminary discussion in this first blog post on the subject. But it is important to our overall theme of abuse in the church because while the church does in some situations have a highly effective ministry of healing, it also paradoxically sometimes allows this area of activity to be one where people are damaged.
The context where ‘healing’ may well have been met by readers of this blog will probably have been a charismatic/Pentecostal setting. Although I am not uncritical of this style of worship and church life, I do recognise that the ‘energy’ released within this setting can sometimes be powerful and transformative. Phenomena like speaking in tongues and ecstatic states are met in many religious contexts across the world. When looked at objectively these phenomena do often have a significant effect on those caught up in them and in certain situations that might involve physical or emotional healing. Charismatic ‘energy’ when practised in a Christian setting is also the context for the discovery of distinctive forms of spirituality. Prayer seems often to be rediscovered in a vital way in those who have been exposed to charismatic events. The problem arises when Christian groups insist that everyone who has had one of these experience must subscribe to a particular theology –normally of a very conservative type.
Back in the 1970s when I first encountered charismatic phenomena and the healing that sometimes went with it, it was not associated exclusively with any particular strand of theology. Indeed early writing on the topic in the 60s was by one Denis Bennett who came from an Anglo-Catholic Anglican background. It was only gradually over the late 70s and 80s that the Charismatic Movement came to be dominated by conservative and fundamentalist ideology. I am told that there are places where this stranglehold is not to be found but if it exists it is rare. The point of this brief historical digression is to note that the healing that sometimes comes as part of the charismatic culture also gets entangled with the power games that are common within the fundamentalist styles of church life. Thus it is perfectly possible, as has happened, for a thoroughly corrupt Christian leader who exploits his people financially and sexually nevertheless to preside over a miraculous healing event. Morality and healing do not necessarily go together, even if it would be much tidier for our thinking if evil people were never associated with an apparently spiritual event such as healing.
What are the phenomena within the charismatic culture that sometimes result in healing, mental or physical, whether or not these are combined with a strong grasp of Christian values and belief? The answer at its most simple is that we are meeting a type of healing that allows an individual to encounter what is known as a primal experience. It might be a very powerful event to be connected to a long forgotten trauma through a process known to psychologists as abreaction. Although some people might regard the process, which sometimes causes tears and laughter, as somewhat childish, there is no doubt that healing can be found sometimes within it. But, as I have suggested in a previous post, there is enormous pressure on the charismatic leader to make sure that these events occur every time that he is on stage. ‘Outpourings of the Spirit’ are expected night after night to prove that the speaker is an anointed man of God, and, more cynically, it is only when healings are thought to take place that people open their wallets. In this situation there is the temptation to fabricate healings to bolster the power and authority of the leader. A forced, even mechanical use of charismatic gifts is seldom productive. All too easily you have the potential for abuse as well as a great sense of let-down for those who come for healing.
In this first post on the subject of healing I am trying to present a case for the reality of healing within the charismatic/Pentecostal culture of worship and practise. I see no reason from experience to doubt that this style of spirituality can on occasion provide the opportunity for someone to be changed from within, spiritually, emotionally and physically. They encounter a power which can move them in such a way that age-old issues are dealt with in a carthartic or abreactive moment. Simultaneously I note that insofar as the charismatic culture has been corrupted in many places by individuals who want power for themselves, the healing events are not straightforwardly simple. The ‘healed’ individual may for example find themselves psychologically entangled with the ‘healer’, and there may be financial or other obligations to be paid back over a period of time. Healing sometimes happens but unless there is a strong ethical context for its occurrence we might find that the ‘healed’ sometimes move from one form of bondage into another.