40 Healing – some opening thoughts

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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “40 Healing – some opening thoughts

  1. I have found that Christians right across the spectrum of churchmanship are comfortable with the healing ministry. And that is as it should be. But I can easily see how it might become a purely evanelical phenomenon, and how it might lead to abusive relationships, including dependency.

  2. It’s good to open this topic. I agree both that Charismatic-type healing events can have real beneficial effects, and that they can be used to bolster an abusive church culture.

    Perhaps in a parallel sort of way to your earlier remarks about pilgrim spirituality and salvation, I’d like to suggest that healing is equally an aspect of spirituality that is not necessarily all-or-nothing, or once-for-all. Healing can also be understood as part of an ongoing process, the journey of life. For those in particular who have had mental health problems, seeing it this way opens up the possibility of making interesting connections with the recovery movement in mental health. Although this is largely secular, there are many significant points of overlap with Christian spirituality. An example site is http://www.recoverydevon.co.uk/. Here too, the emphasis is on recovery/healing as process and transformation of life and not automatically as “cure”.

    From the point of view of the aim of this blog to expose and counter abusive cultures in the church. in a parallel kind of way the recovery movement is concerned with people taking ownership of their own recovery, and there is space for naming and opposing the abusive aspects which have been strong in psychiatry and mental health care.

  3. I think the gap between the present day ‘Hit and miss’ type healing and the seemingly almost instant healing of Christ and the Apostles, can raise a fatal objection to the possible reality of present day healing. My brother made a ‘Decision’ to follow Christ when attending a meeting in the mid 70’s.
    He later attended a healing meeting held by a local ‘evangelist’. At this meeting a blind girl was said to be healed, my brother recalls that she was ‘certainly not healed,’ he witnessed the girls father leading her out of the church still very, very blind.
    Having never witnessed an Apostolic type miracle myself I remain agnostic about the whole issue. Stephen is right to point out the dreadful heartbreak and dependancy that can result from this.

    Chris Pitts

  4. This is a useful subject to explore and one on which I try to keep an open mind. There are two problems, I think. Firstly, if Christ did heal people exactly as described, why did he heal some people and not others – there must have been an overwhelming demand for healing in the first century.

    Secondly, looking at our world, it has been said before here that the above point, about whether healing occurs or not, opens up the possibility of abuse – ‘the cure did not happen and therefore there must be something wrong in your life’. This approach by a local church has scarred friends who now worship in my church

    For these reasons, I think when reading the Bible stories of miraculous healing, the Borg/Crossan approach has a lot to recommend it, ie ‘I don’t mind whether you wish to believe this story literally or not, so long as you don’t miss the point/the teaching that lies behind every such story.

  5. James. There are of course lots of problems in the Bible accounts of healing and I can’t cover them all. I have not read the Borg/Crossan account of miracles but I can imagine that I would not disagree completely with their approach. I just find the historical evidence for Jesus being a healer fairly overwhelming. To say that he was a healer does not mean that he healed everyone in sight and there are no doubt limits to what was possible for him to do. I am also very familiar with the way that the ‘unhealed’ get blamed for the failure. That is another way that abuse creeps into the whole scene. I wanted to point out in the post that some people who tap into the charismatic power may be simultaneously complete and utter rogues and go from healing into creating dependency both emotional and sexual. You might gather that I see the link between healing and gross abuse and it is sometimes all too evident. My first two books were about healing and my third was on abuse in the church. It was because that having hung around healing for 15 years, I saw clearly that the whole thing was sometimes being corrupted by hideous and dangerous power games. Nevertheless healing and charismatic practice can and do happen in an uncorrupt form but I am not surprised that many people are cynical about.them.

    With regard to the comment that all types of churchmanship find healing acceptable, I would comment that all churchmanships will do services for healing which is not the same thing. I fear that in many settings they do not want to engage with the realities of healing which include self-examination, reconciliation and a radical encounter with the Christian faith. Healing services are often cosy, a bit twee and certainly not challenging. If someone were to be healed in that kind of setting, it would actually be quite hard for some to cope. As a former Diocesan healing adviser I found that the charismatic spirituality, when it had not been corrupted, did sometimes delver something transformative and healing when the cosy style did not. There are no simple answers to these problems but we will carry on discussing them.

    The important issue is to identify the paradox that healing can provide a real transforming encounter but simultaneously it can be a gateway to abusive practice, whether theological, pastoral or connected with power. The books on healing do not engage with this paradox. Perhaps our blog can raise it and put it more clearly than it has been done.

  6. I’d agree that there is more to healing ministry than having a healing service! But for example, having been approached by someone over what turned out to be a deliverance issue, I referred the matter to the correct person, who was in fact a high Anglo-Catholic priest. He played it entirely straight, and indeed told me a story about a similar case. He was concerned, as I was, about the distress caused to the people concerned, but in no way phased by the idea of deliverance. On the other hand, the people I have worked with on this have been evangelical.

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