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Healing by consensus

06 May 2016

Prayers for the sick are said at most services, but what can we really believe about physical healing? Simon Jones takes a personal journey from pentecostalism to neuroscience in search of the God-shaped whole


Laying on of hands: services with this description exist in the Anglican canon, but are more commonly practised in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches

Laying on of hands: services with this description exist in the Anglican canon, but are more commonly practised in Pentecostal and Charismatic churche...

I FELT a hand on the back of my neck. I had some kind of throat infection, and I was not going to be able to sing in the Sunday-school carol service. “Lord,” said the pastor’s voice, “we believe you have gifted this child with a voice that can touch people with your Spirit.”

The hand felt a little heavier. “We know that the powers of darkness want to prevent the work of your Kingdom this evening, and we bring Simon before you to ask for your healing protection.” I wondered if there was going to be a handkerchief. Sometimes there was olive oil — from the chemist, which Pentecostal churches still prefer to Tesco — and a handkerchief.

“In the name of Jesus, we ask that the attack on his throat be repelled. We pray that his voice become clearer than it has ever been before. ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’, says the Psalmist, ‘hast thou ordained strength,’ and we know you as someone who can use even a child to reach the lost.”

I suppressed a cough. It would be very wrong of me to cough when all these serious men wanted my throat to be clear. Jesus would be very disappointed if I coughed. “In the name of Jesus, we ask that souls be reached tonight. We believe you heal the sick, and we claim it now. Amen.”

“Amen,” I said.

I grew up Pentecostal — Welsh Pentecostal — not Anglican, and we did healing in a hands-on way. By the time I was a Sunday-school soloist, I had already been prayed for, publicly, many times. I understood that God had healed me from a serious bout of unvaccinated whooping cough as a baby, and that he had had his hand on my life ever since.

Now it was down to me to prove that prayer worked. Was it lacking in faith to suck on a Tyrozet? Cough sweets cannot calm the nerves that constrict a nervous boy’s throat, though. Only the belief that God wanted me to sing could supply that confidence. And I was gifted. The Spirit wanted to work through me. Of course I was going to be able to sing. I was healed.


TODAY, as an Anglican, I find that “healing” is a more nuanced term than it was in the church of my youth. “It is apparent in scripture that the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being of human beings are closely interconnected,” the Church’s theological introduction to “Wholeness and Healing” services says.

“Acts of healing in the Gospels are intimately related to the restoring of individuals to a place of worth within the social order. 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.”

My seven-year-old self would not have understood this description. Neither might the pastor with a hand on my neck. But my adult self is comfortable with the idea that I needed to be affirmed more than I needed to have the bacteria in my throat, put there by demons, removed by angels.

Psychologists, too, accept that prayer of this kind improves people’s lives. “From a scientific perspective, faith healing is unexplained, incomprehensible, and should not work. Yet it does work,” Dr Nigel Barber wrote in the magazine Psychology Today. But this is unproblematic for an atheist in the field, since it, too, understands that healing can be a product of the mind, or faith, of the patient. Placebo trials, for example, have shown that patient recovery can be induced by a pill or procedure that has no medical value. Sugar pills, to someone who believes that they contain a more complex pharmaceutical, improve well-being.

Similarly, neuro-scientists are discovering that changes in the brain have a significant impact on the rest of the physical body. In 2011, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine linked the activation of “reward systems” in the brain with the ability to withstand pain. Participants in their study were better able to cope with physical discomfort when viewing a picture of their partner. “Love better than drugs” the headlines ran: a claim that would not sound out of place coming from any Christian mouth.


AN UNDERSTANDING of healing that unites Christianity, psychology, and neuro-science is rich and valuable. But, when compared with the acts of Jesus or the Early Church, it also seems lukewarm and partial. No blind person ever regained his or her sight because of a placebo-like belief.

Such miracles today are the dubious preserve of “faith healers”, a more contested realm. The term, unequivocally, has been used by charlatans. James Randi’s book The Faith Healers describes how many “healers”, under the sign of the cross, have made themselves wealthy by deception and fraud.

Much of Randi’s evidence came from people who had worked alongside such deceit. His most famous target was a US evangelist, Peter Popoff, who would call out the names of people in a congregation, and describe their ailments. Popoff said that he received this information from God, but it was obtained by staff who mingled with the audience before each event. This information would be passed on to Popoff’s wife, who would broadcast it to a receiver in Popoff’s ear. Randi recorded one of these transmissions, and took it to The Johnny Carson Show.

Randi also exposed W. V. Grant, who used stooges to claim, for example, that “Dr Jesus” had “put a new heart” into a man supposedly awaiting open-heart surgery. Grant’s subjects were often “slain in the Spirit”, falling backward into the arms of his assistants, a phenomenon common in the Pentecostal churches I attended as a boy. Randi noted what happened when he encountered an elderly woman who did not wish to fall backward: Grant pushed his fingers into her neck so hard that she could not remain standing.

This never happened to me, but I do remember feeling an obligation to fall, a kind of atmospheric peer pressure. No personal claims were ever made as a result; no money changed hands. I cannot say that any harm befell me because of those specific incidents. But neither can I, now, confidently claim that anything positive happened.


TODAY, in the years after the exposure of Popoff and the like, a suspicion remains about claims of faith healing, even inside the Church. One response has been the attempt to prove the legitimacy of healing prayer with blind trials. Often, these have worried religious parties who believed in prayer (because of a concern that a scientific approach would undermine faith), as well as parts of the scientific community (which has a fear that results may be misused). People on both sides can agree that what Stephen Jay Gould called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion must be kept distinct.

But the research has offered mixed results. Some studies claim that prayer can improve health; others show no effect. Some have even concluded that prayer may lead to worsening health. “Part of the confusion stems from how prayer is studied,” the author of Testing Prayer: Science and healing, Candy Gunther Brown, says. “Most research is on distant intercessory prayer. Intercessors are given the first name and condition of someone they do not know, and told to pray. Researchers set up double-blinded trials — because this is how they are accustomed to studying health interventions — and base conclusions on the efficacy of prayer solely on whether subjects in the experimental group exhibit better health than those in the control group.

“But when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person, and empathise with their sufferings: what I call proximal intercessory prayer, or PIP. Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way of gauging the effects of this kind of prayer practice.”

Brown spent eight years studying PIP by Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians — the groups, she says, that are most likely to pray for healing, and claim that their prayers work — in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Mozambique. In 2010, she published an article in the Southern Medical Journal which argued that PIP, performed by Pentecostals in Mozambique, significantly improved the hearing and vision of a number of prayer recipients.

She does not, however, make the case for some magic finger of God reaching down from the heavens. For her, the widespread perception of prayer’s healing power has demonstrable social effects. In some cases, she believes, those effects produce improvements in health that can be scientifically verified.


THIS takes us barely any further than the consensus of Christians, psychologists, and neuro-scientists (Professor Brown describes herself as a “historian and ethnographer of religion and culture”), but each relies on the patients’ having a religious world-view that cannot be empirically proven. It is difficult to imagine how, even where health improvement as a result of faith can be verified, an atheist might benefit from a prayer that requires a belief in God. Those of us attempting to discover the value of healing prayers, those of us who want to believe but are struggling to, cannot profit unless we believe.

“There is something mysterious about the ministry of healing,” the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS, a former Bishop of Monmouth, wrote when he chaired the Church of England’s Healing Ministry Steering Group. “It is difficult to know what is taking place, because it is God working through us, and yet he draws us into the mystery to become part of it.”

The Revd Michael Wilson, an Anglican priest who worked as a medical doctor, wrote: “Health is a concept, like truth, that cannot be defined. To define it is to kill it. Nor can it be possessed. It can only be shared. There is no health for me without my brother. The ministry of healing touches not only individuals, but reaches out to bring healing and reconciliation to the wounds of communities and society.”


AT THIS point, it is worth making the necessary distinction between the kind of healing that exists as a proof of God’s activity in the world, and the kind that invites people into a sense of their own wholeness. Sadly, they do not always go together. Not everyone wants to be “healed” according to another’s understanding of what wholeness is. The author Beth Hopkins writes of how she once “escaped a faith healing by the skin of my teeth”. A pastor approached her in a car park, and asked if he could pray for her cerebral palsy. “I believe in faith,” she says. “I believe in healing. But I have no desire to be healed of, or delivered from, my physical differences.

“Parking Lot Healer assumed I wanted to be healed of my physical disability, simply because he saw I had one,” she continues. “No one has ever asked me if I wanted to be healed before offering (or attempting) to do so. But Jesus himself asked the man at the pool, ‘Do you want to get well?’ (John 5.6). As God, he recognised and respected the free will given to his creation.

“Parking Lot Healer assumed a purely negative relationship between physical and spiritual ‘wholeness’. Assuming I want to be healed implies that there is something ‘wrong’ or ‘undesirable’ about my body, which should be fixed. And making physical healing the exclusive focus of such ministry makes the healing of mind, soul, and spirit seem like an afterthought. Even worse, it seems to equate who I am on the inside with how I appear on the outside. God forbid if we all treated each other this way!”


“I WOULD like to take that person aside and give them some training,” the Archbishops’ Adviser for the Healing Ministry, the Revd Dr Beatrice Brandon, says. “The search for healing and wholeness is one of the most profound characteristics of human existence. The Christian understanding of healing is not the same as a cure: it does not try to patch up, repair, recreate, or revert something or someone to a former state.”

When I ask her about the training that she would offer, she puts healing in the context of Jesus’s mission and ministry. Some miracles, she says, reveal to us what God’s plan was for the world at that time. “It’s very important to put physical recovery in the context of wider healing ministry. No one is entirely healthy, and we need to think about it in terms wider than immediate miraculous healing.

“I believe God knows us better than we know ourselves, and you know what? — the death rate is still at 100 per cent, and doesn’t much look like changing. People will die of something. Physical recovery may be an important part of a prayer, but our first call should be to address this person’s needs in the context of eternity.”

This sounds like more consensus to me, and Dr Brandon is sceptical about the desire to prove that prayer works. “I can’t say that I’ve come across anyone who I could prove 100 per cent has been healed,” she says. “Look at all those people at the Medical Bureau at Lourdes. There are lots of doctors there who would be delighted to verify a miracle, but I don’t believe God performs for scientists in a laboratory.” The Bureau receives about 35 miraculous claims every year. Most are quickly dismissed; some four or five require further investigation. About 7000 have been registered altogether; 69 have been validated by the Roman Catholic Church since 1862.

I want to know whether she thinks that the Church’s healing ministry should be part of its mission or outreach, wondering whether — as happened with Jesus and the Early Church — it should use the miraculous as an evangelistic tool. “Jesus met people’s basic needs,” she says. “Of course, as Son of God, he was able to perform miracles to demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom. But, yes, that happens now. It’s not human nature to forgive; so, when someone perhaps near the end of their life is able to do that, as a result of healing, a range of people benefit. I think that’s quietly miraculous.”

I do, too. Coping with difficult circumstances, as she says, can be a miracle. I agree with her that each of us should be considering our wholeness in the context of eternity. When she says that it is wrong of us to feel that God has let us down if there is no physical healing, I can acknowledge that God’s plans are more complex than ours. I am glad that she puts physical recovery within a wider concern for wholeness and well-being. In her terms, it means that each of us can be a healer, because it is healing to give our attention to those who need it.

I like, too, the way she compares what the Church offers, in terms of healing, to what might be available on the high street. “I don’t believe that all attempts are healing are valuable,” she says. “I can’t comment on the efficacy of those practices [she won’t name any specifically], but there are places you can go to a therapist and be given respect, taken seriously, in comfortable surroundings. You get to know you matter. And I wonder what those people feel like when they go into a church. Do they get time with the priest? Will they be called by their name? We have so much to offer, but I’m not sure we’re very good at giving it, sometimes.”


THE Church of England’s last report on healing, A Time to Heal (2000), begins by asking whether the ministry of healing was appropriate for the Church to be promoting in the 21st century. Ultimately, it argues that it is visionary, prophetic, and dynamic. It is easy to forget that that is exactly what considering a person in the context of eternity might be.

I have been looking for some piece of magic that might make me believe that Christians can act like Jesus, healing hundreds at a touch. But Dr Brandon asks me not to go in search of someone who claims to have been physically healed. “It may, of course, be confidential; but I also worry about the nature of their healing, whether it would be appropriate in the context of an article.

”I’m also very wary about people who want to give that kind of testimony. Who benefits? And there are as many as 300 organisations out there that claim to be Anglican or ecumenical healing ministries. Please beware that none of them is official.”

I don’t tell her that I have already tried to find someone who will say that a healing prayer worked for them, and have found what she says to be true. No one recommended to me as having been physically healed has any medical evidence, but there is a sad desire to praise the gifting of some particular preacher or minister.

When I think back to the prayers for healing I received as a child, at least I can say that no human reputations were being served. The Sunday-school teacher got a round of applause for managing a fine evening, but the biggest commendations went to us children. God was thanked robustly for enabling my tongue. Healing happened.


I SOMETIMES miss the certainty of belief I felt in the churches of my youth. Every prayer, whether it resulted in healing or not, resulted in some kind of meaning. If God did not heal, there was a reason, even if we might never know it. My lack of certainty now — which most of the time feels more honest, responsible, and productive — sometimes leaves me with a fear that the universe is arbitrary. I believe, though, in a God who takes our side in circumstances that are not of her own choosing.

I still pray for healing — for myself, and for others. I believe; and I resist the cynical disparaging of it as nebulous that “something happens” when I do. I believe that an awareness of the need for healing in ourselves and others expands our compassion, our sense of what God wants in the world, and what the Kingdom might look like.

I understand why this cannot be proved, and yet it is fascinating that we move closer and closer to an understanding of how what we believe affects our well-being. I am grateful to God that neuro-scientists and psychologists are helping us to get there. Oh Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.


Praying for healing — good-practice guidelines:


1. Those involved in healing ministry should be prayerful, regularly practising Christians, who acknowledge God’s healing love, and are willing to pray and listen for guidance.

2. Ensure the safety of the person receiving this ministry: people have a right to know what is being provided, and how they will be ministered to.

3. There should be clear lines of accountability to recognise who holds relevant authority within their parish church.

4. Individuals should receive appropriate training in this ministry, and be kept up to date with developments and its ecumenical expression.

5. Persons in this ministry should be aware of their personal limitations, and ensure that they are properly prepared, and fit to be involved.

6. The personal conduct of everyone involved should encourage confidence in this ministry, and not undermine it (language, personal hygiene, general appearance, body language, and touch should be appropriate).

7. People’s privacy and dignity should be respected and protected.

8. Counselling and psychotherapy should be provided only by accredited counsellors and therapists.


Edited from House of Bishops’ Guidelines for Good Practice in the Healing Ministry, in A Time to Heal. 

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