I suffered from chronic back pain for years and most of the prayer ministers at my church knew it. During that season I was a regular recipient of prayer during Communion on Sunday mornings. One Sunday morning I walked into church particularly discouraged, almost unable to find the words to even ask– again– for healing. But I got in line and tearfully repeated the refrain, “Please pray for my back.” That day, I was healed. Inexplicably and unsensationally, God answered the prayers of these church volunteers and I was delivered from chronic pain. Eight years later, I give thanks to God for the church that walked with me and prayed for me and participated in my healing.
The topic of healing is loaded, and for good reason. Christians have varying theological perspectives on how God heals today. Many carry the pain of unanswered prayers or false promises of relief from affliction. To make this a public conversation in church is to invite the complexity of hope mingled with disappointment— and a lot of difficult questions.
But as Christians, we are called to live in this tension. The story of redemption teaches us to expect God’s renewing work in the world and simultaneously to wait with patience for the renewal of all things. In other words, we need to have an imagination for healing along with a theology of suffering. We must ask in faith with and for those who suffer, and then be willing to walk alongside them when suffering lingers.
It Takes a Church to Heal
This ministry belongs to the whole church. Though some individuals may be uniquely gifted to pray for healing, the book of James instructs the elders of the church to anoint and pray for those who are sick: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14).
Whether James was referring to elders in a formalized sense of leadership office or a more generalized sense of senior Christians within a congregation, he is clearly referring to a plurality of ministers. Morris Maddox writes, “The injunction…is that more than one should minister in this way, for it is a ministry of the Church, not of an individual member. It is the ‘elders’ who are to be called, the representatives of the Church who minister in Christ’s name.”
This is why Anglicans have a corporate liturgy for healing. Found in The Book of Occasional Services, “A Public Service of Healing” brings members of the church together for a focused time of reflection and prayer for the sick. It includes specific Scripture readings and a litany of healing with prayers for the infirm, the lonely, doctors and nurses, and the dying.
After a time of teaching and confession of sin, people are invited to come forward for anointing with oil. Anointing is done by the clergy, but “lay persons with a gift of healing may join the celebrant in the laying on of hands.” At our church, we have a priest and a lay minister pray together at the rail for each person who comes forward to be anointed.
Healing, Eucharist, and Mystery
After the anointing, Communion may be shared as part of the healing service. This is not just because Anglicans will take every opportunity to celebrate the eucharist— though we will!—but because there is a very close relationship between the eucharist and healing in the sacramental tradition. If Jesus makes Himself present to His people in the breaking of bread, then His healing power is uniquely released when we come to the Table. This is also why many Anglican churches offer healing prayer ministry during Communion on Sunday mornings: we receive Christ’s life and then we pray for its application in the myriad ways we need it.
Healing is not a science. Even doctors, who study and utilize science in the ministry of healing, experience the mystery involved in a person’s recovery or lack thereof. When we try to control healing—either by reducing it to a formula or by dismissing the possibility altogether— we misrepresent the God who alone can heal. But as God’s children, we are invited to simply ask Him for healing. We ask in faith, bringing the full weight of our hope before His throne. This actually requires great courage because it makes us vulnerable. When we ask for something, the answer might be no. The apostle Paul experienced this when he asked for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
But the beauty of a healing service is that people can embrace this vulnerability in the context of community. Gathering together reminds us that we are not alone in our affliction. Each of our stories is unique, but each of us needs God’s restorative touch. Being anointed and prayed for by others lifts us to God’s throne when we have run out of our own words to pray, when we have lost our own faith for healing to happen. And being seen by the church makes our affliction visible. Even if healing doesn’t come, we are known and no longer suffer in silence.
To offer a healing service in your church is to invite vulnerability, complexity, mystery, and hope. It might bring lots of questions. It will probably bring lots of tears. But it is our great privilege as God’s people to usher all of these things into His loving presence. Healing ministry is a mess worth making because God Himself will be in the midst of it.