Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Healing: Sacrament or Prayer?

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Healing: Sacrament or Prayer?

Article excerpt

The laying on of hands and anointing of the sick at the center of the church's ritual care of the suffering and dying presume the physical presence of the one seeking this ritual care. This real encounter between human beings as vehicles of God's grace seems a basic aspect of healing, given both the incarnational and creational foundations of sacramentality and sacramental theology, and the practical and psychological importance of touch and presence. In order to counter the growing trend of "proxy" anointings in North America and the United Kingdom, this article gives theological and liturgical support to the presupposition of physical presence. First, the article notes the emergence of this trend. Then the article counters it through a reflection on the meaning of the ritual actions, with reference to the longer theological and liturgical traditions and the current official liturgical texts of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA).

In 1972 Thomas Talley wrote an article in Worship entitled "Healing: Sacrament or Charism?" in which he articulated some of the differences between charismatic healing and sacramental anointing.1 The comparison gave him an entrée into the discussion on the effects of sacramental anointing and its relationship to physical healing, as well as the opportunity to challenge what he perceived as an imhelpful turn toward emotionalism. At the heart of his concern was what he described as "the beginning of a trend toward a preoccupation with physical healing such as has grown very rapidly in the Anglican Communion without the benefit of serious theological criticism, and this has begun to assert that sickness and suffering are unqualifiedly contrary to the will of God."2 Talley was concerned that the ritual practice was unconsciously altering theological reflections on sickness, health, and the cause-and-effect model of sacraments.

I return to Talley s article some thirty years later because of a concern with the ritual practice of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick that has arisen in a number of American parishes, primarily in Episcopal (or Anglican) circles: the "anointing by proxy" phenomenon. This "trend" (if it can actually be called that) was brought to my attention by several seminary students in the last four years. In one case, a student in the class on the rites for the sick and dying asked what I thought about parishioners who came up to be anointed for others. Not being familiar with the practice, I encouraged him to pursue the topic for one of his course papers, which led him to research the practice and its possible origins.

The official liturgical books of the Episcopal Church containing unction, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the supplement Euriching Our Worship 2 (EOW 2),3 never mention the practice, but the student had witnessed it in different geographical areas (including several cathedrals) and so began asking questions. He had a very interesting exchange with the International Order of St. Luke (OSL), who wrote that they had been doing (and advocating for) this practice of anointing by proxy for many years, even though they did not know its origins or theology. The response from the North American Warden of OSL fascinated the student even more. How could a practice like this flourish with little theological reflection?

There are, as you know, instances recorded in which Jesus healed "at a distance" in response to someone else s request. So, we in the Order of Saint Luke do not hesitate to pray with someone who is interceding for another person near or far. The "extension" of that covers your specific question about anointing and/or laying on of hands for someone who comes as intercessor or "proxy" for another who is not present. I have never seen any discussion of this practice in print (that is, regarding the theological justification for it), we just have always done it, at least always during the now 75 years plus of OSLs existence. …

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