Happy Father’s Day! Today is our first Liturgy Lab of the summer. As is true of all good experiments, one never knows for sure what the outcome will be, but with God’s grace we will hopefully avoid any explosions or poisonous gas clouds resulting from an experiment gone awry.
One of the several components of our experiment will be our monthly practice of Healing Prayer. Normally, we do this on the second Sunday of the month. For the past several months that practice has been interrupted by major feasts–last week, it was the Feast of Pentecost. Rather than try to cram too much liturgical action into such important days, I think it is better to have healing prayer on a subsequent Sunday (like today). However, we are going to change (shudder!) how we do it for this Liturgy Lab Sunday. It is our normal practice to have healing prayers AFTER everyone has received Communion. Those who wish, normally come back to the altar rail and receive the laying on of hands and/or annointing with oil. Today, Healing Prayer will be offered before the Peace and right after the Confession. There is a method to the madness, but you’ll have to come to Liturgy Lab at 9:15 Sunday morning to find out what it is.
Healing prayer itself is a New Testament practice. The Epistle of James, for instance, says this: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15; for a hint about why we are moving it within the service order, look at verse 16).
In medieval Europe, particularly during times when the bubonic plague was rampant, healing prayer with laying on of hands and anointing with oil (anointing with oil is also called “unction”) came to be associated with the end of one’s life–because, well, if you were sick with the plague, most likely you were not going to recover. Over the years, anointing the sick morphed into (or conflated with) anointing the dying and dead, a practice known as extreme unction. In the 1540s, Thomas Cranmer took medieval liturgy, translated it into English and edited it into the first Book of Common Prayer. He tried to recover the New Testament sense of healing prayer: that is, you pray for healing, expecting healing–whether that be spiritual healing, physical healing, or both. In other words, he wanted to differentiate between healing prayer and prayers for the dying. Thomas Cranmer’s Reformation buddies didn’t like that part of the original Book of Common Prayer and the service of healing with anointing of oil was removed from subsequent versions of the Prayer Book. That is how things remained for about 300 years in the Anglican world (Church of England, and it’s “children” including the Episcopal Church). In the earliest 20th century there was a revival of interest in healing prayer and anointing the sick with oil. This revival coincided with the early Pentecostal movement that emphasized healing, and with Christian Science and similar movements, which rapidly gained popularity in both the US and the UK. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church took note of this renewed interest in healing, and the Episcopal Church included a service of “Ministration to the Sick,” which included anointing the sick with oil in the 1928 Prayer Book, and again, with minor changes in the 1979 Prayer Book. The prayers for anointing in this service are derived from Thomas Cranmer’s prayer that he composed in 1549 for the first Book of Common Prayer.