Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Ministry to the Sick: "ordinary" and "extraordinary"

Evangelical Christianity has its strengths and it has its weaknesses. It can also refer to a range of different realities. There is an Evangelical Christianity that is to be found within the Church of England, for example, which gives to the individuality of that Christianity a degree of ecclesial principle and recognition, a degree of dogma and structured Christian life. And then there is the completely independent evangelical Church, with its self-appointed pastor or pastors, and little or no relation to any other formal Church structure, what one might describe as a completely non-ecclesial form of Christianity.

Pope Benedict XVI commented on the challenge that this non-ecclesial style of Christianity presents to the more established Churches during his recent visit to Germany.
Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.
This report of a BBC investigation, and a fuller report here, illustrate the frightening aspect of this type of Christianity, and its utter lack of rationality:
A woman from east London says her friend died after her Evangelical Christian pastor told her to stop taking HIV medication.

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said a pastor "prayed with her friend and told her to stop taking her medication".

"She passed away. It was a senseless loss," she added.

At least three people with HIV have died after they stopped taking life-saving antiretroviral drugs on the advice of their Evangelical Christian pastors, a BBC London investigation has found.
It is quite irrational to put to one side the skills of the medical profession with the idea that a prayer for healing can replace medical care, even if we grant that that prayer is part of an authentic charismatic gift. The Christian is called to care for the sick person with their humanly acquired knowledge and skill, as well as in the spiritual realm. The story told in these reports is in very sharp contrast to the situation in Lourdes, for example, where without exception the clinical care of the sick who visit the shrine is fully maintained. The rejection of rationality that the BBC reports suggest characterises this particular Evangelical Church is profoundly inhumane, and that it is undertaken in the name of Christianity makes it all the more abhorrent.

Within the Catholic Church there is an "ordinary" ministry to the sick that comprises, first of all, the engagement of Catholics in the different components of the medical profession as nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, etc and as hospital chaplains and visitors. The second element of "ordinary" ministry to the sick is made up of the Sacramental ministry of the Church, and, in particular, the Sacrament of the Sick. This second element is always in addition to the first, and does not displace it or ask that it should cease. It is a prayer for the healing of the sick person - and this aspect of the Sacrament is perhaps undervalued by many Catholics - but in a way that is accepting of God's will should physical healing not occur. It is certainly not a prayer for healing that is in any way a "test" of the faith of the sick person.

Within the Catholic Church there is also what one might term an "extraordinary" ministry to the sick. This first of all lies in the recognition of miraculous healings, either through the intercession of a particular saint or through the grace of a pilgrimage to a place such as Lourdes. It might be particularly manifested in a novena or campaign of prayer offered to a particular saint for a person who is sick. Secondly, it can lie in a particular gift of healing prayer given to an individual. We should recognise the possibility of this charismatic gift of healing prayer, though due, perhaps severe, caution should be exercised with regards to the claims of a particular person to possess this gift. The circumstances of the exercise of this gift are that it will only rarely receive public recognition by the Church, and healings that occur will equally rarely receive public recognition as miracles. This leaves Catholics with a great freedom in terms of the attitude that they adopt towards these charismatic ministries, some being more accepting of their reality and others being more skeptical. But again, I am not aware of any situations where the expectation is that these "extraordinary" ministries to the sick in the Catholic Church should displace "ordinary" ministry; and particularly that practical medical care should cease in favour of the "extraordinary" ministry.

1 comment:

Jackie Parkes said...

A thought-provoking & excellent post! I have availed myself of both forms of ministries..I expect my current good health is due to a combination of spiritual & medical..