Back in the summer of 2018 we ran a study group here in church that, over the course of 6 weeks or so spent time thinking through some of the things that we say and do in our liturgy, our worship as members of the Church of England. Our congregations here at St Mary’s are used to the two forms of Holy Communion service we use, from the Book of Common Prayer and from what we call ‘Common Worship’. Here we are using material that has been authorised by our synods for a ‘Service of the Word’: a previous generation of worshippers here would have spoken of Mattins and Evensong – services that are ‘doing’ something very different to the Communion service. Regular Sunday worship however is just a part of what we get up to! The Book of Common prayer with its tiny print, often bound together in the same volume as Hymns Ancient and Modern could fit conveniently in your pocket or handbag: one volume with all that you need (provided you can access a bible) Common Worship on the other hand fills a complete shelf in my study with volumes for Pastoral services, Christian Initiation and Saints’ Day, alongside further volumes for Festivals and non – Eucharistic services.
The thing about us as Anglicans, members of the Church of England, is that we don’t have a written statement of faith that all members must subscribe to. If you have ever attended a service where a new vicar was being licensed to a parish…or a new ministry begun (a Bishop or Dean) you will have heard these words:
The Church of England is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.
These words are carefully put together and worth reflection both for what they say and what they don’t say (you’ll find them later today when I put this sermon up onto our website under the drop down ‘More’) but the important thing for this morning is the phrase that ‘Led by the Holy Spirit, (the Church) has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.’ Our historic writings ‘bear witness to Christian Truth’ (notice, they don’t contain all the truth) and one way that they ‘bear witness’ is through the words that we use in worship: the Book of Common Prayer is important and has shaped its revisions. What these words are saying is that what we believe is seen in what and how we pray.
Which brings us to today and the development of our ministry of healing in this place. That study course, attended by no more than a dozen folk, led to the introduction of the possibility here of individuals receiving prayers accompanied by the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. What has been surprising is the number of people that have valued this ministry. Alongside this development there has been the possibility of supporting the Parish Nurse Scheme that came about through the generosity of the Lord Crewe Trust: some of you were here when we licensed Gladys Mugambi as our first Parish Nurse and you will know that 3 of the medical folk from this congregation are Trustees of the scheme. We have interviews for a second nurse to work in Weardale in just two weeks’ time. This year has seen unprecedent disruption in the NHS following hard on the heels of the pandemic and the upheavals that it brought. It seemed important to pray for the NHS and celebrate its work on the occasion of its 75th anniversary earlier in the summer. And all the while we cannot be unaware that individuals (some of whom we know through our families or networks of friends) are struggling with their mental health. One in 4 people will, at some time in their lives, face mental health difficulties. The years of austerity, followed by political turmoil, conflict in Ukraine and now in the Middle East, the Climate Crisis – these things wear way at our resilience and bear down on our young people especially.
And so the growth of this ministry – and there are many ways in which it can continue to grow – seems to be important, not just for us but for others who might find strength and comfort through prayer, and through a community that prays: those two things (prayer and the community) offering a ministry of healing.
For, if what we believe is seen in how we pray what does this ministry, what does this service, say?
It says that Christian people believe and trust in a God who is alive and well in His world through His Spirit and who wishes to bring healing and reconciliation to it. The ministry of Jesus, who comes alongside us, is a ministry of salvation. God takes the initiative in bringing salvation to us. It is not something we can do. Jesus’ purpose is to make us whole, putting to rights, that which has been broken, divided or marred by Sin. The Kingdom of God that Jesus heralds is a kingdom of renewal but it comes into being through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection ‘as he takes our infirmities and bears our diseases.’ As Christians we become part of this kingdom but we know that doing so connects us not just to resurrection and glory but to suffering and struggle.
We see in Jesus’ ministry his desire to heal and mend: remember the leper who says ‘If you choose, you can make me well.’…and Jesus’ response ‘I do choose.’ But we also see in the gospel occasions when Jesus cannot heal. And the rest of the New Testament bears witness to physical healing alongside occasions when this does not occur. Even the apostle Paul was not healed of his eye condition or what he calls ‘the thorn in his flesh’: he lived with weakness but bore witness to grace and strength being granted to him to live faithfully.
So it is right to pray for healing (we know it is God’s will to heal) but we cannot know how our prayers will be answered. We are also clear that healing can come in any number of ways – not least through the local surgery and GP.
And then when we pray some of our prayers in our services speak of the effects of Sin but we have to remember that this is Sin with a capital S. Jesus spoke powerfully against the correlation of illness with sinful behaviour on the part of any one individual: all people can become unwell, not just bad people! When our prayers speak of Sin this is something that we all share, the consequences of which affect us all and from which we need deliverance. We live in a world that suffers from the fracture that Sin has brought to it and the salvation Jesus wins is for the whole world and us (as individuals) within it. So we use words of repentance and forgiveness but need to be very careful how we hear these words.
We pray, and we do so as a community of prayer. One of the things that stands out from Jesus’ ministry of healing is that it brought individuals who felt excluded from the community back into relationship: remember the lepers, or the beggars, or the woman with the flow of blood – these people were on the edges of their communities and Jesus’ ministry re-integrates them into the life of the community. This prayer for healing is made on behalf of the community by ‘our elders’: people who represent us all. They do this not because they are healers but because we believe God heals. They do this because these physical signs (of a hand on someone’s head or shoulder and the anointing with oil) express our common faith in the goodness of God and His presence with us.
The goodness of God…and His presence with His. That seems to fit very much with the Gospel so may God bless this ministry and may it continue to flourish and bless people here.
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St. Mary’s is open for private prayer each weekday from 10.00am – 4.00pm