Wednesday, April 16, 2008

God and sickness according to The Book of Common Prayer

There are occasions over the centuries in the revision and “enrichment” of an edition of The BCP that the existing service is so radically changed as virtually to qualify as a new service. Such is so with regard to the Visitation of the Sick in The BCP 1928, where the inherited 1662/1789/1892 service is radically changed. “The Office for the Visitation of the Sick has been so changed as to be hardly recognizable in its new form. As it appeared in the old Prayer Book it was so gloomy, so medieval in its theology and so utterly lacking in any understanding of the psychological approach to sick persons, that it had almost ceased to be used in the church”, wrote one distinguished commentator in 1929; and he added, “In the new Book the whole tone of the service has been revolutionized.” Let us see whether or not he is right.

Traditional doctrine, BCP 1662
Let us notice what theological principles are presupposed or articulated in the Visitation of the Sick in The BCP 1662:
  1. God the Father is the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos and the One who, by his providence, guides the lives of nations and individual persons.
  2. For the sake of Jesus Christ, God the Father forgives, cleanses and adopts as his children, those who receive the Gospel and repent of their sins.
  3. In Paul’s words, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:29)
  4. In the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”
  5. Therefore, whatever happens to a child of God is either directly willed or directly allowed by the sovereign grace and providence of God the Father.
  6. So a baptized believer, a child of God, catches a disease or becomes seriously ill by the express will or permission of God, who has his own gracious purpose in it.
  7. The right response from the sick child of God is to be humble, penitent and trusting, expecting the church to pray for him and minister to him in his sickness.
  8. Since God is THE LORD prayer for the sick cannot simply demand recovery or renewed health. Rather this prayer must be submissive, asking the Lord to minister to his sick servant and do for him what is according to the divine will, which will always including forgiveness and may include restoration to health.
Here is the address that the Minister may actually use as is, or as a guide, in speaking as a pastor to the sick person:

Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation. And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity; or else it be sent to you to correct and amend you in whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if you truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God’s mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake, and render unto him thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.

Here the relation of the baptized believer with his heavenly Father by adoption and grace is a primary thought, and so sickness is placed in a large context, that of a vocation leading to everlasting life, which begins in this life and has no ending, for it is in and with the eternal God. In some cases the sickness appears to be unto physical death and so appropriate prayers are provided, along with absolution and the provision of holy communion.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this Service was increasingly seen as too much in the tradition of the medieval Service of Extreme Unction (but without the anointing oil) that it replaced: that is, it was seen as having in view more the person, who seemed to have a severe sickness unto death. rather than the person with a sickness, that was known to be possibly curable by God’s healing power acting directly or through means.

A change of mood
Thus from at least the beginning of the twentieth century, many parish priests believed that the Visitation of the Sick was not a suitable service to use. So what was called “revision and enrichment” of it began. and this is seen in the new edition of The BCP in Canada (1922) and then in all the further proposed and accepted revisions of The BCP of the century (e.g., England 1928, U.S.A. 1928 and Canada 1962).

Here, we enter a different sense of the relation of the heavenly Father to each baptized believer, his adopted child, than is present in The BCP 1662 service. Though God remains the LORD of life, grace and providence, the experience of sickness or disease as directly sent, or allowed, by God as the Father as the expression of his chastisement, or a means of discipline, is absent. Any indication that sickness and disease are anything other than unwelcome intruders into the life of the believer in an imperfect world is not suggested. It is, however, recognized as a minor theme that they do provide opportunities for growth in grace and spiritual maturity.

Further, the presence of sin in each and all of us, both sick and healthy, is assumed as a fact, and opportunity for confession by the sick person and absolution are provided. So also is the laying on of hands and the anointing with all. But there is no specific connection of personal sin with personal sickness. Prayer is offered for health of both soul and body, and both are presumed to be God’s normal provision for his children in this world, with the exception of that final sickness which is preparatory to death (and for which prayers are provided). While The BCP 1662 proceeds always in the assumption of healing “if it be thy will,” this is not obviously so in the more recent services.

Here are the first two prayers in the American service:

O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve this thy servant. Look upon him with the eyes of thy mercy, give him comfort and sure confidence in thee, defend him in all danger, and keep him in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hear us, Almighty and most merciful God and Saviour; extend thy accustomed goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness, Visit him, O Lord, with thy loving mercy, and so restore him to his former health, that he may give thanks to thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

One of the forms of words for use in anointing with oil, or laying on of hands (or both), reads:

I anoint thee with oil [I lay my hand upon thee] In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all thy pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored unto thee. Amen.

And here from the Canadian Service two prayers:

O Lord and heavenly Father, who dost relieve those who suffer in soul and body: Stretch forth thine hand, we beseech thee, to heal thy servant N., and to ease his pain; that by thy mercy he may be restored to health of body and mind, and show forth his thankfulness in love and service to his fellow men; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Almighty God, giver of health and healing: Grant to this thy servant such a sense of thy presence that he may have perfect peace in thee. In all his sufferings may he cast his care upon thee, so that, enfolded in thy love and power, he may receive from thee health and salvation, according to thy gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Canadian form of words for the anointing with oil concludes thus: “May God of his great mercy restore unto thee health and strength to serve him, and send thee release from pain of body and mind. May he forgive thee all thy sins, preserve thee in all goodness, and bring thee to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Scriptural basis for anointing is grounded in James 5:14-16 and Mark 6: 7, 12-13, either of which may be read at the laying on of hands with anointing.

In 1978 the Lambeth Conference passed the following Resolution on the Ministry of Healing:

The Conference praises God for the renewal of the ministry of healing within the Churches in recent times and reaffirms:

1. that the healing of the sick in his name is as much a part of the proclamation of the Kingdom as the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ;
2. that to neglect this aspect of ministry is to diminish our part in Christ's total redemptive activity;
3. that the ministry to the sick should be an essential element in any revision of the liturgy.

Perhaps we may say that this Resolution overstates its point in order to bring attention to it!

The Gospel of forgiveness and cleansing with acceptance as a child of God surely is primary!

Brief Reflection
Obviously many advances in the understanding of the origin and nature of disease and sickness, as well as in public health and the treatment of disease, were made between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. And the practical experience of these advances, taken for granted in western life, can make the possibility of having a sense of a specific, personal intervention of God in the lives of all of his adopted children, with respect to health and sickness of the mortal body, difficult to hope for or justify.

We have moved as it were from thinking in terms of primary causation (BCP 1662) to secondary or tertiary causation at best (1928 & 1962) with respect to considering how God deals with us and allows sickness to visit his adopted children, to whom he has already given the gift of everlasting salvation and life. Further, it appears that we do not see this life, and its ups and downs, so clearly and obviously in the light of our eternal vocation in Christ, as did our foremothers and forefathers. Our sense of God as the present, active Creator and Preserver of the cosmos and of his Providence ruling our lives seems weak in comparison with that of our Christian fore-parents—after all we are all children of the Enlightenment.

Yet, though there is no little or no sense of direct divine agency with respect to the arrival in God’s children of sickness and disease in the theology of The BCP 1928 and 1962, there seems to be present in that theology a sense of direct divine agency with respect to the gift of healing and restoration to full health. The wording of prayers for healing, and the form of words for anointing, suggest a distinct, clear relation to God as the healer, who either sends healing directly or through means (medicine and the like), and both in direct answer to petition made.

The doctrine of The BCP 1662 (following the major Christian traditions, Catholic and Protestant at that time) is of personal, direct causation by God both for the gift of healing (“if it by thy will”) and for sickness as a sign of the gracious, correcting, chastising grace and mercy of an eternally loving heavenly Father. It is of course the latter, which is wholly absent from editions of The BCP of the twentieth century, as well as the many other newer forms of liturgy of the Anglican Churches of the same century, which is a real problem for many.

But does this loss/omission matter? I strongly suspect that it does, for it appears that we have encouraged in popular “charismatic” and “evangelical”, in these days of “rights monism,” the view that it is a human right for any Christian to pray to, and “demand” of God, instant healing and health—“heal now, Lord, in Jesus’ Name! Amen.” Of course, the truth of the matter is that we have no rights before God! We begin by fearing him in order that by grace we may learn to love and adore him. Bodily healing is a gift not a right, and without spiritual renewal of the mind, bodily health may not be a blessing at all.

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