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Mainline churches open the door - cautiously

UNOBTRUSIVELY, with virtually no fanfare or attention in the popular news media, something unorthodox is going on in mainline churches in and around the nation's capital: At Foundry United Methodist Church, one of the city's oldest and most distinguished churches, between 25 and 100 people gather each Wednesday evening for a service following a course on healing. The service includes eucharist, intercessory prayer for those on a list of people seeking healing, and some testimonies of healing. At the close, members go to the altar rail for a quiet laying on of hands and silent prayer by clergy and lay people.

At the Chevy Chase United Methodist Church, in an affluent, leafy Maryland suburb, a chapter of the International Order of St. Luke the Physician holds an ecumenical service on the second Sunday afternoon of each month. After a brief liturgy, vocal prayer, a hymn, and short sermon, those present are invited to move to the front for a laying on of hands and softly voiced prayers by the officiating Methodist minister and lay people.

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In a chapel of the Washington Cathedral, 25 to 50 people attend a Sunday evening healing service that includes eucharistic liturgy, a chant, long moments of silent prayer, and brief comments by the canon pastor. At the end members move to the front for a laying on of hands, silent prayer, and communion. The atmosphere is one of quiet reverence.

Today increasing numbers of pastors and lay Christians, uncomfortable with the demonstrative methods of Pentecostal and charismatic communities, are looking for quieter approaches to healing, including intercessory prayer and sacramental healing.

``The way to bring people back into the mainline churches is not through sensational types of ministries,'' says United Church of Christ minister David Yohn, ``but through carrying on a healing ministry quietly as a normal part of church life. Most churchgoers look for calm and stability in church and are uneasy with the kind of emotion characterizing some healing ministries today.''

``The greater openness to healing in the mainline churches is taking quieter forms,'' agrees Presbyterian minister Paul E. Pierson, dean of Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Missions in Pasadena, Calif. ``The way the movement will be most effective is moving in a low-key way.''

Most of the healing activity in the mainline denominations tends to be centered in the charismatic wings of the churches. Charismatic services, characterized by drama, music, and intense emotion, are usually well attended. The Episcopalian Church of the Apostles in nearby Fairfax, Va., for example, routinely attracts as many as 1,000 people to its charismatic-style Sunday services.

By contrast, noncharismatic services, which are less centered on personalities and more liturgical in character, usually have only a modest attendance and are held in a smaller facility away from the main church auditorium. The fewer than 100 who meet for special healing services at Foundry Church represent a small minority of the church's 1,400-member congregation.

Yet the impact of the healing activity at Foundry is felt. ``It is one of the factors of spiritual leavening in the life of our church,'' comments the Rev. Edward W. Bauman, senior pastor of the church.

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Such quieter healing services are not typical of what is happening in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches as a whole. As the charismatic movement has settled into a period of consolidation in the United States, the mainstream churches continue to be wary of making physical healing a prominent part of religious worship.

THE vast majority of members in the mainline denominations are wedded to the status quo, a conventionality reflected in the growing efforts to integrate religion with medicine and psychiatry. This conservatism tends to be reinforced by the members' uneasiness with the charismatic influence and the focus on strong personalities.

Morton Kelsey, an authority on the history of Christian healing, notes that many major Christian churches have made studies of the effectiveness of religious healing and many recommend that churches practice healing. Yet only a tiny fraction of the churches have a regular healing service. Most ministers have never even participated in such a service, for the subject is seldom mentioned in church seminaries.

According to church historian Martin Marty, most congregations in the Christian mainstream look to prayer more for strength and a life discipline than for sudden ``miracles'' or cures. The mainline churches, says Dr. Marty, also tend to stress ``process theology,'' that is, the view that God works alongside human beings and is incapable of preventing pain and suffering.

Lutheran clergyman Richard Neuhaus agrees that the liberal Protestant churches feel threatened by ``any violation of the secular definition of reality.''

YET despite the general resistance to Christian healing, across the country a minority of churches like Foundry are conducting ecumenical healing services and encouraging members to pray for the sick. Prayer books of the mainline denominations are beginning to include instructions for healing services, and church members feel freer to talk about healing.

And while the mainline churches' interest in healing is small, compared with the enthusiasm aroused in the charismatic movement, many mainline clergy are beginning to recognize the challenge.

At the Washington Cathedral, the Rev. Canon Carole Crumley, who initiated the healing services two years ago, suggests that the mainstream churches have failed in the scriptural charge to ``teach, preach, and heal.'' ``We do teach and preach, but the healing dimension has dropped out,'' she says. ``The mainline churches have abdicated that to television evangelism and now to the charismatic movement, and that's such a pity.''

The Rev. Canon Crumley and others prayed for a year before they sought permission to go ahead with healing services, which also take place on Thursday mornings. ``I feel it's important for the mainline churches to recover this ministry, and especially the Washington Cathedral, at the highest location in the capital,'' she says. ``People should see it has a healing ministry - not just for physical ills and for the individual, but for the city, society, and relations between countries.''

The Rev. Arthur W. Greeley, chaplain at the Chevy Chase church and former editor of Sharing, a journal on healing published by the Order of St. Luke the Physician, sees this order as a bridge between charismatic and noncharismatic groups in the healing field. Whereas charismatics stress being endowed with the ``gifts of the Spirit'' after a ``Spirit baptism,'' the Order of St. Luke believes all Christians are capable of being healers.

``We acknowledge that `gift,' but we think all Christians are called to be healers,'' says Mr. Greeley. ``When we lay on hands, that opens up an opportunity for God to do things. No prayer goes completely unheeded....''

Greeley observes that even many charismatics in the mainline denominations are today less inclined to focus on speaking in tongues and other demonstrative phenomena connected with healing. ``There has been a great toning-down of that attitude in the charismatic arm of the church, and more of an acceptance that healing is inner more than outer. The inner thing - that is the important part of the whole understanding of healing.''

The clergyman says that his church as a whole does not take an interest in his healing services. ``If they did, we could have 200 people at the services,'' he comments. ``I have to acknowledge that one reason is that no spectacular healings are taking place. But if they knew about the changes in people's lives, that would change.''

Having been challenged by the charismatics to bring new life to the churches, mainline clergy are trying to break out of old molds of worship and find ways of being more open to the possibilities of healing. This search often leads them into embracing such methods as energy transference, visualization, and psychic techniques.

Meditation, too, appears to be playing an increasing role in noncharismatic services.

Dr. Bauman and Canon Crumley are affiliated with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, an ecumenical Christian organization that focuses on developing contemplative practices. ``They teach quiet prayer and how to move into that place of being with God without image and word,'' says Crumley, who invites members of the institute to participate in her healing services.

``Silence was something that became a part of my devotional service at the cathedral,'' she says. ``In our Episcopalian worship there isn't much room for silence.''

WITH meditation emerging as a tool of medical treatment, church leaders see the trend growing in the churches as well. ``The new interest in meditation is burgeoning, and that same movement may be dragging healing along with it,'' says the Reverend Kelsey, author of ``Christianity and Healing.''

As those involved in healing ministries explore different healing approaches, a few voices caution about meditative practices that may be rooted in or influenced by Eastern religions. One Protestant church leader warns of the dangers of opening the mind to occult and other influences that ``can be extremely harmful.''

What is significant about the contemporary scene, however, is that many Christian clerics and lay people in the denominational mainstream believe that the church must concern itself with the body and the physical realm. This, in itself, is a departure from the orthodox view that the church deals only with things of the spirit. (It is less difficult for charismatics to maintain a conviction that God affects experiences of this world because of their emphasis on the supernatural.)

``We have allowed the secular outlook to push God out of the physical world into a purely spiritual sphere,'' states the British theological journal Themelios. ``It is right that this limited view of God should be challenged and that we should reckon with a God who is really at work in all aspects of our world.''

Writings on healing almost invariably speak of Jesus' purpose of helping the individual become ``whole.'' This is taken to mean a harmonizing of body, soul, and mind or, in another variant, body, mind, and spirit.

``Wholeness (health) could be defined as the harmonious functioning of a person's body/mind/spirit,'' says Methodist minister James K. Wagner in ``Blessed to be a Blessing.'' ``When one phase of this synergistic system breaks down, all parts are affected, and ill health results.''

Says Bauman: ``The spirit is a deeper, innermost core of the soul where we have a direct relationship with the living spirit of God. We want to be open to the Christ energy, the Christ presence, that has a direct effect on soul and body....''

How much healing actually occurs?

Because most healing efforts are so closely integrated with medicine, and are often made in hospitals, it is usually difficult to ascertain how a healing comes about. Crumley says she herself has not seen any dramatic physical healings but can testify to healed relationships and improved well-being, which in turn have affected bodily conditions.

``We have not seen anyone throw down their crutches and walk away,'' says the soft-spoken priest, adding: ``Is that due to our own resistance? Does there need to be a readiness to accept that?''

Perhaps because of their concern over failures, or because they are disquieted by the ``exhibitionism'' of some healing groups, mainline ministers today seem to be placing less stress on physical healing and more on ``spirituality'' as the central focus of Christian practice, although the term is seldom clearly defined.

At Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, an earlier program on healing has been integrated into a department called Prayer and the Spiritual Life, which is attracting many students. ``Methodist pastors are hearing a cry for spirituality among their flocks, and the church must respond if it's not to continue its decline,'' says seminary president David McKenna. ``The aim of our program is to help pastors find resources within themselves to respond to their flocks.''

THIS approach is echoed at Andover Newton Theological School, where the Rev. Dr. Yohn and his wife, Craig B. Millett, also an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, give a course on healing that emphasizes spiritual growth. Four things are required in Christian healing, say the pair, including unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional hope, and unconditional joy.

``When a person has these things he is healed; in other words, he is whole,'' says Dr. Millett, adding that this may not mean a total physical cure.

The view that healing does not always mean a cure is common among many in the healing field. For example, some who concentrate on the healing of ``memories,'' ``inner hurts,'' and damaged relationships do so without also calling for physical healing. Concern is voiced by some clergy that the emphasis on ``spirituality'' may become an excuse for not practicing the physical healing that Jesus taught.

``There's a real necessity to keep physical healing as part of the focus in the healing ministry,'' says Greeley. ``If God could have his way with each of us, we would be whole - and that would involve physical healing and the capacity to relate with other people in a loving way.''

Certainly countless Christians who attend healing services, whatever their chosen method of healing, feel they are benefited. They tell of lives transformed, of a renewed sense of God's immanence and power, and of physical illnesses cured. Edward A. Downey of Kensington, Md., an Episcopalian who is active in the Order of St. Luke and in home prayer groups, recounted how he was healed of a heart condition two years ago.

``I was in intensive care in a suburban hospital, fibrillating badly and in considerable pain,'' he said. ``All I could do is lie in my bed, holding the Bible in my right hand and eating what I could.''

One day, Mr. Downey continued, three physicians told him they planned to cardio-ventilate him, a painful procedure requiring an anesthetic. ``I didn't want it,'' he said. ``That night I prayed, `Lord, if you desire it I will have it, but if not take me off it.'''

The following morning, at 5:30, the nurse came in and, to her astonishment, found that his heartbeat and pulse had been in synchronous rhythm for more than an hour. No operation was performed. ``That was a great joy to me,'' Downey said.

TWENTY years ago, the retired department store executive also related, he was saved through prayer from an amputation of his left arm. The day after doctors said they were contemplating removing the arm because of a blood clot and lack of circulation, two lay people prayed for him in his hospital room. ``When the doctors came in, they couldn't believe it,'' he said. The condition had totally changed.

``You have to believe before a healing takes place,'' stressed Downey, who today practices laying on of hands in healing services. ``You have to believe the Lord is healing you.''

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