I started to feel nervous at about five p.m. last Sunday evening. By six forty-five I was just plain drained, exhausted, spent. The reason for my journey from nervousness to exhaustion was the service we were hosting for Living With, Through and Beyond Anxiety, Depression and Fear. Putting on such a service and crafting a safe liturgy felt like a big deal; it was a big deal.
In my benefice we have three aspirations, hospitality, holiness and healing. These three aspirations clearly overlap, they are mutually reinforcing.
Over the last eighteen months or so we have begun to think about what healing might look like, and what we can offer, in relation to mental health. We are still working this out. I suppose my passion for pointing our healing ministry in the direction of mental health derives from my own experience of depression and anxiety; the two most painful conditions I have ever had to come to terms with.
When we were crafting the service we wanted to be very clear that what we were offering was a form of healing, where the emphasis is on the ing, hence the phrase ‘with, through and beyond.’ We also wanted to offer something reflective, calm, mindful and scriptural. These four characteristics informed the shape of the liturgy.
The readings we used were Psalm 61,1-4, Lamentations 3, 19-26,Lamentations 3, 55-56, 1 Peter 5, 6-7 and Matthew 11, 28; each reading was followed by a short period of silence.
We also listened together, in solidarity, to three pieces of music: Be still for the presence of the Lord, Bless the Lord my soul, and Karl Jenkins’ Benedictus. We had a period of mindful prayer where those attending were invited to consciously bring to my mind all that was causing them pain and / or anxiety, followed by the ritual of taking a stone and laying it at the foot of an altar cross in one of our chapels.
We also offered anointing. A colleague of mine, who is a retired hospital chaplain and an ordained URC minister (married to a Roman Catholic), yet who worships primarily in the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church (top that for ecumenism!) anointed those who came forward, whilst I was available for prayer ministry. Virtually everyone came forward for anointing, but very few for prayer ministry. Make of that what you will!
The thing that really staggered me was both the demand and the reach of the service. Over forty people came, but I only knew or recognised around half of them. I was also aware of a good ten or fifteen people who couldn’t make it due to being on half term-holiday.
I do know that many of those who attended do not normally worship in the Church of England, and that others were what we might think of us as very occasional worshipers; people on the fringe. This has caused me to think about how we reach out to those who either can’t, or don’t, feel able to attend our normal regular services. How do we seek to pastor to and feed such people? I was also aware that many of those who came did so with friends and family members. Maybe, perhaps for the first time, some of those who came were able to say to a loved one, or a close friend, ‘I am suffering’?
So what are my reflections on Sunday evening and our ongoing work in relation to depression, anxiety and fear?
- Anxiety, depression and fear are ecumenical, and universal, afflictions. It sounds simple, but its true! Our hospitality and healing ministry should therefore extend beyond denominational boundaries.
- A carefully crafted liturgy whose aim is to provide a safe space is crucial.
- Ritual is important.
- Prayer, or at least prayer ministry, is less important (although it my have been of great benefit to those few who came forward.)
- There needs to be a ‘take home.’ The liturgy we created was written in such a way that it could also be used by individuals.
- People will come if what is offered appears relevant (we offered the service through the parish magazine, social media and the kind cooperation of neighboring churches).
- People will respond to the invitation for healing. People did so in biblical times and they will do so now. Healing should be normative to the life of the church.
- ‘Healing’ services are uniquely exhausting.
I think they are exhausting because in opening ourselves to other’s pain we become acutely aware of our own. Is it too clichéd to suggest that we anoint as ‘wounded healers?’ We also know from the gospels that Jesus frequently felt exhausted and depowered after he had healed people. On a purely practical level I found it incredibly helpful to spend a few minutes with my U.R.C. Anglican Catholic friend after the service, debriefing and praying.
We learnt that there clearly is a demand for this type of service. We also learnt, at a very basic level, that God’s people are hurting. I think we will continue to offer, maybe twice yearly, services designed to help people live ‘with, through and beyond’ anxiety and depression whilst also thinking and praying about what more we may do.