The United Methodist Church has a special relationship with the field of medicine; founder John Wesley was a physician, and he wrote a medical text that was invaluable in providing health care to the 18th-century poor. Methodists do not disdain the work of contemporary researchers and health care providers, believing that such knowledge is God-given. At the same time, however, the Methodist faith teaches that spiritual practices can aid in healing. One such practice is the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
James 5:14-15 provides the Biblical basis for anointing of the sick, calling for church elders to pray over the sick person while “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”; this “prayer of faith” can save the patient. Early Christian leaders recommended the practice, often citing James; among them was the late fourth- and early-fifth-century Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom, who related this rite with the authority given to priests to renew Christians via baptism. In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, anointing of the sick typically involves extremely ill patients in danger of dying.
In the United Methodist Church, clergy do not limit anointing of the sick to the gravely ill. Rather, the rite is part of a health ministry that can address specific healing needs, seek divine intervention for chronic issues or focus on preventive wellness. A clergy member or parish/faith community nurse places olive oil onto the congregant’s forehead as a sign of the healing love of God. The oil itself is symbolic.
Anointing of the sick is only part of the Methodist health ministry, along with prayer and consultation by parish/faith community nurses. A closely related ritual is the laying on of hands, which in the Methodist church is a gentle, consensual touch on the hand, head or shoulders as a tangible expression of Christ's healing. Churches may hold healing services, either regularly scheduled or on an ad-hoc basis, to address specific needs; churches also may incorporate healing prayers and other rites, including anointing, into regular services.
The Methodist church does not teach that anointing of the sick has supernatural power to achieve miraculous healing. This and the other practices of health ministry aim not to replace medical care, but to supplement it. Wesley believed medical science and spiritual ministry both were crucial, seeing the healthy body as a necessary counterpart to the healthy soul. This approach continues to guide Methodist clergy and medical practitioners; the church’s guidelines for parish/faith community nurses stress both spiritual and physical well-being. Anointing of the sick is, therefore, both a religious sacrament and a component of an overall approach to wellness.
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