Stephen Holmes is Associate Rector at St John's. This is an extract from a recent sermon, the full text of which can be found online here
If you look at the gospels, exorcism is a way of speaking about Jesus’ cosmic battle with the powers of evil, his healing miracles are a way of responding to human suffering. An emphasis on miracles and exorcism is too narrow an understanding of this part of the ministry of Jesus and the church. Every time the church fights evil in society, it is being Jesus in conflict with demonic powers. Every form of relieving suffering is a participation in Jesus’ healing ministry. Fighting evil and relieving suffering are something every church and Christian should be doing.
It does, however, get us into difficult and complex areas, as the discussion of the recent Church of England submission on so-called ‘three-parent babies’ shows, where the church has been made to look either muddled or opposed to helping people. The procedure, now approved by Parliament, involves the replacement of a small piece of DNA in the mitochondria, which are a sort of battery-pack in living cells, in order to prevent an inherited disease. As such this could be seen as part of Jesus’ healing ministry. The objection that this is ‘playing at God’ is incoherent as classical Christian theology recognises that humans have been given intelligence to cooperate with God’s creative work. The objection that one form of the procedure involves creating human embryos which will be destroyed is valid if you hold human life to be inviolable from conception but even in that case there is another form which takes DNA from an unfertilised egg. Given that most authorities still object to human genetic modification, the most serious objection is that the side effects of this therapeutic change to our inherited DNA are not known and this was the main reason for the Church of England’s call for restraint – despite senior scientists arguing that it is the DNA in the cell nucleus not that in mitochondria that makes us what we are. The Bishop of Swindon, has responded to this objection by saying that sufficient safeguards remain in place and the Jesuit ethicist Jack Mahoney has suggested that Christians who hold this view are actually agreeing with some atheist secularists that who we are is solely determined by our genetic makeup.
This is complicated and there are people in our congregation who can explain it better than me but it does mean two things. The Church of England report was actually broadly supportive of this therapeutic technique but the media spun it so that it seemed that here, as in so many other areas, the church was opposing progress that would help people. Jesus healed people in the open, the Church needs to ensure it not only is but is seen to be on the side of human flourishing. Secondly human life throws up complex problems, not least in the area of healthcare. Our faith demands that we use all the intellectual and scientific means at our disposal to respond to these. A simplistic reading of the Bible is useless, a Christian should rather use these ancient stories as an incentive to thought and tackle the problems using our God-given reason in dialogue with Scripture and the ongoing tradition of scientific and theological thought. We thus end with the classical Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition and reason. Not a bad way to approach Christian life in our world.