Project Canterbury

The Faith of an English Catholic
by Darwell Stone, D.D.

London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926.

Chapter X. Unction of the Sick

THE New Testament suggests different ways of dealing with disease. On ordinary occasions our Lord used ordinary natural means in His incarnate life, and sustained His human nature by food and sleep. He thus sanctioned and hallowed all natural means, the results of scientific inquiry, the experience of physicians, the skill of surgeons, that influence of mind on body which is a natural faculty. Our Lord taught also the power of prayer and the power of miracle, and spoke of these as to be exercised by His disciples. And in allowing His apostles to anoint the sick during His ministry He foreshadowed a sacramental use of oil. Prayer and miracle are ways of dealing with disease mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles; and in one Epistle there is a further advance towards a sacrament of Unction: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and, if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him." (St. James v, 14, 15.)

The four ways of dealing with disease suggested by the New Testament--natural means, prayer, miracle, sacrament--are all found in the records of the ancient Church. It is unnecessary here to dwell on the first three apart from saying that such instances as that of cures by the use of oil from the church lamp are to be associated rather with miracle than with sacrament. St. Chrysostom speaks of this as if it was not infrequent: see his in Matt. hom. xxxii, 6.] More attention must be paid to the sacramental use of oil.

The evidence from the early Church for the Unction which became the Office of the Holy Oil in the East and the Last Anointing in the West is scanty and fragmentary, but there is sufficient to show that it was a rite of the Church. It is so referred to in the sequence of Church Orders, which show the existence of such a rite from the end of the second century to the end of the fourth century; and there are allusions to it in other literature from the fifth century onwards. [See the earliest form of the Roman Church Order in E. Hauler, Fragmenta Veronensia Latina (1900), pp. 110, 111; and the later forms in G. Homer, The Statutes of the Apostles (1904), p. 141; Canons of Hippolytus, § 28; Testament of the Lord, i, 24, 25; Serapion, §§5, 17; Apostolic Constitutions, viii, 29. Pope Innocent I, ep. xxv, 8 (March 19, 416); Caesarius of Arles (died 542), serm. cclxv. 3, cclxxix, 4, 5.]

In the earliest references to the Unction of the Sick it is difficult to distinguish sharply between the healing of the body and the healing of the soul. If the passage in the Epistle of St. James stood by itself, the present writer would be disposed to interpret it as referring to spiritual healing only, that is, only to the healing of the soul from sin. The whole context of the passage relates to what is spiritual; dealing with sin is closely associated with the particular command for anointing; the words "that ye may be healed" in the following verse obviously denote healing from sin; the words "the Lord shall raise him up" might refer equally easily to healing of body or healing of soul; the usage of the New Testament elsewhere would support interpreting the words "the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick" rather of the soul than of the body. The most obvious interpretation of the passage, then, would be to understand it only of the healing of the soul. In view, however, of the constant association of bodily healing with Unction in the prayers for blessing oil in the early forms of the Church Order and in the writings of the fathers, it is perhaps more likely that both healing of body and healing of soul are referred to in the Epistle than that the allusion is to healing of soul only. If such is the right interpretation, this will be in harmony with the close connexion of body and soul which is constantly assumed in the New Testament.

Healing of body is prominent in the earliest writings outside the New Testament which allude to Unction, and such healing may have been the primary purpose in the administration. But references to a gift of spiritual grace are not absent; sanctification of soul and forgiveness of sins are mentioned; and it is impossible wholly to distinguish the operations of God in response to the prayers of the Church for the body from those for the soul.

Little is known about the administration of this Unction in the Eastern Church during the middle ages. The probability is that the practice was much the same as in the ancient Church with a growing tendency to restrict it to the dying, and to lay greater stress on the effects in the soul than on those in the body. At the present time more is said about the soul than about the body throughout the office of administration, and both are mentioned side by side in the actual prayer of anointing; healing of both spiritual and bodily infirmities is mentioned in official documents and in the writings of theologians; the Unction is usually, though not exclusively, administered to persons seriously or dangerously ill; and in some places the consecrated oil is used on Maundy Thursday as a preparation for the reception of the Holy Communion by those who are well.

In the West it is probable that the tendency during the middle ages was to restrict the administration to the dying, and to emphasize the spiritual rather than the bodily effects. By the twelfth century it had become chiefly a sacrament for the dying, and a little later the title "extrema unctio," which originally meant the last of the anointings in distinction from the anointings in other sacraments, had come to mean also the anointing of those at the point of death. Among the causes which led to the administration being restricted to the dying may have been the superstition that it might not be received a second time, and that one who had been so anointed might not afterwards eat flesh or walk with bare feet or use marriage, charges made by priests for the administration of the sacrament, and the teaching of some theologians that this Unction so completely frees the soul from evil and confers on it God's gifts that it prepares the soul for the immediate entrance into glory. But, while the chief emphasis was on the spiritual effects, the healing of the body was not wholly ignored. In the modern Roman Catholic Church the sacrament is administered to persons dangerously ill, usually when they are near death, though books of instruction for priests say that they should try to secure administration earlier than just at the last. The effects are said to be the strengthening of the soul against the pains of death, the preparing of the soul for entrance into glory, forgiveness of sin and removal of the effects of sin, and, if such be the will of God, the restoration of, or improvement in, bodily health.

Anointing was retained as part of the Order for the Visitation of the Sick in the English Prayer Book of 1549, with the instruction: "If the sick person desire to be anointed, then shall the priest anoint him upon the forehead or breast only"; and the objects prayed for were both bodily and spiritual health. The provision for anointing was omitted in the 1552 and subsequent English Prayer Books. Anointing was restored by the section of the Non-jurors known as the Usagers.

No vigorous attempt to recover the Unction of the Sick was made by the Tractarians. Writing in 1867 Bishop Alexander Forbes described it as "the lost pleiad of the Anglican firmament." A desire for the general restoration of it was implied by the same writer, and he expressed his conviction that there was "nothing to hinder the apostolic and scriptural custom of anointing the sick, whensoever any devout person may desire it." [Bishop A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-nine Articles (third edition, 1878), pp. 465, 474.]

The number of instances in which the Unction of the Sick has been administered in the Church of England during the last fifty years probably is large, though the private nature of the administration makes any accurate estimate impossible. Anglo-Catholics in general desire its more complete restoration.

In this desire for the more complete restoration of the Unction of the Sick there are different motives. The opinion of many is that the ordinary practice of the Roman Catholic Church embodies the experience gained in the Church's life, and is the best method for the use of the sacrament. Others hold that the right idea of the Unction has long been perverted or obscured, and that the purpose of the administration should be, at any rate primarily, the restoration or amelioration of bodily health. Others, again, believe that the two objects cannot be divided, and that neither an administration in which the recovery of bodily health is the primary object nor a use as a sacrament of the dying is .to be condemned.

Methods of spiritual healing of bodily disease, in which sometimes anointing with oil and sometimes the laying on of hands is used, have of late been advocated and adopted by many whose theological and ecclesiastical position is very far distant from that of Anglo-Catholics. The popularity of these methods--and in some cases their apparent efficacy--may serve to illustrate that, whatever abuses there may have been in the early sixteenth century, the abandonment of the Unction of the Sick by the official English Church was the result of a failure to appreciate real needs. Moreover, "the Church of England," to quote Bishop Forbes again, "acted more in conformity to its declared adherence to antiquity by appointing, in the first instance, a service for the anointing of the sick in her first English Prayer Book" than by the later omission of any such provision. [Bishop A. P. Forbes, op. cit., p. 474.]

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