Aug 8, 2009

Signs and Wonders in Sheffield: A Social Anthropologist's Analysis of Words of Knowledge, Manifestations of the Spirit & Divine Healing


The following article is different than those normally found on my site. The author is an anthropologist who attended a conference on healing, signs and wonders in 1985. He was an uninvited and unannounced participant- observer. This article is his analysis of what he witnessed. It appears as an appendix in John Wimber's book "Power Healing". This is one of two such articles, the other can be viewed here.

(By Dr. David C. PhD, Lewis Religious Experience Research Project, Nottingham University, Alister Hardy Research Centre, Oxford)

"There is a woman here whose name begins with L. . . . She is thirty-two years old, has had a throat condition for eight years, and has taken medicine for it but it hasn't helped her."

"There is a woman with a grumbling appendix, and I don't know if she knows it or not but she is pregnant too!"

"There is a young man here, about thirty-five years old, with a lot of problems in his marriage. He lives in the Midlands. He has been thinking this week about leaving his wife but the Lord wants you to stay and be reconciled with your problems. Do not leave your wife."

The above are just three examples, each spoken by a differ­ent person, among the literally dozens of so-called words of knowledge uttered at a conference on Signs and Wonders and Church Growth held at Sheffield City Hall, October 28-31, 1985. Over twenty-eight hundred participants packed the building each day, most of them Anglicans. Most of the others were from nonconformist denominations, but it is also likely that there were Roman Catholics, as there were at a similar conference in London in 1984.

John Wimber, the principal speaker, stressed the need for breaking down such divisions and each delegate was given on registration a book on healing written by Francis MacNutt. Whatever their denomination, the delegates came to learn through practical training how to develop for themselves healing ministries in their own churches.

As a social anthropologist, I tried to study what was going on at this conference by using the standard anthropological techniques of participant observation and in-depth interviews. Normally anthropologists study a small community over a long period of time, but in this case I had a large crowd to study for only a few days. Between sessions I would talk to those around me about their experiences, under the circumstances a very natural topic of conversation. My informants were there­fore normally without some of the inhibitions that sometimes interfere with "formal" interviews when the informant knows the answers will be recorded; most of my informants were unaware of my purpose in asking such questions until later in the conversation.

Attempting to make sense of such reports and of my own observations of what was going on demands a consideration of theories from anthropology, sociology, psy­chology, and even parapsychology as well as the theological explanations given by the informants themselves. How to fit these different models of explanation together became a far greater task than I had at first anticipated.

Words of Knowledge
The words of knowledge mentioned above pose one of the more difficult problems for rational explanation. There was no way in which most of the medical conditions mentioned could have been ascertained in advance. Delegates to the conference came from all over the country and when registering for it had supplied details only of their names and addresses. About equal proportions of men and women attended and the age spread also seemed representative of the adult population in general.

While there was an overrepresentation of professional clergy, the majority of delegates were lay people who had specially taken time off work to attend the conference. Most were white and middle-class, probably reflecting the compo­sition of the churches interested in the conference. Until the last twenty or thirty years the phenomena seen at this confer­ence were confined largely to black and working-class Pente­costal churches, but through this conference (and similar ones during the previous two weeks in Brighton and London as well as one in London in 1984) some of the mainline denomi­nations had also begun to develop healing ministries using these words of knowledge.

The conferences represent a further development in what has been called the "charismatic renewal" in such denomina­tions. The late Canon David Watson of St. Michael-le-Belfry church in York was one of the Anglican leaders of this renewal movement. It was his friendship with John Wimber that even­tually led to these conferences being held in England. Wimber was the principal speaker at the conference but an Anglican bishop, David Pytches (formerly the bishop of an Anglican diocese in South America and at present minister of St. An­drew's church in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire) led one of the afternoon workshops each day. Both Wimber and Pytches had brought with them teams of assistants who had already gone through training in these ministries. During most sessions the assistants were the ones who prayed with those who asked for healing in response to a word of knowledge, while Wimber remained at the front giving a commentary on what was happening.
The words of knowledge in themselves generated faith and an expectancy of healing on the part of both the "healers" and the "healed." If, as they believe, God has given a word of knowledge about a person's condition, then they can expect God to heal that condition, whatever it might be. Their model is that of Jesus himself, who said, "The Son can do only what he sees his Father doing" (John 5:19); therefore if the Father has given a word of knowledge they see that as evidence of "what the Father is doing."

A further extension of their theology is that Jesus taught his disciples how to heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on; therefore if the church today is the "body of Christ" then Christians today ought to be able to do the same. The question then arises whether these words of knowledge, healings, and other related phenomena can be explained by means of an alternative, nontheistic model. An obvious hy­pothesis is that the words of knowledge come from some form of ESP such as telepathy or clairvoyance. Some of them are reminiscent of messages given at spiritualist meetings in which a medium or clairvoyant says there is someone present with such-and-such an illness, perhaps on occasion indicating the general area of the room in which the person is sitting.

The methods by which the knowledge is said to come are similar too: they include phenomena such as mental pictures, very strong impressions—"one just knows without a shadow of doubt"—and experiencing a pain in one's own body one knows "is not really one's own pain" (but which identified the loca­tion of the other's pain). Relatively rarely one "sees" words (invisible to others) written out over a person's body or in the air. According to Blaine Cook, one of Wimber's assistants, the words can even in his experience involve medical terms like "Osgood-Slatter's disease," a term previously unknown to him, his career having been in the local civil service, not in medicine.

However, there are also several important differ­ences between what I observed at Sheffield and the reports of spiritualist meetings. The first of these differences involves the level of specificity of some of the words of knowledge (as illustrated by the first quotation at the beginning of this article), which seems to exceed the level of specificity of most apparently similar phe­nomena reported from elsewhere.

Sometimes at Sheffield it seemed as if supplementary words of knowledge came if the person did not identify himself or herself right away, as illus­trated by the following series from John Wimber:

"Someone with cracked ribs—fell last winter on snow or ice and the ribs haven't healed properly. The left foot slipped. It hurts right through the left side... [Pause]. It was February this year, on slushy, icy stuff—hit hard on the ground . . . [Longer pause]. Your name is George."

A second area of difference from what has been reported from spiritualist meetings concerns the possibilities of fraud. It is known that many spiritualist healers go around a regular circuit of meetings and so are likely to build up knowledge about the regular congregation in each place. However, the very fact that Wimber and his team had come from the United States and had no control over those who would apply to attend the conferences after reading about them in popular Christian magazines lends a greater credence to the authentic­ity of their claims.

Compared also with the practices of mediums or psychics who are consulted on a one-to-one basis, there is the absence of any use of personal objects like necklaces as so-called in­ductors through which the medium seeks to ascertain knowl­edge about another person. Claims by Wimber and his colleagues that these words of knowledge operate also at an individual level—not only in large meetings—are less easy to check up on because of the very nature of the situation. More­over, the words of knowledge themselves are not predictable in terms of when or how they might come, so it is impossible to provide an experimental situation for testing the one-to-one words of knowledge. (Even in the large meetings their num­bers can vary considerably.)
Being unable to observe such one-to-one encounters for myself, I can only refer to accounts such as one described in Wimber's book Power Evangelism. In it he describes how he saw the word "adultery" on the forehead of a fellow passenger in an airplane, followed by a revelation of the name of the man's mistress. When Wimber asked this stranger if that name meant anything to him and explained that God was the one who had revealed this information, the man rapidly broke down in sobs of remorse which culminated in his conversion.

Statistical Probability
These same facts also make it difficult to attribute these words of knowledge to statistical probability. Certainly if the one-to-one cases can be verified (as they presumably could by independent corroboration from the man in question and those who knew him), then we are dealing with a completely differ­ent level of probability than that which mentions a common ailment among a crowd of almost three thousand people. While there were many such "generalized" words of knowledge ut­tered at Sheffield, particularly by those who were trying out for the first time a word they thought they had received, some of the more specific ones are very difficult to dismiss in terms of probability theories.

The woman whose name began with "L" exemplifies this well. I was able to interview her the next day in person. Her name is Linda. Linda said that as soon as Wimber began to speak—even though he was not too sure of the name—she felt God speaking to her in her heart that it was her. As the other details were given, she became convinced of it and went down from the balcony where she had been sitting to the stage at the front. Hers was also the only case I came across in which the word of knowledge was not one hundred percent accurate, in that she will not be thirty-two until April this year. (Wimber also admitted in public his uncertainty about her name, thinking it was something like "Lorma" or "Lerman" but being certain that it began with "L.")

In Linda's case we can estimate that if there were about 1500 women present at the conference and if there are about 20 common initials of women's names (excluding initials like X, Z, or Q) then about 75 women might have been expected to fit the first two spec­ifications. If most of those present were aged between twenty and sixty—but Wimber did have a discrepancy of one year (or a few months) in this detail—then we could allow 13 age brackets of three years each, allowing for an error of one year on either side. This brings us down to about six possible women.

It is difficult to estimate the total "universe" of pos­sible organs, especially as left and right sides may be specified or details such as "fifth cervical disc" and so on may be included. Doctors or those with medical training might be able to list hundreds of different parts of the body, but for the present purposes let us take a very conservative figure and assume there are only 30 principal organs or parts. Even with a choice of only 30 bodily areas, we are down to 0.2 people who would fit these criteria by chance alone. Then there is the detail of "eight years," which is considerably longer than the average length of time for a throat illness to persist in a woman of this age. If we take an arbitrary figure of one in 50 throat conditions lasting as long as eight years then we find that on the basis of chance alone 0.004 people in this crowd might be expected to have such a combination of traits. In other words, even by using very conservative figures such as a choice of only 30 organs in the body, the crowd would have to have been 250 times larger than it actually was for just one person to have had such a combination of characteristics through chance alone.

The fact that for virtually all the words of knowledge some­one present was willing to be identified as having the illness mentioned shows that the words themselves were regarded as accurate, at least subjectively. There is still a difference between a person who considers himself or herself to have ar­thritis and the person whose arthritic condition is diagnosed as such by a medical doctor, although those whom I inter­viewed about claimed healings were all those who had re­ceived medical diagnoses previously.

One case in which I had prior evidence of a condition in­volved a nurse whom I had interviewed in a different context the previous week. A question about her attitudes toward children had led her to tell me that she had endometriosis (tumors in her uterus), which had prevented conception, a personal detail this couple had confided to only one other person in their church.

Owing to their work, she and her husband had to take turns to go to Sheffield on different days, but the wife was present for an afternoon workshop on phys­ical healing when Blaine Cook had a word of knowledge about endometriosis—using the specialist medical term that the nurse had told me the previous week. When she gasped in amaze­ment at this—and as far as I could tell no one else claimed it—Cook prayed that God would give her the child she was wanting so much. This appeared to be an auxiliary word of knowledge, but in the circumstances a logical inference from her condition could not be ruled out. This mention of endom­etriosis was the twenty-first word of knowledge out of a total of thirty-five during that afternoon's workshop alone.

Four afternoon workshops on different topics were being conducted simultaneously in different halls, reducing the numbers involved in any particular one. This particular work­shop was combined that afternoon with another one, so we might guess that attendance at it would have been around 1500, of whom half might be expected to be women. Out of 750 or so women one having endometriosis in conceivably attributable to a lucky guess through statistics alone. However, this was actually among the less specific cases mentioned that afternoon; examples of some of the other thirty-four given out by Blaine Cook are as follows (in all these cases someone acknowledged having such a condition)

  • An ear condition—infection—with a lot of fluid in the ear so that when you wake up there is fluid even on the pillow [acknowledged by a woman on the right].

  • A woman with a cyst on the left ovary—have real severe pain about six or seven days before you have your menstrual cycle [ac­knowledged by a woman on the left; Cook then asked for a woman nearby to lay a hand on the left side of the woman in question and to pray for her].
  • The left foot—a fungus on the bottom which comes up between the last three toes to the top of the foot [a man on the balcony].
  • Thirty-nine people with heart conditions or high blood pressure [they were asked to stand and raise their hands so that those around them could pray for them].

  • [A little later Cook announced:] Also someone with a prolapsed heart valve who didn't come forward [a man on the right then iden­tified himself].

  • Abscessed tooth, lower jaw, second molar [a woman on the right].

  • Fifth cervical disc damaged in the neck [a woman on the right]. And a gentleman with the same condition [I was unable to see if anyone acknowledged this one as by then so many people were standing up and praying in groups for those who had already iden­tified themselves].
  • Bruised right heel bone. Hit too hard on something and bruised very badly [a man on the left at the back
  • Someone planning to get a root canal seen to on one of teeth in upper right side of mouth—just about to go for tests [a woman on the right].


These examples are among the more specific and detailed ones for which I was able to see people identify themselves as having such conditions. Three other conditions were men­tioned in which Cook suggested the person in question should "tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to pray for you" instead of identifying themselves in public: these were for a fungal condition on the anus, vaginal herpes, and an infection in the right breast causing a discharge out of the right nipple. Cook appeared embarrassed by this last mentioned condition, commenting, "Oh boy, why does he do it to me?!"

Telepathy
Cook, Wimber, and all the others having words of knowl­edge attribute them to divine revelation, but on the surface a more "natural" explanation might be telepathy. Telepathy has a rather dubious status within orthodox science, however, so scientifically controlled tests of telepathy and related phenom­ena (clairvoyance, etc.) are relatively few. When such tests are conducted, they limit the number of possible choices to a known, predetermined set to calculate the statistical probabil­ities of random guesses. Subjects are asked to tell which card has been chosen or to predict which light will flash out of a limited possible set. The results of hundreds of such series are then tabulated and analyzed for statistical significance. If five correct guesses out of a hundred are attributable to chance, then as the proportion of correct answers rises, the probability of the results being due to chance becomes correspondingly less and less.

For most experiments the accuracy level is well below one hundred percent, even if statistically significant, but certain individuals with practice do manage to obtain scores that are very highly significant. It appears that practice does lead to marked improvements in accuracy both in such scientific tests and in what I observed at Sheffield, insofar as the most detailed words of knowledge containing specific facts about a person's age, name, or unusual condition were spoken by those with longer experience of this phenomenon and more generalized statements such as "a dull pain over the right eye between the eye and ear," "gallstones," "irregular heartbeat," or "pain in the left foot" were given by those who had never previously had a word of knowledge but here were encouraged to pray and ask God for one.

Outside of controlled scientific experimental conditions, there are occasional reports of close relatives, spouses, or good friends finding that they are thinking about the same thing at the same time and wondering if it were due to telepathy. It is difficult to assess the scientific status of such experiences be­cause of unanswered questions about whether or not a com­mon stimulus might have channeled thoughts along parallel lines. Even if such reports of telepathy can be verified, how­ever, they still seem to be confined to those with close ongoing relationships. The phenomena observed in Sheffield involved such knowledge being picked up by strangers across a crowded auditorium; the people had no previous contact with each other and the knowledge claimed was about personal details that are not normally discernible even if they had spoken face to face.

The very fact that some of those having the more detailed words of knowledge had recently arrived from the United States means that if some form of telepathy were in­volved, it was of a different nature from what is reported between people with existing close ties.

Our knowledge of telepathy and similar phenomena is still in the rudimentary stages, so even if the Sheffield phenomena are of a different kind than that reported between dose friends or relatives, it does not mean that it is not still explicable in terms of a telepathy hypothesis. It simply means that our knowledge is extended further or that new dimensions to the psi factor need to be considered.

Our conventional model of telepathy tends to see it as a kind of "radio" with a transmitter and one or more receivers, but some of the Sheffield phenom­ena suggest that this model is also inadequate for certain details. These are the cases when a word of knowledge in­cludes details of how many people have a particular illness, such as "three people with dyslexia" or "thirty nine people with heart conditions or high blood pressure."

On the first evening Wimber had a word of knowledge involving the num­bers "four" and "one" in association with the word "barren" but was unsure if they meant "14" or "41." He asked those unable to have children, whether male or female, to come forward and line up in front of the stage. Some bunched up together and merged on the steps with a few others who had come forward in response to other words of knowledge so I was unsure of my own counting, but it was within two of the number "41," which Wimber arrived at from his better van­tage point of the stage. (Although one of those to go forward was the husband of the woman with endometriosis, he slipped away quietly back to his seat without being prayed for or revealing his wife's condition because he decided after going forward that the problem was not his but his wife's. Therefore there could have been no report on the woman's condition to Blaine Cook who had the word of knowledge about endome­triosis three days later.)

The significance of specific numbers mentioned like "three," "39" or "41" is that in a radio analogy one would have to imagine a radio being able to identify how many stations were broadcasting the message on several different bands. It is as if the range of possible wave lengths were rapidly scanned, all those broadcasting the same message were identified, and the number of different transmitters counted. This is a much more sophisticated model than one of a single transmitter and one or more receivers of a single message, so that the radio analogy becomes strained when it comes to the question of multiple "transmitters" and counting each one separately.

When the Spirit Comes
Through words of knowledge various people were identified as the ones God wanted to heal and they were then prayed over by those around them (or, at the beginning of the confer­ence, by the team members who came with Wimber and Pytches). The power to heal is attributed to the Holy Spirit and at the beginning of each so-called clinic session all those present were invited to "wait for" the Holy Spirit to come upon them. Wimber would pray briefly for the Holy Spirit to "come," then stand at the front while everyone waited quietly, usually standing and often in a position in which the hands were upturned and held out in front as if the persons were in the act of receiving. Some even stood with their hands clasped together behind their backs as if unwilling to participate in what was going on around them. Wimber at the front cracked jokes like "Now don't get religious on me" but soon began to cry out "Let it come" as he saw some of the physical manifes­tations of the Holy Spirit's presence.

These ranged from a kind of beatific stillness and quietness settling over a person to the opposite extreme of falling over and lying on the floor. In between there were phenomena such as the shaking of one or both hands, laughing, crying, or a stiffening of the body. Such phenomena have been reported in Christian religious history from at least the time of Wesley onwards, although the biblical reference to the disciples appearing as if drunk on the day of Pentecost might be taken as evidence of similar phenomena in the first-century church.

Most Methodists would be suspicious of such modern phe­nomena occurring in Methodist churches even if such things occurred at the time of Wesley, and modern Quakers no longer manifest the quaking that gave them their name, but it appears that people of many different denominations at Sheffield ex­perienced such phenomena sometimes involuntarily. During the very first clinic session a forty-five-year-old woman found her right hand was shaking while all those around her were sitting without any visible manifestations. She tried to stop her hand from shaking by holding it with her other one until both began to shake so violently that her behavior became obvious to those around her. She had not expected such be­havior and it was not until the third day that Cook explained their interpretation of these physical manifestations. There had been no previous suggestion that such phenomena were to be expected, so this women and others like her tried to suppress such phenomena when they occurred during the first clinic. In subsequent sessions there may have been more expectancy of seeing such behavior, so the element of psychological sugges­tion cannot be ruled out for later meetings even if it is difficult to account for phenomena at the first clinic by such theory.

During the physical healing workshops on the third day Cook explained that they regard these manifestations as being partly due to an "overload" of the nervous system, particu­larly for phenomena like hands shaking. One twenty-nine-year-old man was genuinely surprised to be told half an hour later that during a certain time of prayer his hand had been shaking violently. This incident would indicate that the autonomic nervous system or the motor parts of the brain could be involved without any consciousness of what is happening in the body.

Phenomena such as a stiffening up are attributed to inner conflict between the Holy Spirit and personal sins or other barriers. Some cases of people screaming out are attrib­uted usually to the release of suppressed hurts from the past but may occasionally be attributed to the expulsion of demonic forces. Those who screamed seemed mainly to be women. I interviewed two of them—one of them the wife of an Anglican curate—and they both testified that they would never normally scream like that in public but found themselves doing so as the Holy Spirit brought to the surface various past hurts. It is difficult to explain such "unconventional" behavior by a stan­dard "crowd conformity" model.

The behavior of a few individuals who screamed out or of the man who suddenly began to grunt and growl and needed to be held down by several of those around him (attributed by those there as evidence of a demon manifesting itself) might be regarded as a form of mass hysteria were it not for the fact that relatively few people actually manifest such symptoms. More people have symptoms such as shaking hands, weeping, or stiffening but during any one clinic the numbers of individ­uals actually manifesting such signs are still a minority. Those around them either watch or participate in praying for such people, but I would estimate that rarely would more than one in ten of the audience be the focus of such attention during any one clinic. By the end of the four days most people had experienced something, but there were still some who wanted to experience some special manifestation and had not done so. (A few seemed to attempt to mimic phenomena like hands shaking, but their attempts were obviously artificial and they were told to stop it by the more experienced team members.)

From the outside such behavior might easily be attributable to emotionalism, but it is then surprising to find that when interviewed about their experiences afterward a relatively high number reported a sense of detachment from the proceedings and inner calm or peace. Emotions are obviously involved but not to the degree that the behavior could be labeled "emotion­alism" alone and left at that.

This sense of detachment from one's physical body, almost like being a spectator, even applies to those who manifest quite extreme behavior like screaming. One twenty-four-year-old woman, for example, began to have a vision of Jesus, first of his arms and later of his body but his facial features were still unclear. She tried to dear her mind of any faces she knew well, such as her father's, so as not to project such features on to the vision in her mind's eye. She felt that "Satan was saying to [her] that it was not real." As she struggled to put her arms out to hold onto Jesus, she felt a severe pain right across her stomach as if some forces were trying to prevent her from reaching Jesus. The severity of the pains caused her to scream out, but despite these experiences she nevertheless felt somehow detached from her body, con­scious of what was happening but not seeming to be really "in" it or part of it. During the experience her arms and legs became numb and it took about half an hour for sensation to return to them afterward.

In several cases there appeared to be a progression from "strong" to "mild" manifestations during the conference. Those who near the beginning felt that past hurts were being dealt with or found themselves stiffening up as if an inner conflict were taking place—what Wimber terms a "power encounter" as the Holy Spirit confronts forms of resistance—were by the end of the week exhibiting less dramatic symptoms such as expressions of joy or rapture. Those who at the beginning manifested hand shaking or tingling in the hands were usually those who saw these symptoms as evidence of a call to some kind of a healing ministry and who were often praying over other people by the end of the week. Sometimes the "shaking hand syndrome" occurred again while they were praying over others but sometimes not.

It would appear as if the forms these phenomena take in different people may depend on in­dividual factors as diverse as one's personal needs, personal­ity, and even physiological makeup; the hand that shakes more or begins to shake first is often the hand one writes with, whether right or left.

Occasionally people fall over onto the floor or feel they have to sit down in a chair. Different reasons are given for this but all involve a sense of feeling overwhelmed. (Wimber uses the word "overwhelm"; he says that the Greek word from which we get the word "baptism" means "overwhelmed" more than simply "dipped," and he therefore interprets some of these experiences as evidence of an "overwhelming" ["baptism"] in the Holy Spirit.)

A twenty-three-year-old girl described how first her legs began to shake violently, then calmed down, and then it "came again with my hands shaking as well." Eventu­ally her hands stopped and only her legs shook, but by that time she had become unable to stand and had fallen first to her seat and then flat onto the floor where she "lay for quite a while, feeling totally at peace." When she was afterwards helped back to a sitting position she "felt as if I just wanted to sit there for an hour or so and allow his Spirit to continue to be with me and flow through me, just being at peace." She felt God had been "filling" her with "his love." Others also described similar experiences in terms of "love," "joy," or "peace," although one girl described her experience of what appeared to me like ecstasy as "joy alternating with deep-seated pains and hurts from the past: joy then pain then joy then pain."

It appeared as if some of the more extreme emotional feel­ings were experienced more by women than men, and in par­ticular more by younger women than older ones. However, older people also felt the "overwhelming" so that they fell over, though I know of more female than male cases of this. Some described their experiences in terms of "a great, heavy weight knocking me over" or "a heavy weight or pressure on the chest so that I had to sit down." The mention of "weight" is particularly interesting because it was not a feature men­tioned by Wimber or the other speakers, so the fact that several people mentioned such a "weight" could not be attributed to suggestion. Wimber had mentioned the idea of "waves," say­ing that sometimes the Holy Spirit suddenly comes in an en­gulfing wave but more often comes in "waves" of ever-increasing intensity; first a few people becoming "engaged" by the Spirit, then more and more.

I find such experience particularly interesting because of their similarities with the report of an experience by a Baptist minister who, while praying by himself thirty years ago, ex­perienced "waves" of God's love that eventually became so intense "I had to ask God to stop it" after an unknown period of time, which he guessed might have been up to an hour or more.10 So far his experience has never been repeated but his clearest impressions in retrospect were of "waves" and "weight." The similarities of language and the context of Christian prayer indicate that his experience seems very simi­lar to that reported by some people at Sheffield—but from a sociological perspective it is extremely significant that such experiences can occur also in an individual, private context and apparently without being expected or humanly initiated.

The Healing Process
Words of knowledge were often used at Sheffield to identify people to be prayed for, but sometimes general categories of people were invited to stand for prayer, as on the final evening when there was a special prayer for ministers and church leaders. In the latter case prayer was of a more general na­ture—for God's "blessing," "strength," "courage," or what­ever—whereas prayers for healing tended to involve more specific procedures. First, the person was interviewed about the illness and its relevant details, then a diagnosis was made about it, whether its origin was "natural" or "supernatural," then the appropriate kind of prayer was selected, which was followed by another time of prayer that was punctuated by further questioning and feedback from the person being prayed for. Finally some general counsel might be given after the prayer time.

Each case is different but the following description illustrates some of the common features (words of knowledge, interview, and prayer). It took place during the first afternoon workshop on physical healing, which was lead by one of Wimber's team, John McClure, a pastor from Newport Beach, California. He had arrived in Sheffield from London that morning to discover that he was to lead that workshop the same afternoon. Two days previously he had awakened at 5:00 A.M. in his hotel room in London and found he had a blockage or constriction in his windpipe. It was such a severe constriction that he thought he was dying, but in his subsequent account he re­ported that he "had to rebuke the enemy and it left me." Then "the Lord told me that there would be someone like this to be healed" when he came to Sheffield. Therefore at the first work­shop he said that there was somebody with a recent difficulty in breathing; McClure did not know if it was asthmatic or phlegm, only that the windpipe was narrow.

A woman then came forward and McClure interviewed her, asking how long she had had the condition and what her precise problems with it had been. She said that at the age of six weeks she had had eczema and then since the age of two had had asthma. It had improved subsequently but "in the last six months I had been getting a lot of phlegm in the throat, very tight and constricting." McClure commented that he sensed "the enemy wants to terrify you and even try to kill you through this." He then prayed along the lines of, "May the kingdom of God come upon you. . . I speak to the lungs in Jesus' name, 'Be cleared.' ... I speak to the breathing appa­ratus in Jesus' name, 'Be cleared.' ... Be cleared in Jesus' name."

After this McClure interviewed the woman further, stressing that he wanted her to be truthful about whether or not she could feel any change at all. She replied that she did feel cleared and could no longer hear her own breathing. McClure confirmed that at the beginning he had been able to hear the woman's breathing "but not now." The woman then returned to her seat, her final comment being that she felt she "could run a mile"!

Cases like this in which an instantaneous change of some kind is reported are not the rule by any means. Many others report either gradual change or no change at all. Wimber himself cites figures from studies conducted in the United States in which thirty percent of people report some measure of healing after the first session of prayer, an additional ten percent after the second session, and over seventy percent by the time they have been prayed for ten times. They rationalize such results by pointing out that Jesus himself once prayed twice for a blind man, and even some of Paul's friends seem to have experienced prolonged illnesses. Nevertheless the fact that a considerable proportion of people do claim some mea­sure of healing raises the question of how the healing actually works.

Many of the physical phenomena already described as physiological symptoms of the presence of the Holy Spirit bear remarkable similarities to trancelike states. This is not surpris­ing in view of the kind of concentration involved if one has a vision of Jesus of the kind mentioned earlier, because the physiological condition that is likely to accompany the concen­tration involved in such a vision is most likely one that resem­bles a trance. However, the very fact that these states do resemble hypnotic trances raises the question of whether or not what is actually happening is a form of hypnosis.

Empirically it is very difficult to answer this because the same results might be produced from quite different stimuli, just as a suntan can be produced by the "natural" rays of the sun or by the "artificial" device of an ultraviolet lamp. The problem is compounded by similarities of result, because genuine healings can take place under hypnosis in the same way as are reported as answers to prayer. The very environment of having a group of people around one praying and expressing concern may provide a form of therapy in itself. In a context in which people are open to suggestion and are expecting genuine results as well as have a confidence both in God and in the healing team, the element of suggestion is likely to be strong.

However, this theory does not in itself account for all the range of phenomena actually manifested at Sheffield. It does not account for the accuracy of some of the words of knowl­edge (and those receiving the words of knowledge are not in trancelike states when they receive the information) and nei­ther does it account for behavior such as that recorded in the following account:

Sarah is a twenty-three-year-old woman who deliberately sat sepa­rately from her best friend, Lynne, in order to avoid being influenced by Lynne or her husband within the overall crowd. At first Sarah was rather "put off by seeing so many white, middle-class Chris­tians" at the conference and was a little skeptical on that account because she is particularly concerned for the poor, working-class, and immigrant groups among whom she had been working. During one of the clinics, however, Sarah glanced over to the section where Lynne was being prayed for. Suddenly "in a split second, with no time to even think about Lynne or feel compassion for her I found myself doubled up in a severe emotional—not physical—pain as I felt myself experiencing all the pain and hurt Lynne had been through in her life." Immediately Sarah dashed "like a banshee" out along the cor­ridor and in to where Lynne was, threw herself at her friend's feet and cried out "I'm really hurting for you." Sarah's pain then disap­peared and at the same time the resistance in Lynne which those praying for her had been finding also seemed to melt away. Shortly afterwards one of those praying asked Lynne, "Did your father leave you when you were eleven years old?" an idea which had come to his mind and was then verified as true. They then prayed for emo­tional healing for Lynne and for "healing of her memories."
Behavior such as Sarah's would need to be explained by some other form of psychological mechanism such as an ex­tremely deep and sudden empathy rather than by any refer­ence to trance states. It is interesting that she bore a kind of vicarious pain for her friend and that some of the words of knowledge come as forms of pain that "one knows are not one's own pain." Such experiences seem to be particularly appropriate in a context where everyone believes in Christ's
vicarious suffering on their behalf. Moreover they see themselves as belonging to a group that in the New Testament is compared to a body with many organs in which "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor. 12:26).

The Effectiveness of Healing
The whole purpose of the conference was to train Christians in healing ministries and the acid test of such healing is whether or not it actually works. However, when I tried to follow up afterwards with those who received prayer for healing, it be­came clear that there were too many problematic questions involved to enable a clear verdict to be made. In the first place, it is extremely difficult to check up on medical reports before and after the conference because such reports are not always available. Even when they are available, there is still a possi­bility of the doctor having made a wrong diagnosis or of having made a tentative diagnosis when the full range of in­formation was unavailable.

For some illnesses it is quite likely that the person would have recovered anyway through "natu­ral" processes of healing even if he or she thinks that such processes were miraculously speeded up in Sheffield. In other cases physical symptoms might have psychosomatic causes and when the psychosomatic roots were dealt with the physical symptoms disappeared. Other cases might involve a tempo­rary alleviation of a condition, but there is then the question of whether or not a later relapse might occur. This is particu­larly pertinent to the case of a woman with multiple sclerosis who walked from her wheelchair supported on either side at first because of her wobbly knees; after prayer specifically for her knees by someone who had also once been a cripple she found herself able the next day to walk around for about forty-five minutes with straight legs.

Another problem in following up reports of healing is that because so many people were being prayed for simultaneously, I could not observe each case in detail and so could not confirm for myself accounts such as that of a man's clubfoot changing its shape towards a more normal one within the space of about fifteen minutes.

Owing to these difficulties in assessing the effectiveness of such prayers, I leave this question open and conclude with two accounts of those who claimed healings during the conference itself.

Linda, the one with the throat problem, went on to the platform where Wimber interviewed her.
The whole audience could hear her croaky voice through the microphone. After a relatively brief time of prayer Wimber asked her how she felt. She said she felt about the same, but even as she spoke her voice sounded clear. Wimber asked her to count and it was when she reached "three" that she herself realized that her voice had cleared. When I interviewed her the next day she said that all the symptoms had gone except that she could feel a small warm patch of heat on her throat where she believed therapy was still continuing.

Ginny is thirty-one years old; ten years ago she had begun to suffer a degeneration in her lower spine. Medical doctors had said she would eventually end up in a wheelchair but as a measure to alleviate the degeneration had inserted two metal pins into one of her verte­brae in January 1985. By September the specialist could confirm that the bone had grown over the pins. Ginny at first had to wear a plaster cast which was later replaced by a metal-reinforced corset to keep her back rigid. She claimed that it was medically impossible for her to bend her back, but after prayer during the conference she found she was able to bend down virtually to touch her toes.

After this she went up onto the stage, bent down several times, and then lifted up the front of her jumper to display the corset while explaining what had happened to her. Apparently it was only when I inter­viewed her the next day that she realized that in order for her to demonstrate her healing the metal reinforcements in the corset must have become temporarily flexible too. She described with evident joy how for the first time in many months she had been able to bend over a washbasin to wash her hair and perform other routine tasks and she herself remained curious about what happened to the metal pins in her back.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting blog, thanks for the information.

    ReplyDelete