Howard Langmead - social commentator, comedian & cleric
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by Howard Langmead
Published in The Melbourne Anglican May 2005

Cartoon from the Melbourne Anglican

HEALING SERVICES have become very main stream. A few decades ago the advertising of such a ministry on a church noticeboard indicated that the parish had been infiltrated by a group of barely Anglican enthusiasts. But now most of us are comfortable with this form of prayer, humbly boasting that we do so with a modicum of success. At St John's West Brunswick we've moved to the next generation of healing services, the Healing Meditation. This is a careful juxtaposition of music, silence, candles and guided meditative prayer. Laying on of hands is an optional extra and speaking in tongues is not prohibited. Our first Healing Meditation cured two necks and a back and put two people into a deep sleep.

In scripture healings are only one part of the smorgasbord of miracles. There is that group of occurrences generally called 'nature miracles' that include parting the sea, making the sun stand still, feeding large crowds with meagre supplies (my mum can do this) and turning water into wine. A lesser known but very helpful nature miracle was when Elisha made an iron axe head float because the man who lost it in the river had to return it to its owner. Sceptics can read 2 Kings 6:5 -7.

What churches never advertise are prayer services for a wider range of miracles than just healing, such as walk-on-the-water baptisms, water-into-wine bottling nights, and the miraculous return of borrowed items. I'm not being blasphemous, I just wonder whether we should exercise a bit more faith and expect the recurrence of some biblical 'nature miracles'. Elijah exercised great faith and courage when he publicly asked God to send down fire on the water saturated altar. The fire came. I personally think he had more courage when he stood alone facing the 400 prophets of Baal and told them that their god was probably relieving himself in the toilet. This, I am assured, is the most accurate translation of the colloquial Hebrew phrase in 1 Kings:18:27.

On one occasion, when I wasn't praying for or expecting such a sign, the Holy Spirit descended as fire at a baptism service I was taking. One of the godmothers, a surprisingly good looking woman for this role, had hair teased out like she didn't know the sixties were over. She was standing with her back to the communion table when the Holy Spirit came upon her as with tongues of fire. Members of the congregation were gesticulating wildly which I took to be charismatic fervour until I smelt the smoke. The teased hair had moved over a candle on the holy table. I imagine that what I saw was similar to what the apostles saw on the Day of Pentecost.

The fire in the hairdo was still a long distance from the scalp when I noticed it so the godmother was blissfully unaware of the impending danger. I considered throwing the baptism water over the woman, but it had already been consecrated and there is a rule in the Anglican church that you don't baptise someone twice. I decided to risk personal injury by beating the godmother repeatedly on the back of the head. Somehow she missed the gallantry of the act.

A particularly charismatic churchwarden, who regularly interpreted her hot flushes as a sign that she was aglow with the Spirit, told me later, and I thought a little harshly, that she was disappointed to see me quenching the Spirit. To this day I remain uncertain as to what God's role was in that baptism of fire, and I look around for its reappearance at every baptism service.

The miracle I'd most like to perform is turning water into wine. I've often tried, but I've only succeeded once. I was visiting a woman in her eighties, Elizabeth, who said she hadn't been to church for over forty years, after she'd been refused communion for being divorced and remarried. After we'd talked for a while I offered to celebrate communion with her before I left. She had a 1662 Prayer Book but no bread or wine. She was also out of sherry, beer, communion wafers and tissues. We settled for water and a dry biscuit. As the service progressed the tears of repentance began to flow, and then Elizabeth began crying as well. The Prayer Book gospel for that week included John 3:16 and she recited it quietly as I read, "For God so loved the world".

I consecrated and administered the elements. In the quietness that followed I detected the aftertaste of wine in my mouth. I eagerly consumed the remaining liquid but by then it had reverted to water. No one can convince me that on that occasion the water did not turn into wine. But then no one has tried.

A few weeks later Elizabeth died quietly in her sleep. As with most nature miracles the miraculous element was God's timing. But sometimes, when God and I are alone, I still wave my hand over a glass of water and then sip expectantly. You never know.