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Hands-on faith

  • 06 May 2021
  Bobbing on the recent news tide has been a speech that Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave to the recent Australian Christian Churches Conference. Some initial reports gave prominence to the Pentecostal ritual of laying on of hands. The religious fervour in the speech and its stress on the importance of faith both for the Prime Minister’s public life and for Australian life were met with expressions of outrage and support on social media, with concern about whether recipients were consulted, with ritual declarations of the separation of church and state, and with some curiosity about the social attitudes associated with Pentecostal belief.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the response was how generally muted it was, including the laying on of hands. This symbolic action has been associated with controverted change in Western religious societies. Central in religious societies, it became neuralgic in cultures seeking to mark out clear boundaries between religion and such domains as politics, science and medicine and demography. To appreciate the significance of the action, it is worth reflecting on its history.

In the Jewish tradition, inherited also in the Christian Church, the laying on of hands embodied both God’s blessing of people and their consecration to God’s work. Moses laid hands on his successor Aaron, for example, and hands were laid on the goat that was driven into the desert to take with it the sins of the people. One of the blessings most sought from God was healing from disease. It was natural for Jesus when healing the sick to lay hands on them.

In the early Church the symbol was used in rituals of blessing both for healing and for commissioning. Laying hands on the sick in prayer, often accompanied by anointing with oil, became a regular part of church life. It was also central to rites of initiating new Christians into the Church and to commissioning Christians as deacons, priests and Bishops. The gesture of laying on hands expressed the blessing that God gave to the Church in healing and consecrating people and the lasting relationship with God of those blessed.

After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity elaborate ceremonial was developed in the Roman Empire for the coronation of Emperors and Kings. The ritual drew on the Christian ceremonies for the consecration of Bishops, and emphasised the importance of God’s blessing and commissioning for the Emperor as Christian and as ruler. Popes or Patriarchs anointed the new