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Hands-on faith



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.

Main image: Pair of hands in stained glass style illustration (Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

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 Emperor with oil and placed on his head a crown. These rituals expressed the King’s obedience to God from whom the legitimacy of his authority came and the membership of the church that he shared with his Christian people. The outlines of this ceremony can still be seen in the coronation of English monarchs.

Seen against this background the laying on of hands can be seen as a symbol of the integration with faith of all human activities including rule over others. The God who blesses is ultimately responsible for the success of all human activity in the world and is the source of all authority. Over many centuries Christian thinkers gave much time to distinguishing the part was played by God from the part played by human initiative and learning in human affairs. In this process the Enlightenment was an inflection point in the long process of separating out what had been integrated in the laying on of hands.

Most notably and explosively it marked the separation of kings’ authority from their divine right to rule symbolised in their coronation ceremony. The authority of the ruler was not conferred by God through Church but mediated by the people. Monarchs became constitutional.


'The internal logic of the appeal to faith by each group is properly open to argument in churches. Churches should be broad, as should society.'


The laying on of hands to cure also symbolises the integration of healing with faith. The Enlightenment made evident the separation of medical science, like other sciences, from non-empirical beliefs. The immediate response to illness was to seek medical help, not prayer. In the time of COVID-19, too, the laying on of hands may seem to be a breach of necessary social distancing. It conflicts with the expert judgments about the transmission of the virus.

The separation of governance, science and demography from faith was often fiercely contested. Many people have called not only for separation but exclusion of religion and religious communities from public life, education and health care. One might have expected that these attitudes would be more strongly expressed in the response to a Prime Minister expressing his faith into his public dealings with people.

That they were not perhaps indicates that Australians generally are relaxed about the level of separation between faith and other dimensions of life in Australia, and see the call for exclusion as doctrinaire. It is seen as acceptable for people of faith to argue that political authority comes ultimately from God as long as they do not impose this view as a doctrine of state. It also remains open for churches and their members to advocate for laws consistent with their faith which they believe to be of benefit to society. Politicians, too, may speak openly of the place their faith has in their public life as long as they do not seek to impose their belief on others.

Similarly many people within the health sector see religious faith and trust in medicine to be complementary. In their treatment of patients they recognise that habits of heart and mind embodied in cultural practices play an important part in many people’s health and recovery from illness. The laying on of hands and other symbolic activities are not a substitute for medication or surgery but can be a valuable human adjunct to healing. The stress occasioned by COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed to meet it, too, have also focused attention on the importance for human wellbeing of touch based in respect.

This tolerance is to be welcomed, particularly if it leads to a conversation based in curiosity about the social attitudes that flow from religious belief and not in dogmatic assertion about them. As in the Catholic Church, so in Evangelical Churches, some groups find support in their faith for conservative social attitudes and others for radical social change. The internal logic of the appeal to faith by each group is properly open to argument in churches. Churches should be broad, as should society.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Pair of hands in stained glass style illustration (Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, laying on of hands, Catholic, Jewish, faith, Scott Morrison, politics



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Existing comments

Our PM's speech at the Australian Christian Churches Conference answered the question 'Who are you?' We may or may not agree with his political stance, his dodging and weaving on certain topics but we can recognise a fellow believer. In the laying on of hands he was reaching out and giving the gift of touch. In touching we are connecting with another person and we are also exposing our own need for touch. When the Magi journeyed towards Jesus they weren't sure about their difficult approach until they returned, no longer at ease, to their old dispensations with an alien people clutching their gods. Then they knew.

Pam | 06 May 2021  

‘Churches should be broad, as should society.’ Religion is philosophy and philosophy, at its heart, is a technical and forensic enterprise because Truth is as broad as it is, not as people say it is.. When there is philosophy about which evil is intrinsic and which prudential, and we have the intrinsic-prudential divide straddled by four categories of sins, intrinsic as well as prudential, which cry to Heaven for vengeance, we can conclude that while it may be permissible for society to be broad, it is sometimes a compliment and sometimes a rebuke that an ecclesiastical organisation is a ‘broad church’.

roy chen yee | 06 May 2021  

How, in reality, can "the social attitudes that flow from religious belief" be separated from "dogmatic assertions about them"? For instance, how can care for the dying be separated from religious tenets of the providence of God and the inalienable dignity of human life? A complementarity of "religious faith and trust in medicine", while eminently desirable, seems to be becoming remote with the increasing licensing of the medical profession to terminate lives.

John RD | 07 May 2021  

I'm reminded of Jacob Bronowski's heart-rending plea at the climax of his episode Knowledge and Certainty, in the series The Ascent of Man: "We have to touch people" - whereupon he bends to scoop a handful of pond mud; the ashes from Auschwitz. It is Bronowski's cry against what, minutes before, he identifies as the fundamental dilemma in our time: the pitilessness of institutional "push-button" decision-making, in which managerial efficiency brooks no human objection. So, for me, it is one thing to celebrate and perpetuate the laying-on of hands as the intimate expression of the Holy Spirit, at work through the tactile nature of our mammalian creatureliness. And it is another matter to appropriate it as a self-conscious symbol of ideological conformity. I confess that, with its present prime-ministerial exponent, I am struggling to interpret the laying-on of hands as anything more than the outward sign of an as-yet unexamined, inner presumption upon God.

Fred Green | 07 May 2021  

I must confess to being deeply impressed by Richard Holloway, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, whose book about death and dying, 'Waiting for the Last Bus', I have almost finished reading. Anglicanism, like Presbyterianism and Catholicism, is in decline in Scotland. Holloway is hard to typify. He seems in some ways to be a Christian humanist, in the sense he believes very much in the process of the Christian Faith and its transformative power whilst having a healthy agnosticism about rigid dogmatism. He has prayed in supposedly haunted places and it seems to have been efficacious. The Bible and the Early Church felt calling on the name of Jesus in prayer was incredibly powerful. Faith is a real thing. Intellectually bull dusting about religion is not Faith. Holloway reminds me a bit of you, Andy. He is even more thoughtful and explanatory, if anything. He seems to have been a very effective pastor to those at the last stage of their journey. I would imagine you would be as well. It is life experience and compassion which hone those skills.

Edward Fido | 07 May 2021  

If a dentist removed one of my teeth, or a doctor my appendix, on the grounds that it would be beneficial to me but without my express consent, I would view that as an assault. Similarly, if Morrison presumed to lay his hands on me.

Ginger Meggs | 10 May 2021  

But surely, must not the person being laid on with hands be agreeing and accepting of this too? After all we believe that God showers graces on us continually and it's up to us to accept those graces - or reject them. Just laying on of hands on an unsuspecting person who just thinks they are getting a hug is not transferring grace to them at all. In fact it seems to me to cross the boundary from faith to magic. For far too long the belief in "God the Magician" has hung around Christianity. It was a necessary part of the inculturation of Christianity into Roman life at Constantine's time, and also later when meeting distant people who believed in Druids and magic springs etc. "God the Magician" should however have been left behind long long ago.

Bruce Stafford | 10 May 2021  

Certain cultural traditions should be observed, yes. Men shouldn’t touch women unless there is some unambiguous signal that the woman wants to be touched, patted or hugged, in which case, especially if she’s an older woman, she’ll make the move herself because of another cultural tenet which says that older women have a lot of social liberty in whom they wish to touch in some kind of empathetic way. (Although, that seems to be running into a new fad of mothers telling their children that they don’t have to be hugged by Nan and Pops if they don’t want to.) Holding out your hand and putting a woman in the awkward position of going along and shaking it is not an unambiguous signal. However, this is all in the realm of touch while the snowflakery is actually about permission to pray for somebody without their consent. Well, given that atheists routinely express their best wishes for another without asking if they may, to express goodwill for another in your idiosyncratic way is your inalienable right as a human being to exercise and commemorate your understanding of your identity, your notion of identity being what separates you from others.

roy chen yee | 11 May 2021  

The laying on of hands is the most powerful of all healing tools - provided of course that one of them holds a scalpel and the holder knows how to use it.

john frawley | 11 May 2021  

Bravissimo, Ginge! And there's a balanced and salutory corrective to John RD's dismally Hobbesian post. Dogmatic assertions, especially religious ones, often prejudge or misinform the social attitudes that flow from religious belief. Care for the dying, provided at the hands of those accomplished and gifted in the human and medical sciences, must not be seen as separated from religious tenets of the providence of God and the inalienable dignity of human life, which medical science is committed through the Hippocratic Oath to sustain. Religious faith and trust in medicine, both eminently desirable AND generally complementary, have in the last half-century licensed members of the medical profession to increase our life-span not just exponentially but to create and replace it through cyborg technology. So yes; Roy Chen Yee, it does take Andy's 'broad church' to encompass and accomplish this, rather than a church shaped like a cruet, narrow and funneling the higher it goes and clogged at the neck, only to deposit the sour taste of vinegar on everything upon which it disgorges its acrid content. Andy's essay adroitly alerts his audience to the binaries that extremists on both sides impose and towards a Church/State understanding that is critical and connected.

Michael Furtado | 11 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘rather than a church shaped like a cruet, narrow and funneling the higher it goes and clogged at the neck, only to deposit the sour taste of vinegar on everything upon which it disgorges its acrid content.’ Furtado, PhD is still unable to report basic facts. Cruets are used to dispense sacramental wine and in several decades of communion practice, I’ve never encountered wine which tasted like vinegar. Also, I doubt whether any priest has witnessed a cruet clogging at the neck. Anyway, Matthew 7:13-14 implies that truth, being narrow, is a binary.

roy chen yee | 12 May 2021  

There are times, Roy, when a greeting is nothing more than part of a formulaic patter. A friend of mine once responded to the pat 'Have a nice day' with the words 'No thank you, I have other plans'. And that, I suppose, is the way that I would respond to gratuitous and unsolicited 'prayer' for me.

Ginger Meggs | 12 May 2021  

Ginger Meggs: ‘There are times, Roy, when a greeting is nothing more than part of a formulaic patter. A friend of mine once responded to the pat 'Have a nice day' with the words 'No thank you, I have other plans'. And that, I suppose, is the way that I would respond to gratuitous and unsolicited 'prayer' for me.’ Proof read, Ginger Meggs, proof read. Who said anything about prayer being offered as part of a formulaic patter? If it is, feel free to call down a lightning bolt on the person’s head. S/he should have known better than not to be sincere when knocking on God’s door.

roy chen yee | 13 May 2021  

An appreciation of prayer through the eyes and heart of faith does, as you indicate, Roy, make a real difference.

John RD | 15 May 2021  

Unsurprisingly, but deeply, deeply disappointingly, Roy yet again 'reads' my colourful vinegar-cruet simile far too literally, instead of for the exquisite metaphor it happens to be that I owe to James Boswell, Dr Johnson's faithful Augustan amanuensis. While begging for my flowery excess to be excused, I wonder if Roy might now be able to appreciate and admit that those, like him, wedded to their 'strict fundamentals', rapier-thrusting approach to theology in these august columns, are also inclined to 'read' others too literally? Another mal-parry, surely? En garde. M. le Roy! Prêts? Allez!

Michael Furtado | 17 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘vinegar-cruet simile’ No, it was a context-less cruet simile. From the context, the premise is that the Church, like, supposedly, Edmund Burke, uses only a few forms with the occasional reason: http://metaphors.lib.virginia.edu/metaphors/15110 The Church cannot use any form it wishes (eg., that marriage can be same-sex), Platonic or otherwise, because in philosophy as in law, precedent is important if the system of thought is not to become incoherent. Supreme courts have the privilege of being able to discard precedent because humans are acknowledged to be fallible but a Church operating from fixed scriptural text, the concept of God without change, and a necessary, not contingent, notion of intrinsic evil is not as unbound.

roy chen yee | 21 May 2021  

John Frawley's wry little piece rings true. God is as much with the surgeon/healer as he is with the priest. Miracles can happen in both instances through the Grace of God.

Edward Fido | 27 May 2021  

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