The Peace, and how we fail to pass it

Over the weekend, I posted this status on Facebook, “The passing of the peace is not liturgical halftime, nor is it the same as coffee hour. Just a random thought on a Sunday morning.” It provoked quite a reaction, getting over 125 likes and almost 80 comments as of this writing. Comments broke into two camps: “yes, preach it” and “the longer the better when it comes to the peace.” I’ve grossly simplified, but you get the idea.

Since I appear to have struck a nerve and have a freshly-out-of-hibernation blog, I thought this might make good fodder for a further look. The commenters who think a lengthy peace is fine basically fell into two groups. First, some folks said that they like it that way. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, they said. Meanwhile, others said the Peace offers an important opportunity to welcome guests, and we need to encourage lots of conversation to facilitate that work. Obviously, there are a variety of approaches to the Peace, to liturgy, and to the Church itself. I’d like to share some thoughts about the Peace.

The Peace is primarily intended to prepare us to receive Holy Communion. Here I quote the awesome but too-rarely-used Exhortation from our prayer book:

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and
drinking of that Cup.

And this:

And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

This is why we have Confession and the Peace before Holy Communion. The purpose of Confession, I hope, is self evident. The Peace is intended, as the Exhortation makes clear, for us to make peace with those with whom we are estranged. Matthew 5, which pops up as one of the suggested Offertory Sentences, gets right to the point, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

If we use the Peace to chat with our friends to the detriment of reconciliation, we commit a grave error. When we are so busy glad-handing that we omit the true function of the Peace or obscure its purpose for others, we neglect our necessary preparation for the Sacrament.

Most of our liturgical tradition — word, action, sign, and symbol — has a theological and practical purpose. When we alter the character of liturgical fundamentals, we are upsetting a beautiful and balanced theological ecosystem. The point of the Peace is not a friendly chat, but to make space for reconciliation.

The Peace is often the least hospitable time for guests. At the very moment when we should be manifesting the Body of Christ and seeking unity, we often shun our guests. How is this possible during a chatty greeting-heavy Peace, you ask? My experience when I visit congregations is disturbingly consistent (unless I am dressed like a priest): a couple of people give me perfunctory greeting, and then I’m left standing there for several minutes while the regulars chat each other up. The Peace doesn’t appear to be a time to welcome strangers (as our Lord asked us to do in Matthew 25), but rather a time to catch up on weekend activities among the regular members of the local club. So it seems like a friendly time if you’ve paid your membership dues, but not so much if you’re new. Anecdotal comments from friends suggests my experience is not unique, sadly. Of course, there will be exceptions, but I’m pretty sure we have a clear, sad, and sinful pattern.

The aim of liturgy is not community among worshipers. Rather, our liturgy is for God and the whole world. Liturgy does not mean “work of the people” but rather “work for the public good.” In other words, it’s not about you. Whether we “like” the Peace or whether the local church “likes” the Peace is perhaps interesting but certainly not very important. The point of what we are doing is to carry out Christ’s commands to us, to be nourished for our Christian ministry in the world, and to pray for the good of the whole world. In this worldview, reconciling with our neighbors before we share Communion matters. Mere social niceties have no place before we do one of most important things we humans can do in our earthly pilgrimage.

There is a place to carry on the stated goal of greeting one another and “building community.” That place is coffee hour. If liturgy has a function, it is to bring us to Jesus and to feed us so we can share the Good News with the world. I think local community is awesome and even indispensable, but there are lots of ways to do that outside the Eucharistic service.

kiss of peaceNow some will have noticed that the prayer book encourages us to greet one another in the name of the Lord. One might first notice that the word “may” appears before that, suggesting that the whole chatfest is optional. The Peace can — according to our prayer book — be carried out simply by the Celebrant and People exchanging words. “The Peace of the Lord be always with you. And also with you.” Period. And if one reads the Exhortation, the function of the Peace is made clear. Even if we say that greetings are what matters, the scriptures suggest “Peace of Christ, how was your weekend so far” is not the way to carry this out, viz. Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26, or I Peter 5:14.

We can do better. There are congregations who manage to get the right balance of a warm liturgy and a Peace that fulfills its function. It takes some teaching and some adjustment. Perhaps it will help to move the Peace to the other spot our prayer book allows, just before or after the Communion invitation. People *might* be less likely to start the chatfest after “The gifts of God for the people of God.” Or preachers and teachers can help to form communities. It might be enough to visit other congregations where one is unknown and see what it’s like to be a stranger at that moment. And, of course, clergy might try visiting a church without looking like a cleric when you are the center of attention. Many, many things in church look very different from the pew than they do from the Holy Table!

It was obvious from some of the comments under my Facebook post that we simply haven’t done a good job of teaching congregants (and in some cases, clergy) what the primary purpose of the Peace is. It’s never too late to learn, so let’s fix that.

Our world is in desperate need of reconciliation, and here the mission of the church is essential, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” What we need to do here is to reconcile, which is a lot harder than being nice. Each week, as we gather on the Lord’s Day, we need to practice reconciliation; we don’t need more practice being nice. If we are to carry out reconciling work in the world, we do well to get it right as often as we can in our churches.

The Peace is but one of many times in which we might be tempted to yield to the familiar and the comfortable. But liturgy, like discipleship more broadly, is not about us. Liturgy, and the Christian life, are about Jesus: we seek to follow him and to invite others to do the same. The Peace should not be the time when we shun guests and close our circle among friends. Rather, we should offer greetings in the name of Christ and reconcile with our enemies. That’s very different from small talk and pleasantries.

To sum it up: we need the Peace of Christ, not a piece of nice.

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17 Responses

  1. Susan says:

    I am in the camp of people (and it is a small camp) whose palms begin to sweat and heart pace quickens when we begin the Creed–not out of excitement, but dread, because I know the Passing of the Peace is coming. I am really this introverted! So the shorter the time, the better. I’m sorry; it’s just the way I’m wired. I get your point about not mistaking coffee hour for Peace time. I do wonder how much true reconciliation could be done in the brief time allotted even for worship. If it’s more than just lip service. Just wondering….

  2. Paula says:

    I am so tired of coffee hour while passing the peace. My other problem is not being looked at while passing the peace. I’d even settle for not looking me in the eyes. Just look at me instead of over my should to see where you’re going next. Like Susan I begin to dread the Peace because I know before I stand up that few if any will take the time to see.

  3. Ellen Roemer says:

    I find the chance to greet some who will not hang around for coffee hour or those I have not seen in a while part of the passing of the peace. I am not aware of reconciling being possible at that time. If I need to reconcile it would require more than an smile and a handshake. I quite love the time spent during the passing of the peace. It is better than some sermons.

  4. The Peace is my second opportunity of the morning to welcome the newcomer/stranger to our congregation. I extend my hand and say, “Welcome, and Peace be with You!” Most of the time I get a look of surprise and smile. The first time? Peeking into the parish hall (now the actual church – yay!) before the service while things are being set up and saying hello to people, and the third is coffee hour for a more extensive conversation is welcomed. If I sense someone is introverted or shy, I still say Welcome and Peace be with You but I let them take my hand.

  5. The exchange of the peace is a liturgical event and must be conducted as such. After we have sought forgiveness for our sins, we then offer forgiveness to others as they forgive us. Therefore, we are fully prepared to receive the body and blood of Jesus. Further, it seems to me that the Apostle Paul instructed believers to give each other a “holy kiss” (Romans 24:16). If this were the way reconciliation was offered, maybe the chatting would cease.

  6. Mary Keenan says:

    I don’t know if it is a complete solution, but in my congregation, we welcome and chat BEFORE the service starts. The priest actually begins the service by asking us to welcome anyone new and greet people we already know. Then we settle down and start the service. Passing the peace is still a little chatty – and I am sure that could be addressed by the focus you suggest.

  7. Maureen Jones says:

    Just a few thoughts. When passing the peace was introduced at Mass years ago, as always, the instructions given to the congregation were very precise. Turn to your neighbor, shake hands and say “Peace be with you.” the neighbor was then to say “And also with you” . Just greet the few people immediately around you so that everyone will stay in their pew.
    Being good Catholics, we followed instructions, just as we gave the proper refrain to each prayer recited by the priest. It was all very orderly, civilized and not very meaningful. I can sympathize with the hug your neck crowd, it is warmer and more heartfelt, but the less demonstrative among us can be overwhelmed by the displays of warmth from people we don’t really know.
    Please remember to restrain yourself a bit with the hugs. One friend who has neck and back problems told me she stopped attending church because she was not always able to fend off well meaning huggers. I myself have rheumatoid arthritis and the strong firm handshakes from some of my brothers in Christ are excruciating. One man saw me wince and asked me if it hurt while he squeezed again. Bottom line, can’t we all agree that we are all there to worship God and love all of our brothers and sisters without stopping everything to demonstrate? Just an idea…

  8. James Oppenheimer says:

    “The passing of the peace is for…”

    Meh. The passing of the peace is a modern innovation, even if theoretically based on some ancient practice. It “is for” whatever people feel called to have it be “for” in terms of their own needs.

    I have always liked the solid tradition in TEC that folks find their own way of doing stuff. So just quit it already with trying to tell folks what you are sure they ought to want.

    Some folks would just as soon do without, for a variety of reasons we do not get to critique.

    Some love to spend some time (and let’s be honest here, how much time precisely are we talking about anyway? It’s not THAT much time) to meet and greet folks — and again, we don’t get to critique their motives.

    You want to keep the service moving? There are tons of ways to do that, and yet I never see anyone mention them, such as that practice of the reader sitting halfway back in the church acting as if they had just gotten word they were supposed to read, and they only get up after all other activity has stopped, and walk up to read. And, yes, some dislike this, and others seem to enjoy it, but it certainly takes a lot of time, pointlessly. And I’ve never seen any thoughts expressed about this and other practices that needlessly draw out a service.

    To each his or her own, but also, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander — except when it’s not.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Yeah, the kiss of peace is totally modern. St. Augustine mentions it, so that pretty much makes it as new as yesterday, if you think of centuries as yesterday.

      Also, I think my post was misread. I didn’t say anything about moving the service along. From my perspective, I’m happy with a three-hour mass, if it’s good. What I can’t abide is even 30 seconds of awful.

  9. James Oppenheimer says:

    I recall a remark, many years ago. Our rector had been on vacation, and he attended a church in “civvies.” As the time of the peace came, he turned to a lady next to him in the pew.

    “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” he said.

    Her gaze remaining steadfastly forward, the lady replied, “No, thank you.”

  10. Julia says:

    An interesting topic! I recall hearing a visitor behind me say to his wife during The Peace, “MY, they have a vigorous peace!” And, we did at that time-too vigorous. I think the rector sets the tone. This topic could be addressed annually in a sermon to remind us of the real reason for The Peace.

  11. Derek Michaud says:

    Thank you for this! You’ve summed up much of what has become deeply uncomfortable for me in recent years. Uncomfortable in part as an introvert but above all because, as you say, “it’s not about you”.

  12. James Oppenheimer says:

    Augustine was indeed a johnny come lately in this matter! It’s mentioned in scripture more than once. Not that we know exactly what they meant.
    It’s fair to say it’s a modern invention because some guys dug up a vague reference to an obscure action that had not been taken seriously for a long time, reinterpreting the literal kiss into a less creepy (at that time they were all guys), conventional greeting.

    Seems to me that when we want to convey a message, we say what we mean; we don’t enact some obscure, very, very easily misunderstood ritual.

    And if something is “awful” for somebody (there are lots of people for whom the whole TEC ritual and liturgy is awful, after all), just telling them they “ought to” feel differently is an exercise in futility, as well as indecent. They feel what they feel.

    For many folks, that moment is a compelling moment to celebrate, and they do celebrate it, acting out the joining of all God’s children; others of a more solitary nature observe it in their own way. We don’t always see things the same way, but instead of telling folks how they ought to feel, we need to accept and welcome the differences, and take some pains to assure all that they are not rejected or judged. Genuine inclusion of those of a different mindset is also, I believe, a well founded scriptural ideal.

  13. Scott Gunn says:

    Ah, yes, the reigning gospel of church. Our feelings. Because it’s all about us.


  14. Carol Gardner says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Scott. Thanks for the clear explanation.

  15. Charles Myers says:

    My daughter has had people outside the church touch her indecently. At church when people come up and touch her she freaks out. On Oct. 11, 2015 she just had to leave church after four people spoke to her. What about all the millennials who want to be anonymous at church or old pietists like me who want quietness and order?

  1. September 17, 2014

    […] Gunn has resurrected his blog and written a cogent explanation of why the passing of the peace during the Eucharist is not best served by turning it into a […]

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