In my travels throughout the church (and by that I mean attending other parishes a few times a year when I'm on vacation), I've noticed that people are still of two minds when it comes to The Peace. In other other words they either (quite literally) embrace it or it's their least favorite part of the liturgy.
You know how it goes: just before what I like to call Liturgical Halftime, the priest says "The Peace of the Lord be always with you" and the people respond "And also with you."
I’ve worshiped in parishes where The Peace has taken so long, I could have gone out for a cup of coffee, drank it, returned, and not missed a thing. But turning it into a parish-wide love-in is surely not the point. It’s not a liturgical cocktail party where everyone mingles and greets everyone else in the entire church. On the other hand, I attended a service at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York City about 15 years ago where the priest offered The Peace, the people responded, and the liturgy just went right on without anyone moving a muscle or even glancing around at those around them. That can't be the intention either. There must, in true Anglican fashion, be a middle way.
When the Episcopal Church transitioned from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the current iteration dating to 1979 one of the biggest controversies surrounded The Peace. The ’28 book didn’t have it; the ’79 book did. Some loved it; some hated it; and many misunderstood it.
But contrary to popular belief, The Peace was not a new liturgical innovation. Many of the epistles conclude with a call to greet the faithful with a “kiss of peace.” And out of this history, The Peace became part of the earliest Christian liturgies. So the re-introduction of the Peace with the “new” Prayer Book was a return to one of the Church’s most ancient liturgical practices.
I always think it's helpful to reflect on what it actually means to offer “peace” to someone. Jesus offers us peace at the very core of our souls. So when we offer one another peace in his name it’s a reminder that whatever burdens we’re carrying around, whatever pain we’re holding onto, whatever hurts we bear in our hearts; that Jesus’ presence abides. And that he will never forsake us even in our darkest moments.
So the next time you offer someone The Peace remember that it’s not just any peace but the peace of the Lord. That’s the peace that abides, that’s the peace that passes all understanding, that’s the peace that unburdens the soul and allows you to rest in God’s abounding love.
But by all means, just greet the people in the surrounding pews. Don't worry, you'll see everyone else while stuffing your face with deviled eggs in the parish hall after the liturgy.