Apr 22, 2012

Peace Out

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.

But the question remains, why do we still do this? At its worst it can feel awkward and a bit forced to look a stranger in the eye and wish them the peace of the Lord. Especially for the introverts among us. But The Peace is not merely a foretaste of the coffee hour that is to come or a holy “Hey, how’re you doing?” Rather it’s a tangible reminder that we’re not in this alone. When we gather to worship God we don’t come as isolated individuals in some sort of liturgical cocoon. That might feel safe or comfortable but it’s not how we understand and experience God.

We worship using the Book of Common Prayer, so named not because it’s ordinary but because it’s a communal expression of our life and worship together. We don’t hear God’s Word in isolation and we don’t receive Communion in isolation. By exchanging The Peace with one another we are forced to confront the reality that we worship in community, not because it happens to be convenient or always easy, but because Christ gathered disciples around himself and calls us into community as well.

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.


Michelle C. Jackson said...

When my hasband has a casual conversation with people on the bus, or whatever, his stock 'good-bye' is "peace be with you" and he says it is amazing how many people say, "Thank you! "

Father Tim said...

Clearly not enough peace in the world, Michelle. I usually sign my emails "Peace." Good stuff.

Gillian Butler said...

Thought you might like to read some of the words to the satirical song "Mrs. Beamish" which addresses this topic: Mrs. Beamish

Mrs. Beamish stands in church, expression calm and holy,
and when the organ plays, she mumbles hymns extremely slowly.
A pillar of St. Botolph’s, for twenty years or more,
She does the flowers at Easter and the brass work on the door.
But recently St. Botolph’s has gained a brand new vicar,
His name is Ken he’s single and he wants the hymns sung quicker,
And he's introduced a custom, which Mrs. Beamish hates,
So she rounds upon the person next to her and clearly states,

"Don't you dare shake hands with me, or offer signs of peace,
You lay a finger on me and I'll call for the police.
Don't whisper 'Peace be with You,' this is the C of E,
so bend the knee, say "thou" and "thee",
and keep your hands off me."

© Words by Richard Stilgoe.
There's a lot more, but you get the idea...

Father Tim said...

Gillian, that's fabulous! Thanks for sharing.

MeredithGould (@MeredithGould) said...

I begged the Dean of the Cathedral where Dan and I got married in November to put a boundary on the peace exchange during our wedding. While we can never get enough peace, I find that I get more than enough after about 2 seconds and will not leave my pew to go wandering all over the church to greet people. Creepy. To me. Dan? He glad hands folks. Creepy.

Rory said...

Another reason why St. Thomas in NYC is my favorite church when I am in Manhattan! Team St. Thomas!

Marty Garwood said...

I preached on the Good Shepherd this morning and quoted a line from this posting (giving you credit of course), I also challenged our congregation to really mean it when they share the Peace with one another - that by doing so they are living into their own roles as shepherds of God's flock. Thanks for the inspiration,

Father Tim said...

Nicely done, Marty. And I'm glad this gave you some sermon fodder!

CSS said...

I'm with the St. Thomas fans: I can't stand passing the peace. I find it terribly disruptive to the flow of the liturgy. When I'm serving (as a verger), it's rarely an issue, as I'm generally busy setting up the altar for Communion; when I visit other churches, though, things are different. What I usually do then is remain on my knees after the Confession and Absolution. I will have my head bowed, my hands clasped, and my eyes closed - in short, I do everything short of hanging a big sign around my neck to make it clear that I'm in the midst of prayer - but it never fails: invariably, someone will grasp my shoulder, give it a firm shake, and say "peace of God". To put it very mildly, what I feel at that moment - having had my prayers rudely and thoughtlessly interrupted - is neither peace nor a reciprocal desire that the other person receive peace.

To be clear, I have no problem chatting with and greeting everyone in sight once the service has ended (I'm not a big hugger, but most people nonetheless find me to be quite friendly). During the service, however, my focus is on other things.

Oh, and at our church, the response is still "And with thy spirit."