Members only?

January 6, 2014
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Alonso Rodriguez, Peter and Paul exchanging the kiss of peace (16th century)

When the church was under siege, the ritual of passing the peace was important to members who were meeting in secret and literally holding on to one another for dear life. Today it’s meant to serve an important function in worship.

But I have come to dread this part of the service. I have visited two small congregations several times lately. Both include the passing of the peace. The presiding clergyperson invites worshipers to greet one another with a handshake and the words “Peace be with you.” (Why don’t we say, “The peace of Christ be with you”? We don’t mean the generic 1960s peace that was communicated with a V sign.)

After the clergyperson says, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” and we respond, “And also with you,” all hell breaks loose. People leave their seats, walk around and greet nearly everyone else in the room. Robust conversations ensue. There is laughter, sometime raucous, as two members share an inside joke. People discuss the results of a football game or yesterday’s storm. As a visitor, I shake the hands of the people immediately around me and then venture tentatively into the aisle. There I encounter a barrier that might as well be a sign announcing “Members Only.” I’m on my own and not sure what to do. I feel as if I’ve intruded in someone else’s family reunion. I slink back to my pew, pick up the hymnal and read a few verses.

The ritual that’s intended to affirm community often does anything but that if you happen to be a visitor. Instead, congregation members are communicating clearly to strangers that their church is a closed corporation.

To be fair, in both congregations there was a person who seemed to understand what was happening and greeted me warmly, asking my name. But most were busy renewing existing relationships.

The same dynamic is in place at the coffee hour. Good friends, longtime members of the congregation, are so happy to see one another that a visitor may stand apart and alone, balancing a coffee cup and cookie and carefully examining the pattern of the tiles in the fellowship hall ceiling.

The hospitality of welcoming the stranger is not only good manners but also Christian spiritual practice. But sometimes a Christian ritual that’s meant to affirm community, love and unity among believers can be exclusive, awkward and off-putting to people who are new or not part of the community. When this becomes true about the passing of the peace, when it’s become a liturgical social hour for members only, we need to reevaluate it.

Comments

passing the peace

I appreciate the reflections offered by the editor, 'Members Only?' January 6,14. I would offer a slightly different perspective though.  I have always understood the exchange of the peace of Christ to be not so much holding on for dear life in the experience of siege, but more a visible and tangible expression of reconciliation, that those exchanging peace are 'in love and charity with their neighbor,' as the invitation to confession in the Book of Common Prayer would have it.  This is why it was moved to follow immediately the confession in the prayerbook of the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services.  Of course it all becomes obscured by the less focused and somewhat evolved action of greeitng your neighbor in the midst of liturgy.  I wonder if a better practice at least for Eucharistic worship might be to resituate the peace  just prior to receiving the elements of bread and wine,  so as to more clearly identify the peace with the idea of reconciliation and Holy Communion, that our reconciliation is in Christ.  Just a thought.    

creating Christian community

Buchanan's "Members Only" piece points out what is glaring for an outsider in our worship services but is invisible to regular attenders.  The challenge of our worship and fellowship is to create the conditions for everyone to experience being an insider.  When during the Passing of the Peace I  kiss my wife, hug my friends and ask where they want to have brunch, then flatly shake the hand of someone I do not know because they happen to be in close proximity before quickly moving on to the next friend who is eager to talk to me, I am acting according to secular standards, not the standards of Christian community, which requires no favoritism in any of our actions.  Having everyone experience being an insider in the community of God requires the explicit education of our members and frequent reminders, since it is so different from our usual behavior in the rest of our lives.  We really don't gain very much as Christians by simply following our usual affiliation patterns in church activities.  If we can make this change from what Buchanan has pointed out, it will transform the worship and fellowship experience for everyone involved. 

Babies and Bathwater

Mr. Buchanan is right on the mark - almost. There's no question that the ritual can be uncomfortable for newcomers and more casual than worshipful for regulars. A colleague who studies these things says that "passing of the peace" is likely responsible for chasing away many prospective worshippers. But in our congregation, we realized we were assuming knowledge of what the ritual means and how to do it. We made it work better by adding some instruction: 

"When we greet one another in church we do it differently from greetings in the world around us. Instead of saying 'Good morning,' or catching up with a friend, or learning your neighbor's name, we take this opportunity to give to one another the extraordinary gift that Jesus gave to his disciples, all those years ago. These are the words we use: 'The peace of Christ be with you.' 'And also with you.'"

Making this change has had a transforming effect on the congregation. It seems that in our case, the problem was more with form than with function. Almost everyone has responded to the invitation to use those words. Guests know what to do as well as long-time members. The spirit in the room is more worshipful. 

Letter from Harold L. Behle

John Buchanan’s comments on passing the peace (“Members only?” Jan. 22) reminded me of an experience my wife and I had years ago when vacationing in Minnesota. We arrived at the church a bit early; only a few worshipers had preceded us. We sat in the middle, a little over halfway back. Attendance was light, and no one sat near us. When it came time for the passing of the peace, we were totally ignored. The only greeting we received was the perfunctory one by the pastor as we made our exit: “Good to see you, come again.”

This being said, the Passing of the Peace is not without merit if done correctly. If placed at the end of the service, after the benediction, it does not interfere with the flow of the worship experience. That gives the resident greeter the opportunity to really welcome the visitors, get to know them a bit and then invite them to the coffee hour, showing them the way and introducing them to others as they go. 

Harold L. Behle
Peoria, Ariz.