What's with 'The Peace' on Sundays?

by Greg Syler on March 16, 2017

My only lived experience of the 20th century was in its last twenty five years, and I don’t even remember all that much of it, but I do very clearly remember that one Sunday morning a pastor in my somewhat stiff Congregationalist church announced we were going to do a new thing – we were going to turn to our neighbors and offer, what he called, ‘the sign of peace.’

“Shake their hand, give a hug, look them in the eye and say, ‘Peace be with you,’” he invited the somewhat bewildered congregation to do.

This actually came easily to them, in fact, for in spite of the carefully scripted nature of Congregationalist worship – what I later learned was nothing less than a beautiful, exalted Sunday Morning Prayer service – there was always extended chit-chat and “Good mornings” and “How are you today?” in the large, albeit acoustically-live narthex on our way into the church itself. And so it was on that Sunday, much later in the 20th century than its mid-point, when “The Peace” was introduced at Bethany Union Church of Chicago that I remember my mom and dad turned around to those sitting nearby and said ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ and received from others ‘Peace, peace, peace.’

A decade or so later, I was in Divinity School and while cleaning some old books and files in the Episcopal campus ministry I stumbled across a collection of cartoons from some Episcopal publication – I can’t remember which one. It looked like it was printed in the 1970’s or 80’s. One particularly stuck out for me: a young man in church had turned around and was face-to-face with an older, distinguished looking woman. Extending his hand, he said to her, “Peace be with you.” “No thank you,” she replied.

It stuck out for me because I honestly and truly didn’t get the joke. Ever since that first innovative move on the part of my Congregationalist preacher, my home church was extending the peace pretty much every Sunday morning. When I went with my Catholic friends to their church, they had The Peace – and it happened right before they left to get Communion (while I stayed in the pew). My Episcopal friends also shared The Peace in their services, too; in fact, I remember it was in the middle, and it seemed to take forever in what I thought was a rather small congregation. Everybody was doing it, and everybody had, to my mind, been doing it for so long. How was this joke – “No thank you,” she said – even remotely funny?

Now I know, of course, that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer ‘introduced’ or, in many communities, standardized across the Church the emergent introduction of the practice of sharing peace with one another. We know that this development (or was it an innovation?) was brought about, along with many other developments, by the re-appraisal of more ancient Christian traditions and the ecumenical movement of the mid-20th century. We know that this was, for many, a significant rupture in the worship traditions to which they had become accustomed – so the woman’s “No, thank you,” really was, perhaps, an actual response from someone in one congregation at one point! And we also know that The Peace accords perfectly with biblical teaching around what worship and Christian community is all about. Paul spends a great deal of ink throughout 1 Corinthians, for instance, drawing the deep connections between Communion and Community, between Worship and Right Relationship. And Jesus spoke clearly about the need to be reconciled to our brother and sister, first, even before we come to the altar (Mt. 5:23-24). And so the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t budge in incorporating The Peace into the principal liturgy on Sunday morning, and so it’s right there in bold-faced font, even as there is a “may” when it describes the actual practice: “Then the Ministers and People may greet one another in the name of the Lord.”

Yet while The Peace does make perfect theological and, indeed, liturgical sense, and while I would go so far as to suggest that the Roman Catholics have developed, I think, the finest liturgical sensibility in placing it immediately following the Eucharistic prayer and, hence, immediately before the people come forward to receive the Host, I am constantly left wondering if we’ve developed in our communities the real sense that this is sharing God’s peace, Christ’s peace. That is to say, I’m not certain that The Peace is much unlike coffee hour – which is a really important “eighth sacrament,” mind you -- but there’s a reason we don’t repast with coffee cake and a hot beverage right before heading to God’s Table. The rubric in the Prayer Book is striving to encourage something theological, something spiritual, but I’m always left wondering by what they meant by “greet one another.” Granted, it’s “greet one another in the name of the Lord,” but “greeting” can so easily devolve into checking in, saying ‘Hey’, making plans for dinner that night, asking about your mom, or wondering if you bought that new car or settled for the older model. I have been asked all of these things, and more, and not only while I’m worshipping in a congregation but while I’m also serving as the Celebrant! And let me hasten to add that I’m not saying (or I’m not trying to say) that any of these things are wrong or bad or ill-informed; in fact, they’re loving expressions of care and support and joy. I am saying (or trying to say) that perhaps these things aren’t the same as The Peace.

My wife says I’m just kind of cranky – on this point – and this is the reserved, sometimes shy introvert in me coming out. That may be true. Nor do I want to become like that cartoon caricature of that lady, shooing away the hand offered to her in fellowship and peace. At the same time, I really don’t have an answer and I pose this blog post as an open question to the rest of the church: How is The Peace working, or not working in your context? Are there strategies or encouragements worship leaders have found to make this much more an extension of God’s Peace? What does keeping this liturgical tradition add to our liturgical assembly? How does The Peace enrich our Sunday gathering? What about a newcomer, especially a shy newcomer: would they also feel the love? Can this sometimes be an exclusive symbol?


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