By Richard J. Mammana
The global pandemic accelerated processes of change in Christian life that had been set in motion over the past two decades by the widespread use of communications technology in churches. The faltering transition of the People of the Book into a people of screens was already well in course when in a moment and the twinkling of an eye in March 2020 we lost for a year (and more in many cases) the ability to gather for worship as we had been accustomed to do. For the tribe called out of every nation whose belief is predicated on the eating of holy flesh and the en-Goddedness of humanity through the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, this was a considerable problem. (The words and ideas belong to E.B. Pusey, not to me.) For a community in which every sense is caught up in worship, the emergence of touch, taste, and smell as possible sources of contagion was an impossible disruption arrived at through the fault of no one.
The Church has stuttered in a way in response to pandemic, and not without good reason. The changing nature of government regulations about social gatherings made for a complex patchwork of state and local requirements. Individual dioceses and parishes made their own accommodations with the new reality.
I believe that everyone trying to respond to the immense disruptions of our common life was acting in good faith and sincerity, making decisions intended to continue pastoral care and to safeguard health. As we have entered the emergence-from yet still-within-pandemic phase of church life, I have lost count of the number of friends and colleagues who express an attitude of profound thanksgiving for finally being able to receive Communion in one way or another — in one kind or both, in small or larger community, and now with or without masks, depending on vaccination statuses and local regulations. This attitude of gratitude (a groan is permitted) is an unmitigated good arising out of the loss for a time of what had become familiar and routine. The soul longing for Jesus is the soul most likely to grow from welcoming him once more into both heart and body. We have all deepened our eucharistic piety by being separated from the Eucharist, and this is gain.
I submit that it is another Christian gain of the pandemic period that we have finally gotten rid of the social exchange of the peace, a practice that had been out of control for at least 30 years in American Protestant worship.
The peace is the mutual salutation in the Christian liturgy of clergy and people, sharing with one another the famous “peace that passeth all understanding” which is a touchstone of new life in Jesus. Its verbal place in the history of Christianity is universal, but practices around it have varied considerably, from a literal “kiss of peace,” to the washing of feet, to the use of a pax-brede — a small, decorated board made of wood or ivory, kissed by the priest and then passed through the church and kissed in return. The handshakes, running around church, and hugs seem to have arrived sometime around Lyndon Johnson.
The peace has been a meaningful part of my own experience of Christian worship on some memorable occasions: during high school youth group retreats, at a cathedral in Saskatchewan when it was 40º below outside (Celsius and Fahrenheit having met and themselves kissed, as it were), at a funeral where there were members of my family estranged from one another, at convent and monastery Masses where the community is so small that a dignified exchange of peaceful greeting is possible, with a group of pilgrims in Jordan at the site of Jesus’s baptism, and during weekly Wednesday night Eucharists at St. Paul’s Chapel when I was a college student. The peace helped those small groups to manifest the internal unity that was brought about through the context of the gathering, guiding us to understand each other as members of one body about to receive one blood.
But the peace had been something else for several decades by the beginning of the pandemic. My own experience is necessarily anecdotal, but not terribly narrow. I sang 120 concerts a year in American, Canadian, and Japanese churches from 1990 to 1994, gaining a fairly wide experience of many kinds of worship in many places. Since that time, professional travel and personal avocation have taken me to several churches a week. I do not believe my anecdotal evidence to be circumscribed or flawed in method: the peace had become an unnecessary, sometimes upsetting, and frequently just strange aspect of the Christian gathering, a five-to-ten-minute direct violation of the apostle’s direction that all things in the Christian assembly should be done decently and in order. I felt a strange mixture of pity and sorrow for the clergy who had to announce an end to the socially-amplified peace by saying week after week, “OK folks, let’s sit down now. OK folks! OK folks!”
At my home parish in northeastern Pennsylvania, the pressure to shake every hand in the congregation was so intense by 1996 that people routinely said, “Peace be with you” to the next person in line while they were still shaking the hand of someone else.
At a once-venerable Episcopal church in southern Connecticut, I remember visiting for the first time with my betrothed in 2003 and being forced to wear large nametags by greeters at the door. At the peace, we were told to stand up and introduce ourselves and explain our places of domicile, given a bag containing 1) cornmeal and a recipe, 2) Forward Day by Day, 3) peppermint Mentos, and 4) a red balloon on a string. Embarrassed beyond belief, we never returned. It was not Pentecost, so there was no reason for a red balloon, nor did the congregation seem to have any connection to French film director Albert Lamorisse.
At a cathedral in central Pennsylvania in 2006, I witnessed the passing of the peace go on for a full 15 minutes because of the distribution of Boy Scout popcorn to people who had placed orders for a fundraiser.
Another wild incident of the peace took place in 2012 at a colonial parish in New Hampshire whose Sunday School was presenting a production of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys that afternoon. For approximately 10 minutes, children and adults dressed as Peter, Wendy, the Lost Boys in full Native American regalia, Captain Hook, Tiger Lily, and Tinker Bell paraded through the sanctuary shouting “Peace ahoy!” and variations on that theme to a completely bewildered and mostly elderly congregation during a Rite One 11 o’clock service.
Strange, too, was a New York City church where the rector used to run the full width of a city block during the peace to make a direct personal greeting to every single pew with a person in it.
I lost count of the number of times (about one in 10 in Episcopal churches, almost never in Lutheran churches) that I received a Masonic grip from a member of the Craft trying to discern whether the face of an unfamiliar man in the congregation belonged to one of his fellows.
(I have also known a handful of counter-examples to the chaotic modern peace, including a priest who accepted a position in the Diocese of New York only on the condition that the peace would be abolished on his arrival. The parish accepted the condition, and tranquility ensued. There was also a priest-friend in Philadelphia who simply stopped saying the peace as printed in the prayer book, and no one took notice for about six months.)
Sometime around 2015, I stopped confiding to my journal the times that people ran around the nave returning Tupperware during the peace or shouting across the church about a great Saturday soccer goal. I began to observe the most reasonable church people simply sit down at the beginning of the peace, trying in their pew-anchored way to cut the unruly thing back. It had become a lawless mini coffee hour, at the very least a contradiction of my wise grandmother’s policy of “talking to God during church, and talking to your neighbors after church.”
It was somehow lost by then that some of the most expressive human power of connection can be made in a wave of the hand, with one’s love and kindness shared through the eyes, rather than through the garrulous embrace of strangers.
I am told that the peace was a nightmare for introverts. And I know firsthand as a person with life-long deafness in one ear (a neighbor child shot a cap gun into it when I was seven) that being approached from all sides by strangers muttering “peace, peace,” (when there is no peace) can be terrifying. The gladhanding and forced bear-hugging was frankly also a questionable practice around even pre-pandemic pathogens, arguably a more likely vector for contagion than the common cup. Perhaps most to the point, modern churches have good reason to be vigilant about who wants to be touched when and where and by whom. All of that went out the window with the peace.
I am deeply thankful that it seems to be gone, and I hope it will go unmourned. I pray, too, that the legitimate joy we feel in returning to regular assemblies will not make us rush in like fools where angels had never trod and start doing it again.
The Christian gathering for worship is not a social occasion. It is the opportunity every time it takes place to stand at the foot of the cross in entire gratitude for the mighty saving work done there. It is the chance to wait with Jesus for one hour in Gethsemane. It is our free gift of a regular time to look with wonder at the empty tomb. It is when we sing with joy of death trampled down by death, bestowing life. We say or sing the Gloria in excelsis because we are being pulled by God upward to the heavenly places, despite the detritus of Christ-conquered sin that holds us back. For many of us with busy work lives and chaotic households, the Christian gathering can be a treasured island of order during the long haul of the week, and the peace had eroded that considerably before it was itself trampled down by Dr. Fauci.
My armchair view of Church history tells me that worship and Christian practice are usually shaped more completely by such social realities as pandemic or demographic change than they ever can be by revisers, policy-makers, or committees.
We who are created with a chief end to know and glorify God are in the midst of what is often called a liminal moment with its own peculiar changes and chances. Most of us experience the Christian walk as John Henry Newman did — as a process of loss and gain the discernment of which can take a lifetime. So, too, with the return to sanity in Christian assemblies. Losing the peace may mean that we have finally gained it back.