February 15, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
When did the Peace become a chaotic, free-for-all intermission, and what can be done to apply some sanity to this part of the service of worship?
This question recently appeared in the Church Times ‘Out of the Question’ column, where readers write in with their questions and answers. It’s a loaded question, of course, but no less helpful for that.
I’ll come to whether there is any ‘sanity’ in this part of the worship, but first I want to look at how it actually works. The practical liturgy, in other words, and its potential to form people.
At the Peace, which generally takes place in services of Holy Communion, the congregation dissolves for a few minutes from a sequence of orderly steps through the service, and becomes a collection of individuals greeting each other, usually shaking hands and saying the words: ‘Peace be with you.’ You can view a typical sharing of the peace here.
This is the the only moment of the service when people feel free to speak and move in an undirected way. The Peace, then, contains a few moments where, a worshipper can follow their own initiative without disrupting anything. As a moment in the liturgy, that makes it quite distincitive.
In smaller congregations it’s straightforward: everyone tends to greet everyone. In larger congregations, that’s impractical. Either it will take forever, or people will lapse into conversation. So, in congregations of more than about 30, people will often greet those nearby.
Alternatively, they may make an effort to find particular people, or they may take a particular route around the church, sharing the peace as they go, and returning by a circuit to the place they started.
This becomes interesting, because when people have a choice, they have to make decisions about who they greet. Maybe unconscious decisions, but decisions no less. Who they greet will generally depend on what they think they’re doing at the Peace. There are several possible answers to that.
1. For some, it is a respite, a chance to relax from a higher pitch of tension back into causual humanity: a few seconds of not following orders, not performing, and not concentrating. Some who use the Peace as respite may particularly greet their friends. Some may fall into conversation. Some may just greet those closest and then stand still even as others continue to share the Peace more widely around them.
It’s easy to feel critical of people who ‘take a break’ at this point, but we shouldn’t be judgemental. For many people, sustained concentration is not easy, either physically or mentally. The break may come at just the right time, perhaps 45 minutes into a service where they have already been challenged to think and perform.
2. Others will use the space pastorally: there may be people they particularly want to include or show solidarity with. For example, at St All’s there are couple of good friends who have arrived in the UK through the asylum process. I don’t make it an absolute rule to greet them at the peace, but I will get to them if it’s possible. That way, I’ll know that if I don’t get to speak to them after the service, at least there has been some kind of warmth and contact to sustain our relationship.
3. We may also use the space to welcome newcomers. I tend to find that my progress round the church during the Peace stops if I arrive at a newcomer. A brief conversation that orientates them may be a better way of building the community than automatically shaking as many hands as possible. I also take more time over greeting children and others who could feel on the outside of worship.
4. Even those who do not behave in a deliberately caring way may well be using the peace to build community. For many churchgoers, the human relationships with other Christians in a church setting may be extremely sustaining, and perhaps there aren’t as many opportunities for this as people need. The stitching together of community is a very important part of Christian formation (Roger Walton regards it as one of the three primary energies of formation). Making a normal human bond with those in the pews right next to you may reassure you that you are ‘right’ with those you’re singing and praying alongside.
5. Occasionally, the peace can offer a space for real reconciliation. This is perhaps close to its original intention, which recognises Jesus’ command in Matthew 5.24 to be reconciled with your sister or brother before making an offer at the altar. Of course, the timing of the Peace in the service, immediately before the Offertory, makes that meaning all the more real. In other words, the Peace has a definite purpose and a biblical basis which we are expected to understand, respect and use.
Is it realistic to expect the Peace to be used in this way? Can feuding individuals be reconciled at the Peace? Certainly a full and frank discussion, apology and explanation is not going to be possible in the time and space offered by the Peace. But what is possible is that two people who have fallen apart, may hold each other, look into each others’ eyes, and use words of peace, while safely held by the church. The desire for peacefulness and reconciliation can be expressed, without the space to express ongoing resentments. The pair are reminded that they can be civil, and they show each other that they know that is expected of them. This act takes place openly in the church: a public commitment towards peace, like a little wedding!
It’s important to understand that people may even expect the Peace to work this way. I was once in dispute with a fellow member of St All’s, and the following Sunday I failed to find and greet her during the peace. Months later she told me how hard she felt that, at the time. So yes, the Peace does also have a real, emotional power. Actually I had looked for her, and in the ‘chaos’ of the free-for-all of a fairly large service, I had not been able to get to her. At least that’s what I told myself, at the time. But looking back, I realise that was a failure on my part. Finding and greeting her should have been my first priority on that day. Climbing over pews or calling out her name would have been preferable to not getting to her. Chaos over order, in other words.
Here, then, are five ways in which the Peace may be used – deliberately or instinctively. Each use is different. In as much as it is formative, each also adds to the ‘chaos’. We may justifiably long for people to use the Peace in a precise litugical way, to present order to God, but their worship is their worship. The range of possibilities at the Peace reminds us that sometimes the people are best placed to decide how they are formed.
What of the responses submitted to the Church Times question? Well, they were interesting, even creative…
One suggested that the President greet the person at the aisle-end of each pew, who passed it along that row, and so on.
Another respondent suggested moving the Peace to the start or the end of the service.
A third suggested strong direction from the front to re-establish order.
… but notice that all framed their responses in terms of order; none in terms of formation. If we’re shaping the people of God, we need to take a wider view.
There remains so much to do if we’re going to bring the liturgy to life. So let me leave you with another way of viewing the Peace, and maybe it makes sense of the chaos dreaded by the questionner, as well as some of the hope they missed.
The Peace is right at the heart of the Communion service, bridging two distinct parts: the Ministry of the Word, and the Ministry of the Sacrament.
In the Ministry of the Word we explore scripture and the issues of the day, through reading, reflection and intercession. Rich ideas come flying at us, from long ago, and from today. We mash them all up together and gobble them down – a rich diet for growing, forming creatures. Like a caterpilar we eat up all the food we can find.
In the Sacrament, though, we take another form, resting on the steady heavenly beauty of all that is given to us through the Eucharist, reassuring ourselves that God offers us all we need to form us together into one beautiful body that the whole world will benefit from seeing. Like a butterfly we eat little – the tiniest morsel, and ready ourselves to fly in glory.
But, between caterpilar and butterfly lies that oft-forgotten creature, the chrysalis, in which all order is lost. In this primordial gloop, the carefully shaped body of the caterpilar breaks down completely, and every indiviudal chemical component follows its own instruction, bashing against and bonding with the other chemical parts until order is restored in a way that is actually the same creature, but beginning to be transformed.
The chaos inside a chrysalis is so alarming to think of: the creature becomes a bag of chemicals, and is rebuilt from scratch! Yet it is essential. Maybe we see something similar at the Peace. Like life, liturgy may generally be ordered, but that doesn’t mean it is order. It isn’t. Liturgy is formation. And formation needs both order and chaos.
(c) Simon Foster 2015