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The holy handshake

by
09 December 2016

Matthew Caminer examines our differing responses to the Peace

Noel Ford

A better offer: avoid the peace-sharer whose attention is already elsewhere

A better offer: avoid the peace-sharer whose attention is already elsewhere

AS A small boy, my family practised a sort of Judaism-lite. At synagogue and Hebrew classes, the greeting ritual on arrival and departure was invariably “shalom”, usually with a handshake. It was the same when I arrived for my piano lessons: the very formal Swiss lady who taught me would shake my hand and say “How do you do?” and I would reply “How do you do?” Another verbal ritual.

When I started going to church in my late teens, and encountered the Peace, it resonated quite naturally as another ritual, although it seemed odd that it happened in the middle of the service. It might have helped if someone had explained why this was, or what the ritual signified. Over time, I have worked out that there are three ways of looking at the Peace: what it is for; the different ways of doing it; and, most interestingly, how people feel about it.

 

THERE are several biblical passages used to explain the Peace: the Pauline injunction to “greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16.16); the command to model the peace of Christ to one another — “Peace I leave with you: my peace I give you” (John 14.27); and, arguably the strongest justification for the positioning at the offertory: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5.23-24).

When understood together with the verse “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1.20), this third strand especially positions the Peace as an indispensable part of the flow towards the eucharist.

But, as a clergy friend observed: I doubt whether theology plays more than the tiniest part in explaining people’s attitude to the Peace.” Indeed, theology does little to explain why people either love or loathe it, or the differences in the way it is practised, or why some people go for an informal high-five-hugs-and-kisses approach, while others prefer a more sober, stylised greeting.

We must acknowledge that there is something rather strange about the act; for even the touch of hands — when not understood as a normal greeting — may create uneasiness, especially between strangers, and be perceived as a kind of forced contact requiring a level of intimacy that is culturally alien. In the absence of sufficient theological understanding to overcome this cultural reticence, it is perhaps unsurprising that people have such strong reactions to the act.

 

IT MAY be illuminating, then, to look beneath the surface at the psychology of how different people approach the Peace, in order to understand, and hopefully enhance, our experience of it.

Looking through the prism of what Eric Berne, the creator of Transactional Analysis, called “time structuring”, we can discover that when we interact with others (and therefore when we exchange the Peace), we may unthinkingly do so in six different ways, besides not interacting at all — we all know the experience of offering the Peace to someone who already has their eyes on the next person, or when their other hand is busy waving to someone across the church.

These different psychological approaches are not mutually exclusive or sequential, and, sometimes, we might move from one to another. For example, the Peace can often feel like a handshake without any real significance, beyond superficial friendliness and goodwill (although some might ask what’s the harm in that?), just as if we have bumped into someone we know in the street. The gesture has no other purpose than to establish contact before moving on to to the next person. Berne described this kind of human interaction as “ritual”.

This approach, however, will often move into another type of transaction, one that is not simply an extended greeting, but a conversation, a discussion of trivialities — the weather, last night’s TV — but without any expectation of reaching a conclusion. This is effectively topping up an existing line of acquaintance with a safe person, and at a safe level of intimacy, and Berne called this Pastiming. And, arguably, there is little or no thought of theological significance in these exchanges.

 

ON OCCASION, the opportunity to get something done is too good to miss, which again will be unrelated to the meaning and purpose of the Peace. I am certainly guilty of this: as a church musician, those few minutes can enable me to pass a message to the choir or the clergy. For others, it might provide the chance to find out if anyone has brought the milk for coffee after the service. Berne called this Activity, a word suggesting a deeper level of contact with a shared objective.

Indeed, it is important to reiterate that these approaches are normal everyday ways of interacting with others, and they can be useful in helping people to feel at ease in a church environment. For those who find the Peace inaccessible or uncomfortable, Ritual, Pastiming, and Activity may help people operate within their comfort zone.

There are, of course, many for whom the Peace is a profound and fully engaged exchange with other individuals, with God at the centre. Berne would have called this Intimacy. This does not, of course, imply that the handshake becomes a full-on embrace. The expression of the Peace might still be sober: it is the underlying intention of authentic heartfelt engagement that characterises this approach.

For some people, the Peace is sacramental precisely because touch is involved, no less than when the host is pressed into the hands at the altar rail, when the cross is signed at baptism, when there is imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, or at the laying-on of hands by the bishop at confirmation.

The impact can be experienced as visceral — a touch not just from the neighbour, but, simultaneously, from God. For these people, contact at the Peace may represent something profound: intimacy with a stranger, and, even more significantly, without any words being exchanged.

We should also acknowledge that the Peace may be the only human touch that some members of the congregation experience from one week to the next. And yet, the same touch which is so welcomed by some may be unhelpful to others. A gesture such as a simple handshake, or the approach of someone with arms outstretched, may be threatening and unwelcome, for whatever reason.

 

ANOTHER term that Berne coined to describe a more complex form of interchange is Games. Many people, often unknowingly, carry needs, anxieties, and resentments, which they may not even want to be resolved because, somehow, the existence of these feelings gives them purpose and meaning. Thus, the apparently innocuous comment that accompanies the handshake can carry an ulterior message — perhaps an unconscious expression of anger, or a plea for help — without the expectation of the inner need ever being satisfied.

There are also those people who kneel or sit with their eyes closed, apparently determined not to engage in the Peace. There could be any number of reasons for this. It might be that they are actually engaged in an expression of intimacy, deep in prayer. It might instead simply be reserve, shyness, or a reluctance to engage. Berne called this Withdrawal.

Alternatively, it may be behaviour that is often described as “passive aggression”: the person may be playing the victim by defying others to enter their space and rescue them; and when they are not rescued, this is interpreted as a form of persecution. Thus, what may have looked like Intimacy or Withdrawal may instead be psychological game-playing.

 

THESE six different behaviours show that, with or without a theological understanding of the Peace, people experience and express this element of the liturgy in different ways, and for different purposes, often without surface awareness. Given that there is such a broad repertoire of practice, even within the same congregation, it is unsurprising that there can be confusion and mixed messages within it, and that some people feel uncomfortable or threatened.

And, indeed, this scrutiny could be applied to almost anything we do in church: the way we engage with the sermon or the intercessions, or greet the clergy on the way out of church, our interactions over coffee, or how we participate in PCC meetings. It is easy to imagine other everyday activities, at home, at work, in schools, where we could apply this lens to help us understand, and to be more intentional, about how we interact.

 

SINCE starting to think about this, I have found it helpful to restrict myself to exchanging the Peace with a smaller number of people, ensuring that there is real eye contact. I have spent time trying to understand the history and purpose of the Peace as a means of adding a level of authenticity to what had become rather routine. And I have thought about why I might offer someone the Peace during the service if I have not even said good morning to them at the beginning of the service.

Our exact approach almost does not matter: the value comes from bringing the whole act into conscious awareness; so that we may move on, better informed and better equipped to smile at, and accept, the behaviour of others and ourselves rather than be distracted or frustrated by it.

We are all human, and it is certainly not desirable for us to be so self-conscious about the Peace that we mistrust our ability to interpret each other’s motivations and sincerity. This exploration may nevertheless help to explain why there are often mismatches of expectation and experience, and why some people, for reasons that do not begin to address theological logic, are so hostile to it. And, perhaps, it begins to explain why it can feel more like a social “half-time” than part of the sacramental flow of the service.

But the Peace can hold value for us, for our relationship with each other, and with God, however we approach it. If we come just as we are, bringing our authentic selves, with all our needs, foibles, and insecurities, then perhaps, to our surprise, we may find ourselves getting closer to the kernel of what is intended when we say and hear the words: “May the peace of the Lord be with you,” or, indeed, “Shalom.”

 

Matthew Caminer is the author of A Clergy Husband’s Survival Guide (SPCK, 2012) and Curacies and How to Survive Them (SPCK, 2015)

  • Avoid making assumptions about people who do not participate in the Peace, or about those who do it enthusiastically.
  • Respect other people’s needs, boundaries, and space: give them freedom to be themselves.
  • Ask ourselves why we might offer someone the Peace on a Sunday morning if we avoid going anywhere near them for the rest of the week.
  • Ask ourselves whether our aim is to try and “get round” as many people as possible, or just to concentrate on a few meaningful interactions.
  • Try sharing the Peace with people we find difficult, or with someone you do not know very well.
  • Experiment with a “no words” Peace or a “no touch” Peace.
  • Provide a refresher on the history and purpose of the Peace in a newsletter, sermon, or house-group discussion.
  • Consider the implications of having the Peace at a different point in the service.

  • Avoid making assumptions about people who do not participate in the Peace, or about those who do it enthusiastically.
  • Respect other people’s needs, boundaries, and space: give them freedom to be themselves.
  • Ask ourselves why we might offer someone the Peace on a Sunday morning if we avoid going anywhere near them for the rest of the week.
  • Ask ourselves whether our aim is to try and “get round” as many people as possible, or just to concentrate on a few meaningful interactions.
  • Try sharing the Peace with people we find difficult, or with someone you do not know very well.
  • Experiment with a “no words” Peace or a “no touch” Peace.
  • Provide a refresher on the history and purpose of the Peace in a newsletter, sermon, or house-group discussion.
  • Consider the implications of having the Peace at a different point in the service.

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