The Dean’s Corner: Passing the Peace

Passing the Peace


The Very Rev. BJ OwensAs we contemplated the decision to postpone in-person worship services this week, I found myself reflecting on worship these past few weeks. Something about last Sunday felt a little bit off, didn’t it? Though we’ve been talking for several weeks about alternatives to handshakes at the Passing of the Peace so as not to further the spread of coronavirus, last Sunday we’d begun to feel that change more intimately. Something seemed diminished – a touch we’re accustomed to was suddenly prohibited, a moment of openness and vulnerability had been replaced with guardedness and distance.

Like so many parts of our liturgy, the Peace has a history that goes back many centuries but also roots us in the recent history of our church. It’s an ancient Christian practice, a “a liturgical exchange of greeting through word and gesture, a sign of reconciliation, love, and renewed relationships in the Christian community,” according to the online Episcopal glossary. The earliest reference to it we have is from early baptismal liturgies, where the newly baptized were a part of the passing of the peace for the first time. As such, it is a moment in our weekly liturgy when we greet one another as members of the body of Christ, recalling our baptism and the communal life to which it calls us.

But there’s a recent history too: the peace was omitted in the Church of England’s 1552 Prayer Book and didn’t appear in the Episcopal Church until 1979, when our current book, with an eye toward the baptismal practices of the early church, restored it. Many folks in the Episcopal church can recall a time not too long ago when the peace was something entirely “new” to us! And yet now, with public health officials wisely asking us to be more restrained, the absence of this moment of physical contact feels acute.

I suspect that this disruption is the first time we Episcopalians had to collectively reflect on the meaning of the peace since it was first (re)introduced in 1979. So let’s not miss the opportunity of the moment: let’s use this time to recall the ancient meaning and practice of the peace, a gesture that we need now more than ever: it’s a greeting of love, reconciliation, forgiveness, renewal, and seeing the face of God in the ones we meet. It is a moment to dwell in the presence of others, to be reminded that our faithful journey is walked with others beside us.

This generative exchange can be accomplished with a hand over the heart and a glance into another’s eyes, with a respectful bow, or even a simple nod and a smile. Perhaps this is even more true to the original practice than a handshake, and it may be even more intimate. And in this particular moment when “social distancing” can save lives (or simply save us from the hassle of quarantine), the peace can be passed whenever and however we connect with one another, so long as with open hearts we say to one another, peace be with you.

My friends, the peace of Christ be with you all.

The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens