Monday, August 4, 2014

The Pope and Mrs. Beamish

The past week or so has seen an unusual amount of ink and electrons spilled over a new circular from the Vatican regarding the proper way of passing the Peace during the Eucharist. Specifically, the circular identified four abuses that are to be avoided (and, if already happening, discontinued):
  • the use of a "song of peace";
  • the congregation leaving their seats to exchange the Peace with those not immediately near them;
  • the presiding celebrant leaving the altar (sanctuary?) to exchange the Peace with some members of the congregation; and
  • the use of the Peace as an opportunity to offer congratulations, condolences etc.
The circular can be found here.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the Peace, in the Roman rite, is not in the same place as it is for most Canadian Anglicans accustomed to worshiping with the Book of Alternative Services. In the Roman rite, as in the Book of Common Prayer, the Peace occurs after the Eucharistic prayer and immediately prior to the distribution of the Holy Communion to the faithful. Recent Anglican liturgical reforms have tended to conform to the Ambrosian rite and to place the Peace immediately before the Offertory. This is consistent with Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus says,
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5: 23 - 24
The rationale for the Peace - and the placing of the Peace - is different in the Roman rite:
Its point of reference is found in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the "Paschal kiss" of the Risen Christ present on the altar.
This is not to suggest that one placement and understanding is superior to the other. But it is clear that the two different understandings logically lead to different approaches. The Roman placement demands a more solemn and contemplative atmosphere than the Ambrosian placement familiar to most modern Anglicans.

The Vatican direction for priest and people to remain in their places, to my mind, makes perfect sense in the Roman rite. I'm not convinced they make much sense in the Ambrosian placement. Indeed, if I am to take Jesus's words seriously, I may well have to go out from the sanctuary to reconcile with my brother or my sister.

That said, I think one of the abuses mentioned in the Vatican's circular applies to the Peace in its Ambrosian placement as well. The Peace is not particularly a time for chit chat, visiting, congratulations and catching up. It's not particularly a time for condolences either, although the intentional human contact and the invoking of Christ's peace may well have a particular poignancy and meaning for the recently bereaved.

I also think the circular misses one very serious (though usually unconscious) abuse of the Peace - ignoring the stranger while seeking out one's friends. Indeed, if we take another part of Matthew's Gospel seriously, we should be making a particular point of sharing the sign of Christ's peace with the stranger.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me / did not welcome me. Matthew 25: 31 - 46
One of the best explanations and instructions for the Peace is from my New Zealand colleague Bosco Peters:
The Peace forms the hinge between the Ministry of the Word and Prayer (which we have inherited from the Synagogue), and the Ministry of the Sacrament (which we have inherited from Jesus and through him from the meals celebrated in Jewish homes). It is found at this point of the service in the earliest liturgies. A sign of peace can act out our love for our brother and sister (1 John 4:20) and the peace we wish to make before we present our gift at the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). It is especially a sharing of the peace given by the risen Christ (John 20:19,21,26). 
With hands extended wide the presider says, "The peace of Christ be always with you." On occasion an introductory sentence might link the Peace to the celebration of the day. Another option is to slightly adapt the words to the occasion. For example, during the Easter Season, the greeting could be, "The Peace of the Risen Christ be always with you." 
The people's response can be followed by "Let us offer one another a sign of (this/Christ's) Peace." Giving specific instructions on what form this "sign" should take is best avoided. For some this is an important moment of human contact in the midst of a lonely week. For others physical contact may be threatening rather than speaking of Christ's peace.  
Teaching which encourages sensitivity is appropriate. The Peace is part of worship, it is a liturgical action. To seek out our friends and ignore the stranger or visitor or the one with whom we really need to seek reconciliation is to miss the point of the Peace. The Peace anticipates the coming kingdom, it is not a foretaste of the morning tea after church! To put this in another way, it is the Peace which should shape the atmosphere of morning tea after church, rather than the atmosphere of an ordinary New Zealand morning tea being that which shapes the way we relate at the Peace. 
The period of the Peace can be ended either by using the sentences "E te whanau, we are the body of Christ ..." (page 419), or by beginning a hymn, or by beginning to prepare the table.
And by way of closing, here's everyone's favourite video about the controversies of the Peace. Peace to you, Mrs. Beamish.