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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Passing the Peace Edition

Our question this week is a timely one:
My congregation has a weekly tradition of "sharing the peace" before the offering. Those in worship often shake hands, give hugs, or otherwise share greetings during that time. It has been suggested to me that we ought to suspend sharing the peace because of the swine flu outbreak. It's important to know that the state in which I serve is far, far north of the Mexican border, and that there are no indications of any swine flu cases in our area or in the state. I personally think the suggestion is an overreaction and that it is unnecessary to take such precautions at this time; I'm concerned that media frenzy about this is already encouraging too much paranoia. What do others think?

From one of our new matriarchs, Mompriest who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice...
The invitation to share the peace is just that, an invitation. One may always choose not to share and simply greet without any extension of the hand or cheek. Personally I think this is a bit of an over-reaction. I live 45 minutes from the border of Mexico and we are not worried about this, nor are we forgoing the peace. We are a hugging congregation! ... I think an exchange of the peace is an important ritual that should not be alleviated out of fear. I also think that safety measures can be put in place for those who might be worried.

Another new matriarch, Sue, who blogs at innerdorothy, addressed the flu concerns in her congregation last Sunday:
"We are a caring family within the body of Christ, and sharing the peace is a joyful part of our worship. In the past week, news reports have been made about concern over a certain flu virus that has affected certain parts of the world and certain parts of our country. Some experts are now saying that the so-called pandemic is no worse than any other late-season influenza outbreak.

That said, it would be best to use common sense and even better to err on the side of caution. If you or anyone in your family has been coughing or feeling unwell this week, please refrain from handshaking or hugs and simply offer the peace with your voice and your heart. Others will understand."

Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists joined many of us in encouraging common sense:
Everything we touch (hymnals, pews, doorknobs) could be infecting us. One of our elders is literally the #2 person at the FDA and she's told me that if we are simply smart, we'll all be fine. Smart means that if you are sick WITH ANYTHING, stay in your fuzzy slippers and pj's and eat soup at home. Don't come to worship/work/playgroup/Starbucks. Wash your hands often. Don't sneeze on people. And hugging is "safer" than shaking hands.

Karen notes:
If you are in a public space where people are coughing, sneezing, etc, there are enough air-born germs floating around that suspending the passing of the peace is more symbolic than anything from a health safety standpoint. Folks who are really worried or especially vulnerable should probably just stay home.

Yet anther suggestion for common sense action during cold and flu season is to have hand sanitizer visibly accessible in the worship space, and perhaps even place individual packets in the pews. All communion distributors at our church use hand sanitizer before sharing the elements.

Jacque who blogs at comptoncaresupdate notes that her congregation has only changed the worship leaders' communion practice:
I would not presume to say what others should do, however, we are not stopping the Passing of the Peace at this time. We feel the situation does not call for that at this point. We are having the elders and pastor drink out of separate small communion cups instead of sharing the common cup as they usually do. (The congregation already uses individual communion cups.)

Stacy who blogs at earthchicknits offers an important point:
I agree that the suggestion is an overreaction and I think you are absolutely right that the media has already created too much hysteria around this. The last thing I think we pastors need to do is to inject anxiety into the liturgy... I think our job is to model non-anxiousness in the face of the fear, and to extend care and compassion to those who may be afraid, without allowing their fear to set the tone for our worship and fellowship.

Diane adds:
Schools here in some areas have closed, but now the state is saying, "maybe we overreacted." There may be a time when we should abstain from passing the peace, but I think it is too early to do that.

What has been the response in your worshiping community? Do you have some words of wisdom to add? Use the comment feature to share your thoughts and suggestions.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Last week I just said to share the peace "as you feel safe and comfortable" I do think hand wipes are a good idea in any flu season.

    I keep hand sanitizer up by the altar and always use it before distributing communion.

  2. Two weeks ago I was approached by 'concerned' parishoners who begged us to stop the 'sharing of the peace.' We never cease the expression of Christ's peace!
    But if you feel strongly, you do not have to shake hands, or touch others.. simply greet them with the "Peace of Christ!" a slight bow of the head, and move to the next person.. Wouldn't you know very few people changed the way they share the peace? There was the usual hand shaking, hugging and kissing that goes on every week. So much for fear!

    We, as a people, are so easily manipulated by the media, especially in regards to possible illness. "Panic!" we hear from too many sources! "The end is near!"

    The fear of 'the unknown' is universal... and constant. A few years ago we were challenged by the possible AIDS virus, Bird flu, SARS, and now the swine variety.
    Yet the church goes on!

    If we use the commonsense hygenic practices we should observe daily, it shouldn't be problematic: hand washing.. cough not into hands but sleeves.. and staying away from others if sick..

    I did mention last Sunday that the church practice of using the individual communion glasses arose out of the sanitation practices brought on by the flu epidemic of 1918. And of course... it's been hard to get the church away from them...But that's another topic for another day.

    Like Joelle, we have hand sanitizer in the chancel for use by the worship assistants. I think the use of such chemicals in the long run is not a good thing, but for the time when panic rules, perhaps easing fear is better than provoking it.

  3. One of my daughters' bio classes did swabs of their hands (before and after handwashing) so that the kids could see how it made a difference... it does!

    I appreciate the ideas of simple, basic sanitation and common sense.


  4. The Public Health Administrator from the local hospital goes to our church. I checked with him on Tuesday. I double-checked with him on Sunday morning and went ahead as planned per his orders. Still got questions though -- as if pastors WANT to be cavalier with their parishoners' health! Think about it:
    a) we love these people and
    b) I don't want extra hospital visitation on my schedule!

  5. I had no plans to address this subject with my congregation.

    Until, that is, two elders approached me separately about it. Then it became an issue that needed to be addressed, simply because of congregational dynamics. I went to my denominational sources for suggestions, looked up recommendations of the CDC, but in the end simply acknowledged that there are some people in the midst of the church who might feel uncomfortable with hand-shaking, and urged people to use their own common sense. Everybody was a good sport about it.

    And the two elders with the concerns stayed home. But at least one of them is a member who does not like the passing of the peace on any Sunday. ("Too Catholic" for him.)

  6. I hadn't planned on changing anything. But when reading on the preacher party, so many were altering the way they served communion, I wondered if I should. We always do intinction, with people tearing off bread themselves. There was a case reported in neighboring state, 50 miles away. So prior to worship I asked someone who works in the local health field. She didn't think we needed to change anything, but offered for those who might be uncomfortable that I could go with the tearing off the bread and handing it to the people. I didn't want to appear over-anxious or freak anyone out, so she suggested I say "we're trying it a different way this time." So I did. Then, after worship, my most curmudgeonly curmudgeon asked why I served communion that way. When I said out of concern and to be sensitive for those who were worried about swine flue, said curmudgeon said very sharply in the presence of three others "but you passed the peace and shook hands with everyone. Your germs were all over the bread." The others pointed out that germs would have been on the bread anyway with everyone putting their hands on the loaf, but she was still peeved. I now wish I hadn't done anything. Whoever said that germs are all over the hymnals, pews, etc. was right.

    I do like Joelle's suggestion to use hand sanitizer before serving communion, and I'll do that.

    This has reminded me of when I served as chapel assistant at seminary, and we had a meeting discussing the most hygienic way to serve communion. After about thirty minutes, an elder Old Testament prof finally said, "we've been serving communion for 2,000 years. I don't think anyone has died from it yet." But the conclusions as to the most sanitary? Wine in a sterling silver cup. The alcohol and the silver apparently kill the germs.

  7. i simply read the letter from the health dept. to the congregation... we didn't share the peace, and i didn't shake hands at the door (mostly b/c i was feeling sick last week)... and folks were fine with it.

    i think it is an entirely contextual decision...

  8. I am a member of a congregation that just did away with passing the peace altogether (we "already spend a lot of time talking to each other before worship anyway"), and this has caused great sadness for some of the members who live alone, especially those who are older. They tell me that worship is sometimes the only opportunity they have to connect with other people in a week, that because of mobility issues they are not able to move from person to person so easily in the pre-worship fellowship time, that they miss feeling, as one woman put it, "like a person - now I'm just a member of the congregation and there's nothing special about me." So when thinking about how this fits, or doesn't, into worship, and about health concerns please think also about the non-worship needs that are being met on Sunday mornings. Since you don't have enough to think about already:) Thanks!

  9. As Rev Kim points out regarding communion, the "Passing of the Peace" has been part of Christian worship from the very beginning. Maybe folks would freak out less about hand-touching during this ritual if they knew the early Christians actually did a KISS of Peace instead?

    The guest preacher at our church last Sunday suggested that fearful folks could cross their arms (the way some churches have people do if they wish to receive a blessing rather than participating in communion) and speak Christ's peace to those around them without extending a hand.

    On another note entirely, I'd like to wish a Blessed Mothers' Day to all our Matriarchs. Thanks for mothering our ministries!

  10. Pastor J,
    I use teh hand sanitizer too, prior to communion.
    As far as peace passing goes, I cant get mine up and going on that one yet.
    Training is needed, but maybe after this flu scare

  11. I've had an annoying cough for the last couple of weeks, though I was hardly sick. I made a point of not shaking hands with anybody at several meetings I've been at, and I didn't shake hands during the passing of the peace at church. I think some people thought I was being paranoid, but actually, I was thinking of their health more than my health.

    That's only courteous, I'd guess.

    But who says that we always have to shake hands during the passing of the peace? Usually I do, but there are a couple of people that I'm never close to. We catch each others' attention and signal God's peace to each other.

  12. Our bishop suggested that we address the issue, urging common sense. I took a light approach, and even joked about doing a little elbow bump if you were worried about shaking hands--and it turns out that no one really was worried about it.

    A bigger issue for many is drinking from the common cup. People have gotten the idea that intincting (dipping the bread into the wine) is more hygenic, but actually that isn't the case since fingers have far more germs than lips do. We've talked about this before, but I mentioned that again Sunday noting that the message wasn't just from me, it was from the bishop. I know better than to think very many people would be persuaded, but a few were.

    We haven't had any cases of swine flu nearby yet; I'm sure when and if we do, we'll have to address these issues again. But for now, I don't want to be an alarmist about it. The light and causal touch seemed to be well received.

  13. I made a simple announcement letting people know that they were free to "pass the peace" with a wave if they preferred and that, as always, they could come forward with their arms crossed over their chests and just get a blessing if they didn't want to receive the elements. I think the passing of the peace actually went longer than it sometimes does, and everyone received communion. We do intinction, which can get a little gross with people sticking their fingers in, but most people don't see that.

    Quite frankly, the idea of hand sanitizer all over someone's hand before they break the bread seems gross to me. That stuff is full of chemicals and nasty alcohol. I did pay more attention to washing my hands Sunday morning, and I did place and announce hand sanitizer in the front pew, if people wanted it.

    By this Sunday, I don't think people are going to care.

    And sage1, that is fascinating about the shot glasses coming from the 1918 flu epidemic. Is there somewhere I can look that up?

  14. Perhaps it is time to rethink the whole passing of peace thing. IT stems from the words of our Lord if when we realize as we are presenting our gifts that there is conflict between us and someone else we ought leave our gifts at the altar and go and make peace with that person. Now it has gotten to the point of replacing all other forms of socializing in a congregation.
    Couple with the current health issue, the ELCA issued a totally bizarre counsel that led one congregation to use latex gloves during the ministration of the Sacrament.
    The most level headed reaction seems to have come from the Methodists. See

  15. I think they go back further, as the hygiene movement was well underway before 1918, but perhaps the Spanish Influenza cemented the little cups in the general Protestant consciousness? Here's an interesting article on the little cups. The author traces the little cups to the 1880's, which may explain why it feels like "forever" to many of our churches.

    And here's an interesting quote from a Unitarian church website:

    In 1911 individual communion cups were obtained. This was in response to a new state law which prohibited common drinking cups in certain public buildings, although churches were not specifically mentioned.

  16. That first article was originally published in 1906.


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