The crisis in the ECUSA offers us an opportunity to look again at familiar
but very recent church practices and rites. Please read on for reflections
on one of them, familiar to most of you.
THE KISS OF LOVE
In the mid-1990s when I was a guest preacher at St John's Church, Savannah, Georgia, and while I was addressing an adult Sunday School class, I said in answer to a question, "The modern Passing of the Peace is THE primary Sacrament of Panentheism" and immediately the distinguished (now deceased) Rector, the Revd Dr William Ralston, let out a great roar of approval.
Whatever did I mean? I meant that the several minutes, often five or more, spent at the middle of eucharistic services, when people walk about the church to greet each other by handshakes or by hugging or by kissing, is a ritual that expresses the doctrine that worshippers know God especially in the intentional, physical coming together and by words and body language the "peace of God" to one another. [Pan-en-theism is the popular modern doctrine in the liberal Churches, especially favored by the feminist movement, which states that the world (nature & humanity in particular) are in God and that God is not God without his/her creation being included within him/her. Thus it is neither Pantheism (God is the world) nor classic Theism (God is separated wholly from the world which he made).]
This practice of the walk-about with physical contacts, which is widespread in eucharistic services that use modern rites, is very NEW as far as the Church of God is concerned - beginning in the west in the 1970s. Likewise so is the lesser intensity of shaking hands and saying "the peace of God be with you".
Its distant, and very distant, pedigree is the "Holy Kiss" (as St Paul calls it four times - Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; and see 1 Peter 5:14 where it is called "the kiss of love" and linked to peace).
The holy kiss was used in the very early period of the Church both as a greeting between full church members (the baptized who took Holy Communion) and by the Bishop to newly baptized believers. It was not allowed for use by catechumens, or between Christians and non-Christians, for it was "holy" and a sign of "God's peace or salvation". It involved a kiss on the cheeks or on the lips and was not offered between people of a different sex. This holy kiss was revolutionary for its time but like so many good things in the young Church was quickly open to abuse when a small society became a large assembly.
Not surprisingly this practice dropped away as the Church grew in numbers and became " a mixed multitude". It was open to easy and obvious abuse. It was transferred (in part) to a kiss between clergy and in the East to the kissing of icons and the like (which practice still continues) and in the West the rite entered the liturgy as words "The peace of the Lord be with you:/ and with thy spirit" spoken by the Celebrant to the assembled people (which is still to be heard in the old Latin Mass of the R Church and in the Holy Communion Service of the first BCP of 1549 and in the Missal Masses used by modern Anglo-Catholics in the USA). In the latter western services the idea is that before receiving the blessed Sacrament the baptized are to reconciled one to another and be filled with the peace of God so that they are worthy recipients of the body and blood of the exalted Saviour.
It is of special interest that NONE of the Protestant Reformers attempted to revive the holy kiss even though they were biblically motivated - for them it was a cultural expression of fellowship and it was the fellowship that mattered.
Significantly for its meaning and development, it was in the very physical, experiential and revolutionary late 1960s & early 1970s, that liturgists keen to restore ancient practices to their modern rewrites of Eucharistic Liturgy, followed ancient pre- 325 AD structures and placed the PAX at the center of the Eucharist, at the end of the Ministry of the Word and Prayer and before the Ministry of the Sacrament. They supplied only minimal explanations of it and it was usually accompanied by the rubric " a sign of peace may be exchanged". However in practice as the years went by the "may" became "shall be"! Because it was at the center it achieved a prominence in an extremely strong experientialist environment that the liturgists probably had not intended for it. For them it was one of a variety of ancient practices they tried to revive but for many people it became the center of their worship experience.
And there developed, according to local circumstances and clergy feelings, a variety of ways of "passing the peace" in the 1970s and 1980s. It certainly fitted the mood of many who appreciated the relaxing of the formal and the entrance of the casual and they naturally used forms of greetings that they already used at Gates in Airports to greet loved ones or friends (the frontal squeeze) or in social exchanges (shaking of hands etc.).
In some churches, where, for example, there has been in increase in temptation caused by the proximity of male and female flesh in frontal meetings, attempts have been made to control the forms of greeting - e.g., hugging only allowed sideways on, not by means of frontal encounter.
Other churches have sought to control the whole thing by having a dignified movement from the celebrant to the deacon and assistants, from them to the first row and thus through the church, with no movement from seats (except turning around) and with only the words "Peace" or "God's peace" as hands are touched or another form of simple communication is used.
Yet other churches have made sure that there is one service on the Lord's Day where there is NO actual physical passing of the peace at all, for there remain a minority in the Anglican and Roman Ways who do not appreciate the interruption of their concentration on the Lord and the Sacrament.
The question arises: If the practice (suitably controlled) is not the sacrament of Panentheism what is it? Well, if it is done in a dignified way and if it is accompanied by appropriate teaching, it can be a means of emphasising the importance of true fellowship and communion one with another in the local Body of Christ and that it is as the Body of Christ that we receive the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. But it must be done in a dignified and reverent way to be such.
[There are some very useful books & learned essays on the Holy Kiss - see L. Edward Phillips, The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship, Cambridge, 1996 who lists many such.]
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)