On Not Sharing the Peace

When I was a boy, there was no such thing as sharing the peace. The 1662 Prayer Book Communion service is a liturgy that resolutely maintains the sense of the individual amidst the corporate. Charles Willams’s poem, At the “Ye that do truly” expresses the sense of separation of one Christian from another in this rite:

Now are our prayers divided, now
must you go lonelily, and I;
For penitence shall disallow
Communion and propinquity.

Charles Williams

The liturgical reform of the later 20th Century rediscovered the Kiss of Peace of the early church, and it was introduced in the Church of England’s experimental Series 3 liturgy in about 1971. It was controversial. For many long-standing church people there was something intrusive about having to have such an explicit acknowledgement of our participation in the communion of being part of the people of God. For others, the discovery of fellowship, to use a good Old English word, was a dimension of believing that had been missing in our practice (though not, I think, in Cranmer’s theology).

Hence the theological meaning of being part of the Body of Christ, gathering to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ that we may serve him in the world, found part of its renewed meaning in the exchange of a “sign of peace” – kisses were a bit much for the English – a handshake or possibly a hug was as far as it usually went.

With that too went a rediscovery of the importance of the quality of our fellowship – the dominical warnings about forgiveness in Matthew 18 and Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church about discernment have elevated the importance not simply of our self-examination before God, but also the significance of making good our human relationships as far as in us lay, before approaching the altar. Because we understand that not only must we recognise the solemnity of the presence of God’s saving love in Christ in the elements of bread and wine, we must also see and play our part in preserving and enhancing the meaning of those words which so often introduce the Peace – “We are the Body of Christ”.

We know that every member of that Body is vital to the fulfillment of the realisation of that mystery – Christ’s presence among us, and in and through us. That is made explicit in Paul’s lyrical description of the indispensiblity of every part of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. So maintaining the peace of the body is important.

Which is why today was a very difficult day for me. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, came to Southwell Minster at the end of a weekend of diocesan mission, and preached at our Eucharist. I have some history with the Archbishop at one remove. In my trials with the Church of England, it was the archbishop who discussed with the then acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the late Richard Inwood, what was to be done about this priest who had gone against the Pastoral Guidance of the House of Bishops and had married his partner. Bishop Inwood’s decision to remove my permission to officiate led inexorably to his refusal to give me a licence to a senior chaplain’s post in the NHS, and I consequently lost that employment.

I decided to respond with a legal challenge to what had happened, and for a time, thought to involve the Archbishop in it, but that was not possible. Nevertheless, I saw, from some distance, Archbishop Sentamu remove the licence of a well-loved and long-standing Reader in his diocese for doing the same thing as I had done.

My legal challenge was unsuccessful. I continue to be a priest who is not allowed to function, because I remain, very happily, married to my husband. Recovering any kind of permission to officiate seems unlikely at the moment, unless and until my situation changes, or the attitude of the House of Bishops changes.

I was in my place in the choir for today’s service. I had not been looking forward to seeing the Archbishop, but I have a job to do as a singer, and, in any event, I love that church and I am part of the body there. So you can perhaps imagine my discomfort at the Peace when I saw the Archbishop look in my direction, confirm in a whispered conversation with the Dean that it was me he could see, and then head towards me. He held out his hand; “Peace.”

I have never before, as far as I know, refused to share the peace with someone. I take seriously what it means, and the importance of maintaining it. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t share the Peace with Archbishop Sentamu. Because there had been no conversation, no opportunity to say how deeply I had been hurt, or for him to tell me how distressed or angered he had been by my actions. It was as if he wanted to cut through all that and, in a stroke, pretend that that had never happened. To be honest, I felt he was attempting to manipulate me. I said to him, ” No. I do not have peace with you.” And I did not shake his hand. He moved on.

I daresay for the Archbishop it was intended simply as a friendly gesture. No hard feelings. But then he has the power, and the security, and the freedom to think that a little local difficulty more than five years ago is surely something that should be put behind us. Sharing the Peace with me would symbolise that.

But it is much more than that to me. For me, the reality I live with is the dishonouring by my church of my marriage, which is a source of love and life not just for me, but for many others who know us. It is living with a punitive attitude to gay clergy who marry, with no prospect of my punishment ending. That, surely, is a marker of a disproportionate and unjust response in almost any circumstance.

So the peace I would love to see restored cannot be done by a simple exchange of Peace in a Eucharist. Not by one archbishop reaching out. My refusal to engage in what he offered was not about hardness of heart. It is simply a recognition of a brokenness in the Body that desperately needs mending. I hope that I did not share the Peace because it was not there to be shared. There is a lot of work to be done with many LGBTI+ Christians before they feel that the peace we all long for, the peace that is proper to the Body of Christ in all its diversity, has been restored.

Our gospel reading was about the lost sheep. Many of us know what it is to have that sense of having been found and loved and brought home to God. It is the shepherds of the church who manage to make us feel pushed away.

I may be wrong. Perhaps I should have shared the Peace with the archbishop. Fake it till you make it, they say. But that is about the things that you can change yourself. This fracture will take all sides to work hard to make the changes we are called to. Not sharing the Peace was a painful symbol of where we are.