The Complicated Whether and How of Touching
When the CDC changed its metrics and eased its masking and distancing guidelines in February, the leaders at the church I serve promptly pivoted to “masks optional.” As that first worship service approached, I kept remembering details that could suddenly be adjusted. We removed the “Xs” that had, for a year, blocked off every other row in our sanctuary. We took down signs about distancing. We announced that we would again be offering coffee after worship. Yes, the choir could sing without masks. I felt giddy at the possibilities.
One of those involved the whether and how of touching.
For a year, we had passed the peace of Christ by standing in place, turning and waving, greeting one another at a distance. I watched my congregation offer a generous welcome week after week with their smiles and a few words called out to those nearby. This had grown customary. Not entirely adequate, but what else could we do?
For two years, we all lived through a kind of distancing that made us long for touch even as we resisted it. Early in the pandemic, I wonder if you found jarring those moments in TV shows and movies where people hugged, or even kissed, gathering in crowds where they’d bump into one another. Some of those scenes made me weep at how natural that looked, how innocently people could occupy the same space. Other times I’d draw back in my chair, bothered by so much—too much—touching, against the backdrop of CDC guidelines and case numbers and the COVID names on our prayer list.
Even after we began to understand that the virus was passed more by particles in the air than by germs on our fingertips, I wondered whether we would ever touch again, in church. Would we ever feel comfortable passing the peace with handshakes and hugs and close-in faces? Even if some were ready, would that repel others?
This question of touch in church goes back longer than the pandemic for me. I used to serve a church inside a prison where hugging was not allowed. We could shake hands during the passing of the peace, a privilege that was well savored by many. But it wasn’t comfortable for everyone. Every time we gathered, that room held women who had been injured by touch. When touch has been injurious—abusive, traumatic—as was true for a staggering ninety percent of residents there, it can change a person’s response to even the most friendly, safe, minimal touch. There I learned to invite people, “If you don’t want to be touched, let us know by your body language, and we’ll honor that.” I was proud of the way residents and guests alike would tend one another with kindness and gentleness. We enacted the peace we were passing.
During those years, through the #MeToo movement and other experiences, it became clear that a similarly complicated truth about touch is present in virtually every congregation. Experts tell us more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. That’s a lot of people injured by touch. Some of that injury has happened in our churches. When our congregations were places of regular, expected handshakes and hugs, we were almost certainly crossing boundaries some of our friends would have set, had we asked.
And it’s not always about trauma. For any number of reasons, we aren’t all the same. I have a friend who, decades ago, helped me understand how uncomfortable she was with the nearly universal hugging that happened in the church we both attended. I would forget, and I’d reach out to hug her, and she’d endure it, all tense and wooden. I finally learned to stop myself, and simply to greet her from a decent distance. It was what she needed, but it wasn’t easy for her to ask.
All this came back to me as I considered what we might do about touch, now that the masks would be off and the restrictions had eased. Touch is complicated, but we need it. One of the ways we legitimately care for one another is through healthy touch. I knew people who hungered for it. Returning to the possibility of touch seemed as important as holding back from touch where that would be the caring thing to do.
Could we dare to believe that we could honor all those needs?
Some of you, reading this, are in churches that have long since abandoned this “passing the peace” moment in worship. In some churches, that time has felt like the most unwelcoming time in the worship service, with people greeting friends and overlooking visitors. In some churches, it takes too long. Some folks stand there frozen in place while activity buzzes around them, due to unfamiliarity or introversion or other reasons. But all this is exactly the reason we need this moment. There will be touch among worshipers in nearly every setting, even if only before and after worship. Let it be guided by good practices around inclusion and care for one another’s needs.
I’ve often said that when we pass the peace in worship, we’re practicing being at peace with one another in that room, and by extension with people far beyond it. Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, says the apostle Paul (2 Cor 5.18). Where better to begin?
So, at that first post-masked service, as we came to the passing of the peace, I paused to explain that we were going to try out the possibility of touching once again. “Let’s see if we can pass the peace,” I said, “in ways that respect people’s feelings about touch. We’re going to pay attention to one another’s body language to figure that out. If you want to shake hands, reach out toward the person,” and I demonstrated what that would look like. “And if they extend an elbow instead of a hand, then follow their lead, and bump elbows with them.” I demonstrated what an openness to hugging looked like, and the way someone with arms folded says “No touching, please.” I went on, “However that person responds, let that be okay between you. And still greet one another, even if you or they don’t want to be touched.”
So, with those words hanging in the air, we practiced it. “The peace is Christ is with you,” I intoned. “And also with you,” they responded. I smiled and said, “Let us greet one another with signs of love and peace.” And around the room, we did it, with care and love and with all kinds of visible signals about our distinctive answers to this complicated, personal question of touch.
It’s becoming good practice in our sanctuary. And I pray that it will help us be at peace with one another—including around this question of touch—wherever we find ourselves, now and when the pandemic is a distant memory.