Friday 11 October 2019

The Mathematics and Psychology of the Peace

The Telegraph tells us, in amongst its cheerleading for whatever Boris Johnson is making up next, that there is an optimal time for a handshake. Yep, scientists have done their stuff and if you're going to shake someone's hand, it should be no more than three seconds.

Well, no kidding. Any longer than that and you're starting to worry that you've been introduced to Donald Trump, or else Mr Shake Hands Man from the 80s Channel 4 series, Banzai.

But this is crucial information in a church setting. In those Anglican and other churches that have established the Sharing of the Peace, the duration of the handshakes within that Peace are critical to the stability and - for that matter - duration of the service.

Consider the simple, basic, if you will the Lidl of the Peace-sharings.  "Peace be with you." I reckon that, with a nod and slight smile in the general direction of the Peace-sharee, that will be 2 seconds. In a typical congregation, with say 3 seconds between each handshake, with a congregation of 30 people plus the minister (to make the sums easy since only weirdoes share the Peace with themselves), the Peace will take roughly 2 minutes 30 seconds.

But maybe somebody goes for the Tesco level Peace.  "The peace of the Lord be with you." That's about 4 seconds. 31 people, 30 handshakes each, 3 seconds between handshakes (including the getting back to your seat, so this may be an underestimate) - that's 3 minutes 30 seconds to share the Peace. Remembering that the Peace only moves at the speed of its most verbose sharer so you only need one person to do this. And given we now have people weighing in with 4-second handshakes, there's anxiety starting to be triggered.

Which gets worse if they go for more of your Marks and Spencer level peace. Something like, as recommended in this article, "The peace of the Lord be with you" / "And also with you". Including a suitable liturgical pause, that's maybe 8 seconds. With, presumably, an 8 second handshake. High levels of adrenaline are at this point surging through the bodies of many members of the congregation. Not least because they're all wondering which one says the first half, and which the second. It's like kissing on the cheek - you don't both want to go the same way and end up with an Accidental Snog of Peace.

And not only are stress levels high. Sticking with our assumption that everybody in an assembly of 31 shares the Peace with everyone else - and that's not unreasonable in my experience - we're now up to 5 and a half minutes to share the Peace.

If the same rules apply, and there's sixty people plus the minister in the congregation- well, now we have an 11 minute peace, stress at Bay of Pigs levels and several people hiding under the communion table.

And so, with people on edge, the more introverted out hiding in the church yard, the bloke who thinks you both have to say both bits still only halfway round the church, the organist glad she refused to move from her bench and the acolyte having brained with a candlestick the bloke with BO who wanted a hug, the minister turns to the people and says, "Lift up your hearts".

Starts the most reflective, sacred part of the proceedings off nicely, I reckon.

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  1. In the Catholic Church the Sign of Peace is definitely pitched at Aldi-level - or perhaps Londis/Spar. Get your mandatory shakes in quickly, before the melee subsides, so you’re not left high-and-dry and grasping pathetically at thin air while the action has moved on to the agnus dei. Minimal interaction, please (yuk, all those germs… I can’t banish the thought of those surveys about the body residues adhering to the average bowl of complimentary peanuts on a pub bar counter). And don’t make eye contact, if you can possibly help it – we’re British, for heaven’s sake. As the moment approaches I’m making calculations about how few handshakes I can get away with - and yet sometimes, for no particular reason I can rationalise, I end up at the opposite extreme, going out of my way to reach someone two rows away, who probably thinks I’m weird or have a secret infatuation with them. If they’re some kind of ethnic minority I tend to go out of my way to seek them out, no doubt from some kind of transferred colonial guilt.

    I envy those people – fewer and fewer these days – who just remain kneeling during the whole sorry debacle and pretend (la-la-la, can’t hear you) that it simply isn’t happening. One good reason for attending the old-fashioned Mass in Latin, which I do whenever possible, is that there is none of this awkward touchy-feely nonsense.

  2. In our church we shake hands, some hug, which is a bit too tactile for me. And my throat microphone might get tangled in somebodies tie or scarf. Even the spouse gets a peck on the cheek, but not too close. I note that when I preach on hell fire that most avoid me? Is that guilt or not wanting to be contaminated by my familiarity with the topic? Perhaps I should moderate my words and stop using a candle to illustrate the point hmmm

  3. This brings to mind one particular occasion when The Peace was first introduced to our otherwise BCP church by a new incumbent keen for the worship to become 'Common', one parishioner commented "I wouldn't have come if I'd known there was going to be all this hugging and kissing!". Personally, I tend to agree that one should be able to choose the level of contact with others, for some people even a handshake with a relative stranger can be a breach of their personal space.


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