Why the Church's 'Passing of the Peace' Is Hard for Me as Someone With OCD


Dear Church,

I ask that you please stop expecting me to engage in touch I don’t consent to.

My aversion to the passing of the peace has gone back as far as I can remember. When I was little, I folded my arms and refused to shake hands with the people around us during church. Soon after this started, my parents made it very clear that shaking hands was something that was expected of me — no ifs, ands or buts.

I experimented with a number of ways of dealing with the passing of the peace as I was growing up. For a few years, I left the sanctuary between passing of the peace and communion to wash my hands. When I was a little older, I started washing my hands right before church, using only my right hand to hold my bulletin and hymnal, and then taking communion with my left hand. After several years of that strategy, I finally gave in to the wave of hand sanitizer (even though it can’t kill viruses) and started behaving “normally” during most of the service, excepting using hand sanitizer — often twice — right before going up for communion. I feel less safe now than I did with my previous strategies, but I’d also been taught those strategies were too obvious, too public and something I should be ashamed of. So hand sanitizer and panic (sometime muted, sometimes frantic) it is.

I’m a little bit more chill about shaking hands under other circumstances, but I have a really hard time eating with unwashed hands, and touching other people’s hands shortly before communion has always struck me as a terrible hygiene practice. A few years ago, I finally found out that the theological underpinning of having the passing of the peace before communion is to fulfill the call to be reconciled to one another prior to coming to Christ’s table. But for me, the brief, formulaic interactions typical of the passing of the peace have little in common with genuine reconciliation, and I think it’s time to recognize that.

The reason I have trouble with the passing of the peace is that I have the contamination fear variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The coughing and nose-blowing of the person in the pew behind me is like a combination of tornado sirens and nails on a chalkboard, and I want to either run away or duck and cover. The very last thing I want to do is touch their hand. There’s nothing “peaceful” about the passing of the peace for me. It’s worst during flu season, but it’s always pretty bad, even when the people around me seem healthy.

OCD isn’t the only mental condition that makes touch harder for people, though. It’s these facts that make me say the passing of the peace can be ableist. It can be a borderline traumatic experience for people with certain mental disorders, and therefore it functions to exclude.

So please, I ask the Church to find a non-touch alternative to the passing of the peace. Pastors, I suggest putting it in the bulletin and mentioning it when you tell your congregants to share the peace of Christ with one another. Everyone, please ask before you make physical contact with others, and don’t judge them or transgress their boundaries if they ask to remain untouched.

The passing of the peace isn’t a sacrament. I believe changing it won’t make anyone less Christian — it’ll just make church a lot easier for me and people like me.

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Thinkstock photo via kadirdemir.


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