The Peace is a staple of modern (or Novus Ordo) liturgy, but the traditional Anglican (or most other traditions for that matter) may scoff at this ancient tradition seemingly-haphazardly thrusted into our liturgies. Let’s take a quick look at where it came from, how it ended up in our Prayer Book, and what it means.
The Peace in some form has been found throughout the history of Christian worship. The New Testament contains several references to a “kiss of peace” or “a holy kiss”, and instructions to “greet one another” during what are presumed to be formal gatherings of the local faithful. The specific act of the kiss gradually fell from common use as the Christian community became larger over the centuries, instead being reserved for more particular circumstances such as priests greeting one another or Eastern Christians kissing an icon of Christ. Nevertheless, even in Late Medieval England the custom of kissing a pax-board was not unknown, and in some cases provided a substitute for the frequent reception of Holy Communion.
The Peace is absent from the classical Prayer Book tradition with the exception of the 1549 Prayer Book, wherein these words are exchanged between the priest and the people after the Prayer of Consecration and Lord’s Prayer, roughly where the Roman Rite places it today. No physical action or exchange of peace among the members of the congregation was appointed, however, and when the Communion liturgy was further reordered in 1552 the Peace disappeared until its revival in the mid-20th century.
The function of the Peace is twofold. First, it is an expression of Christian brotherhood wherein we acknowledge the family-like nature of our fellowship. We embrace one another in love as an expression of unity and peace. In this sense, the Peace could be appropriately placed elsewhere in the liturgy, such as after the breaking of the bread as in the modern Roman Rite. The second function of the peace, which seals its location after the Confession and Absolution of Sin and the Comfortable Words, is its expression of reconciliation – a liturgical expression of Matthew 5:23-24 wherein we reconcile with our brethren before offering our gifts at the altar.
With these two purposes of the Peace rightly understood, the worshiper may find one’s priorities changed regarding how to “greet one another in the Name of the Lord.” Far from a “say hello to everyone nearby” moment, as some church traditions have interpreted the Peace, this is a moment either to offer a symbolic sign of peace to one’s immediate neighbor, or to make good and true restitution with another member of the congregation before proceeding to the Holy Table. To aid such a corrected understanding of the Peace the celebrant may add to the provided dialogue, “[In light of such peace with God,] let us extend that peace to one another.”