I am a touchy person. I enjoy touching others and touching things. One of the reasons I became an Episcopalian is that in our belief in the Incarnation — that God became human and walked on two feet and touched and felt with two hands — we live with substances we can touch, feel, taste, and smell in water, wine, oil, incense.
I greatly value touch to convey relationship. As I get close to friends my arm is regularly around shoulders, or around my husband's waist if we're out and about. When I was in the 7th grade I was oblivious about my privilege and my experience of randomly putting my cold hands on others' faces or necks — even after they'd asked me not to. I was "just playing." The thought of it makes me shriek now.
Different kind of touches — romantic, friendly, ritual, etc. — all convey different levels of intimacy. As a general rule the first time I meet someone in a social or professional setting I shake their hand. If we become friends in time we may come to hug one another or offer each other a kiss of greeting. Unless we've met electronically and developed a certain kind of relationship, however, we never start with a hug. I suspect this is true for most people in their lives. Lately I've been more conscious as my touches grow beyond a simple greeting hug to ask, "Is it okay if I put my arm around your shoulders?"
Hugs convey a certain level of intimacy. The first thing I did upon seeing my mother after my wedding was hug her. My best friend and I greet each other with a lasting embrace when we're reunited across the continental US. I briefly hug my brothers and friends as we greet or part, sometimes but not always both.
I've found myself wondering lately, largely as I have become less and less comfortable with it, why people insist on hugging me when passing the peace — regardless of if I'm vested or not. In Celebrating the Eucharist, Patrick Malloy writes, "The Peace is a ritual act of reconciliation, just as the Eucharist is a ritual meal. It need not be protracted to be genuine, nor does every person have to greet every other person." (p. 127, emphasis in the original).
Part of what's made me increasingly uncomfortable is not that people want to give hugs inasmuch as they don't care if I do or not, whether they know me or not. This has been apparent when people have ignored my extended hand to put their arms around me or say, "We just hug everyone here!" Malloy wonders, "What sort of formation can help the entire assembly to recognize the Peace as a ritual action in which they all participate, not a recess in the ritual?" I have attended churches that not exactly that in the bulletin...
However Elizabeth Drescher noted, "Might be helpful to add what is not obvious to many: a handshake, a hug if you're more familiar with the person, or a friendly wave constitute the 'passing' gesture or 'greeting.' I've had students tell me that they thought some object was going to be passed around." Why are people so comfortable ignoring a social norm — to the point of ignoring someone's non-verbal communication — and hugging strangers? What does it say to visitors when their preferences about their bodies are ignored? How might survivors of assault, sexual and otherwise, respond to being violated?
Earlier today I read a New York Times opinion called "Losing our touch." In it the author wonders how much digital communication — replacing touch with touch screens and such — contributes to excarnation. As Christians we value the Incarnation, the messy earthliness of being human. I wonder if we lose our touch by not having appropriate boundaries about it, where it doesn't mean anything to hug a new person.
Our rituals offer places for safe touch: administering bread, passing peace, anointing with oil, smearing ashes. We chew and we drink, noticing texture and burning. What happens when the space isn't safe, though, when the level of touch is unwanted and unsolicited?
What is your experience? Are you comfortable with hugging strangers — or being hugged by them? How do you communicate your preference? Those in leadership, what training do you do about the Peace as a ritual action and what level of touch is appropriate for it?