The handshake is a Presbyterian ritual, as sacred as Psalm singing, sermon preaching and offering collecting. Each Sunday morning with the Benediction proclaimed, I make my way, accompanied by a grand organ voluntary, down one aisle to the vestibule. Then the quick memory check. “Which door did I stand at last week? Well go to the other one this week.”
The particular architecture of First Armagh encourages worshippers to funnel out from the sanctuary into a narrow vestibule, then through one of the doors into the open air. I position myself past one door, atop the steps, greeting worshippers with a firm handshake. Flesh meets flesh, eye meets eye, smile meets smile, a word meets a word. Too long a conversation will hold up the queue so the greetings are normally “Twitter like” in their brevity. There is the wonderful range of whisperers, jokers, information givers, encouragers, smilers, frowners, and even occasional gaze avoiders, followed by the serious enquirer, who may require a longer conversation.
As I return into the sanctuary, I am met with a buzz of noise, as I witness the ever-expanding proportion of lingerers catching up on each other’s week. Now I fear intruding into a well-developed conversation.
In coronavirus lockdown on a Sunday morning, I gather with my wife, Christine, in front of a computer screen worshipping God After the benediction, I do miss the incarnational door greeting. However there is compensation, as our phones bleep receiving messages through emails, texts and WhatsApp notifications. “Oh I loved the children's photos, liked the reading from the garden, your hair is growing, good hymns, helpful message”.
In the afternoon the phone may ring and a longer conversation develop. A Sunday evening elder’s zoom meeting, when we can see and hear one another, further unpacks the morning service, as we ponder a few questions emerging from the service. However, I do miss the random handshake, and the sheer physicality of incarnational fellowship. I am aware of many older people who do not have access to technology, and when vulnerable may feel even more isolated.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “Life together,” just before World War Two. I read it as part of my practical theological course in Aberdeen Divinity School with the inspirational Chris Wigglesworth, who sadly died a few weeks ago. More than any other book it has influenced how I regard Church. The book emerged from Bonhoeffer's experience teaching in the Confessing Church Seminary in Finkenwalde.
Until I read that book, I was preoccupied with what I could give to the Church. I had a duty to attend, worship and serve in Church. However Bonhoeffer, aware of its subversive nature, gave me a fresh insight into how the Church is given to us by grace. We have no automatic right to meet physically together. He comments, “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and Sacrament. It is by grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community.” So it is God who congregates us. The Scriptures never assume the right to a handshake.
Psalm 42 v4 laments the memory of a time when the Psalmist “led the procession to the house of God with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng”, but is now downcast because it is merely a memory. In 2 Timothy 1 v4, Paul laments with tears how he longs to see Timothy in the flesh. In the meantime, he uses the ancient technology of a letter to keep in touch. In 2 John v12, John laments the inadequacies of the ancient technology without handshake, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face so that our joy may be complete.”
May these strange days of separation, sickness and shut down give us a deeper appreciation of the grace of fellowship, including the obligatory and delightful handshake.
Rev. Tony Davidson is Minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.