the lord giveth

We Zoroastrians do not encourage embracing while at worship ourselves
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The Independent Online
That the Methodist Conference - convened in Central Hall, London, yesterday - should have observed a minute's silence for those in the church who have suffered sexual harassment at the hands of clergy or lay members, is not, of course, a matter for levity. Indeed, other churches and organisations would do well to emulate the successors to Wesley.

But I was rather puzzled by the self-lacerating references to what might be happening during what the Methodists call the "Peace". This is the bit in the service when they all say "the peace of the Lord be with you" to their neighbours. Except that - gradually - the old, sedate habit of mumbling it quickly to the chap in the next seat and shaking his hand has been replaced by declaiming it very loudly and then enfolding him in a large and joyous embrace. There have even been reports of kissing.

Now, I do not wish to offend the members of any faith; we Zoroastrians do not encourage embracing while at worship ourselves, but this is largely because the fire makes it awkward. But I do rather wonder what could possibly be taking place in full public view during the few seconds of the "Peace". Is there "inappropriate hugging" (is that a crucifix in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me)? Or certain sad types of celebrants who just can't wait to get their rocks off from one Sunday to the next?

Puzzlingly, the Methodist chap on the radio yesterday suggested that the problem was not so much in the giving, but in the receiving. There might be those, he said, who had been abused as children, and for whom any uninvited physical contact with an unknown adult could be traumatic. I wasn't abused as a child, but I have to say that you don't have to be a trauma sufferer to recoil at some whiskery worshipper planting his lips on your face and pressing his roll-neck against your chest.

This has little, though, to do with harassment, and everything to do with Englishness. We do not like - nor can we cope with - invasions of our personal space (unless such border crossings have been negotiated through the long process of courtship, or are inherited as a consequence of consanguinity). It is bad enough for most of us that our culture should permit children to suffer the ritual kisses of elderly aunts, or force them to spend an intolerable minute on some Santa's bony knee before earning a manky little present.

It is not to be wondered at, then, that the gradual introduction of continental physical enthusiasm has confused many of us badly. We are unsure what to do. Some friends now expect to be hugged. But which ones, how hard, and for how long? Women acquaintances of a modern cast may think it pleasant to be kissed. But on which part of the face, how often, and with how much pleasure?

This week I was invited to a splendid party by a very beautiful woman and her attractive husband. I know the husband rather the better, having only met the wife on two previous occasions, both of them fairly brief. On arrival I marched boldly up to her, and was about to shake her hand and try a phrase or two of cultured conversation when she pursed her perfect lips and leant towards me.

I panicked. I kissed the wrong cheeks in the wrong order (nearly taking off her nose on the cross-over) and - to make matters worse - made an audible self-mocking "mwaah!" both times. It was mortifying, leaving the clear impression that I did not wish to be so intimate, that I was a standoffish ingrate. But the truth was quite the contrary. Indeed, I wanted to take her in my arms and try to convince her that - though she had married the wrong man - it was not too late for the mistake to be rectified. Right there and then.

So, Methodists, there are two possible answers. One is to go back to hand-shaking. The other is to carry on, and hope that gradually - as we get used to expressing ourselves physically - we will get better at judging it. Perhaps there's a course to go on.