Methodists say: Don't hug thy neighbour

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The Independent Online
For many churchgoers, the moment at which members of a congregation turn to their neighbours and offer a sign of peace - be it a handshake, a kiss, or a hug - can be an emotionally fortifying experience. But for others, the ritual is fraught with fears of being abused, according to a report by the Methodist Church.

In the past, people have raised objections to these gestures - known in most churches as "the Peace" - on theological grounds or because it offends their British reserve, but never before has it been identified as an opportunity for sexual harassment.

The Rev David Gamble, who chaired the Working Party which published the report entitled "Sexual Harassment and Abuse", said at the Methodist annual conference yesterday "In one or two of the stories, people have said that someone who has been harassing people has used the sharing of the Peace as an opportunity to harass. The Peace is supposed to be a good moment of reconciliation, but for some it is actually a moment they fear because they worry about what someone is going to do with them."

In particular, those adults who have been abused as children find physical intimacy in church, be it during the Peace or at another time, "frightening and offensive ... they would run a mile rather than be touched," said Mr Gamble.

But despite the dangers, Methodists have no plans to cancel the Peace, said Mr Gamble. "A society in which no one can touch each other in affection, support or comfort would be a very sad society," he said.

Instead, Methodists are endeavouring to spread the message that "What's OK for me may not be OK for you", as well as reviewing the church's disciplinary procedures.

"One of the biggest issues in the report - and the Peace is an example - is that boundaries are very important," said Mr Gamble, who is the Methodist Church's Family and Personal Relationship Secretary. "One of the sad things that happens is that people cross boundaries inappropriately. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it happens gradually and people hardly realise it's happening."

The working party received a total of 28 written submissions relating to some 20 episodes of harassment and a further 11 oral accounts. Under the heading "Confusion of Intimacy," the report noted "it was apparent in some submissions that the context in which harassment took place was one where physically intimate gestures were in regular use. It is an acknowledged aspect of worship and of the informal relationship within many faith communities that hugs, kisses and physical demonstrations of fellowship are part of the day-to-day culture. In a number of cases this behaviour provided the cover for acts of harassment while in others it offered the conduit for greater physical intimacy."

The Peace, conducted before Communion is popular among the more fundamentalist and evangelical wing of the Church. But the more traditional churches prefer to use just words. To Mr Gamble's mind, the Peace is a valuable part of a service. "More traditional churches say `We don't like these new fangled things,' but there are times when a hug makes me know I'm cared about in a way that no words could."