Liturgy and touch and sexual exploitation

Dr. Maria Evans, who writes and reflects at the blog Kirkepiscatoid, explores the subject of touch in church, especially as related to clergy.

In the movie, “Inception,” each member of the “dream team” has a unique object—a small pocket size totem—that serves as a boundary marker between the real world and the various dream worlds they enter in their dream “assignments”–the presence of “touch” signifies the state of reality vs. the state of dreaming. Indeed, Leo DiCaprio’s small metal spinning top itself becomes a focal point of the movie. Little did I know that the next day at Sunday Eucharist that this would springboard in a whole new train of thought.


Sometimes, I think we forget that embedded in our Book of Common Prayer is the use of touch as one of the facets of “the shamanic presence.” In many places in our various liturgies, priestly touch is an essential part of the liturgy—not just in the sharing of the bread at the Eucharist. It resides in the making of the sign of the Cross with chrism in Baptism or through healing by anointing, in the hand resting on the hand or head of the penitent in our rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, and in the hands of the Bishop at Confirmation. The hands of the Bishop on the head of the ordinand are a key component in ordination, and the hands of three bishops are just as key in the ordination of bishops. We are encouraged to mimic these forms of priestly touch in the sharing of the peace, and ordained and lay person alike can impose ashes on the heads of others on Ash Wednesday. So many of our liturgies display the power of priestly touch and teach the ministry of “God’s presence through touch to the laity.” Hopefully, it empowers people to use their own hands to silently spread the Gospel message.

But notice that in these settings, they are all accompanied by something that is a tactile reminder of Christ—his Body in the form of bread, the sign of the cross, the legacy of St. Peter. I believe these accompaniments are there in our Prayer Book by design. They are there to remind us that these are powers in which the ordained are only a conduit of the power of Christ, and NOT from the ordained person alone. It’s why we need to teach what these touches mean in the context of the liturgy. It’s why the laity needs to understand the meaning of priestly touch behind the context of the rubrics of our Prayer Book, and it needs to serve as a reminder to clergy: “This is about the rubrics of the Prayer Book. This is what touch in the liturgy means to laity. This is about the liturgy–it’s not about you.”

It’s also why we have rules in our Canons about sexual exploitation of adults and minors. Touch is one of our most hyperacute senses—even the profoundly unconscious respond to touch. When clergy blur the lines between the touch of the shaman—God’s conduit to be physically present in the liturgy and in pastoral settings—and the touch of an individual—it is inherently dangerous. It’s why the Episcopal Church has training in sexual exploitation of both minors and adults. Children innately want to experience Jesus in a physical way, and they are exceptionally vulnerable. Adults in stressful or crisis situations can have a lowering of the boundaries regarding touch, especially if the stress or crisis involves an intimate partner. Clergy who feel burned out, stressed out, and overworked can succumb to the feeling of their powers of touch as something belonging to them, and not to God—and unfortunately, predatory clergy know how to abuse these forms of touch for their own personal gain and their own sexual satisfaction.


Physical touch is one of the most sacred parts of our liturgy and one of the most tactile representations of God in pastoral care. We need to continue to educate laity and clergy alike on why it should never be profaned, and one of the most readily accessible means of education lives within the pages of our own Book of Common Prayer. Just as the little metal top grounded Leo DiCaprio in his journey between dreams and reality, so should our sense of touch in the liturgy and in the pastoral setting ground us between our world and God’s world.

Read more here.

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