'Orante' figure from the Catacomb of Priscilla, Cubicle of the Velata, Rome (second half of the third century).
When should we stand? When should we kneel or sit? Anglicans seem to get far more exercised in their worship by posture than by doctrine! Maybe this reflects an English shyness, a fear of standing out from the crowd, of embarrassing oneself (no one, after all can see what you believe). As we reprint the service sheets for St Jude’s we will try to include a sentence reminding people that the stand/sit/kneel ‘instructions’ are only (generally speaking) suggestions, but it would seem inappropriate to do so without at least a little liturgical reflection on the matter.
First of all what does the bible say about say about kneeling? There are in fact very few references, but enough to show that kneeling to offer prayer, particularly supplicatory prayer (that is prayer made when the situation seems desperate), was natural for Jesus and his immediate followers. There seems to be only a single relevant Old Testament text, but one that has been rather influential with Anglicans: Psalm 95 verse 6. “O come let us worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our maker.” This Psalm, known as the ‘Venite’, has for centuries been the opening psalm of the day in the church’s worship, and in the times when Mattins was the principal Sunday service in the Church of England, would probably have been known by heart by most worshippers. That single verse is almost certainly responsible for the tendency of Anglicans to treat the words “Let us pray” as if they actually meant “Let us kneel”.
In the early church there was actually a class of people (as opposed to a sort of cushion) known as the’ kneelers’. They were those who had committed some serious sin and were only permitted to attend worship if they knelt throughout at the west end of the church, that is to say next to the main door, to symbolize their ‘marginal’ status. In time, kneeling came to be adopted as the accepted position for penitence, and so in the Book of Common Prayer the priest instructs the people to make their confession “meekly kneeling upon your knees”.
In the Medieval, and into the Reformation, periods, the penitential character of worship (acknowledging and bewailing our manifold sins and wickednesses) dominated –perhaps reinforced by the feudal requirement to grovel before lords and princes – and so kneeling spread to other parts of the service, and to such an extent that it became identified as the ‘correct’ position for the lay person in church (the clergy as their social superiors were more likely to be standing or sitting).
The Prayer Book, if you look closely at the instructions (known as ‘rubrics’), actually requires the congregation to kneel from the beginning of Holy Communion through the readings until the Gospel and Creed, and then again right through from what we would today call the ‘Eucharistic Prayer’ , until the service was over. It is no surprise that the only parts of the service that today no one complains about “having to stand for” are the Gospel and the Creed. There seems to be a deeply ingrained feeling among Anglicans that they should be kneeling more than they are, although few clergy would, I think, actually dare to instruct them to do so, or challenge them with the suggestion that kneeling actually meant putting your knees on the ground, rather than just your head into your hands!
You have probably guessed that I am not a big fan of kneeling, and would agree with most liturgical commentators that it should be reserved for really solemn occasions such as Ash Wednesday or Good Friday (the only times those in the sanctuary kneel). Just as a ‘footnote’, the Council of Nicea in the year 325 (from which the ‘Nicene Creed’ takes its name) actually banned kneeling in church on Sundays, because Sunday was not a day of penance,rather, as the day of the Resurrection, it was one of rejoicing. We should stand to give thanks and praise because Christ has ‘stood up’ from the grave. He was laid low in death, but now stands victorious, and we should give thanks that we can “stand in his presence and serve him” (Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer B).
Standing was the typical ancient position for prayer both in the Jewish tradition and – as can be seen from the paintings in the catacombs – by the first Christians. The person presiding at worship has always had to stand more, and now that happily we are rediscovering (or finally waking up to the Reformers teaching on) the common priesthood of all Christians, it is more or less established now as the appropriate posture for most of our worship.
Standing in any case is the typical way of showing respect (without grovelling) in the modern West. We stand for the National Anthem and when we are introduced to someone, or when someone with symbolic authority (like a judge) enters the place where it is exercised. So it is quite natural in church to stand at the entry and departure of the choir and clergy, as well as for the procession of the Gospel Book from the altar to the ambo and for the reading which follows. Common Worship interestingly (page 330 note 1) says “The people should stand for the reading of the Gospel, for the Creed, for the Peace and for the Dismissal”. The inclusion of the Peace may be a health and safety consideration, although the actual sharing of the peace is optional. Of course ‘should’ is not the same as ‘must’, and no one is obliged to stand if they find it difficult to do so. At the same time church furnishing should be so designed and arranged so that those who need something to lean on, for example, should have it available.
What about sitting? Early churches had no (or very few) seats because standing was assumed to be the natural position for worship (as is still the case in the Eastern churches). There was always a seat for the President – the bishop or his representative presbyter (priest) – and it was usual for him to sit to deliver the sermon to the standing congregation (that’s why cathedrals are so called – ‘cathedra’ being Latin for’ chair’). Today it is more natural to sit to listen to a reading or an address, and probably for extended periods of silent prayer - after communion, for example. There is always, however, a little bit of a danger with sitting in that it makes us think we are ‘off duty’ or doing nothing. We should remember, particularly in the minutes before the service begins, that sitting might mean ‘I am praying’ rather than ‘I am ready for a chat’.
What about the Eucharistic prayer? Without specifying a position Common Worship says “Any changes in posture in the Eucharistic Prayer should not detract from the essential unity of that prayer”. These words conceal centuries of theological controversy. Essentially the issue here is whether it is the ‘words of institution’ (“This is my body”) or the whole prayer which is ‘consecratory’. If the former, then it seems appropriate to mark the reciting of the words with a change of posture (as they are marked by the ringing of a bell); if the latter then it would seem better to maintain the same posture throughout. Actually most scholars are agreed that the whole prayer option is the correct one (for the simple reason that some ancient liturgies did not actually include the words of institution).
The very first Eucharistic Prayer known includes the words “all of us standing around [this altar]”, and we have already mentioned Eucharistic Prayer B – itself a translation of an ancient text – which says “We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you”. Nevertheless the celebration of the Eucharist as a joyful act of praise and remembrance by the whole assembly turned in the Middle Ages into a dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper by a principal player taking the role of Jesus. The community withdrew from the action and became passive spectators, kneeling (in the catholic tradition), or sitting around a table (in the Reformed one). Despite the note there are still elements of the ‘ magic words’ approach in Common Worship, and standing older Anglicans brought up to understand that the ‘prayer of consecration’ began after the Sanctus sometimes wobble at that point. The essential thing is to maintain the same position, be it kneeling, standing, or sitting - although the last would seem to be little appropriate for the most solemn part of the liturgy.
I am fond of saying the Church of England is a ‘liturgical church’. One of the things that means is that we understand ourselves in our parish churches and in our worship to be only a part of the church, and that we have a loyalty to the wider church both in place and time. Elsewhere in The Spire I reflect on how we might explore that tradition in new ways.
Published in the Autumn 2009 edition of The Spire