Thursday, April 24, 2008

Meditation between hospital appointments: Posture: Standing or Kneeling

By both modern liturgists and leaders of the praise-and-worship movement, we have been told that STANDING is the right and normal posture for the Sunday Eucharist of the Christian assembly. In the presence of God, they teach, the people of God normally stand—even as standing has been common in general culture in the presence of an authority figure.

There are, of course, biblical texts which describe people standing both to hear the Word of God read and also to pray. Then, in the early centuries of the Church, standing for worship was the norm and this was interpreted as being counted worthy to stand in the presence of God because of being united to the Resurrected Lord Jesus.

The same “experts” do not deny a place to KNEELING but, following general practice of the early centuries, say that it belongs particularly to times of prayer and fasting, penitence, and time of intense personal prayer (e.g., Jesus in Garden of Gethsemane). It is not to be used in Sunday worship and thus kneelers, hassocks and the like have disappeared—anyone who insists on kneeling does so on the floor!

So why was it that Anglicans were taught for four hundred years—stand when clergy enter, to sing, to hear the Gospel and recite the Creed; sit to hear the Epistle & sermon; and kneel to pray (be it thanksgiving, confession or petition)?

The answer has two sides: (a) the combination of standing, kneeling and sitting was practical and could be easily supported by biblical practices; (b) the primary posture of kneeling in the presence of God for prayer was inherited from the medieval Church.

In the West, there was a gradual but sure change from standing to kneeling as the primary posture, from the end of the patristic period into the early Middle Ages. Opinions differ as to why this move from a “community of celebration” to “a community of penitence” before God actually occurred, and as to how deep was the difference. One thing is clear is that a change occurred.

SITTING (apart from the bishop in his cathedra) is seen both by the “experts” and traditionalist Anglicans as not proper for Prayer (except for the disabled etc.). However, it is the proper posture for hearing, meditation and reflection.

Can anything be said in these days of innovations to defend the traditional Anglican posture of kneeling to pray? Is it merely and only the left-over of the medieval penitential mindset?

Here is my brief answer: Missing from the modern claim that we should follow the practice of the Church in the early centuries and make standing the primary posture is this— a failure to notice where modern western culture is, and to be realistic as to how posture is interpreted today. In other words, what standing symbolized then it may not now, and, indeed, standing may well point in a different direction today.

We agree that what dominates western culture is our absorption with rights –natural rights, civil rights and more importantly human rights. We stand in our self-worthiness and self-justification not desiring to be judged worthy by another for, we think, in and within ourselves we have that worth: we are worthy already by our innate dignity as human beings.

In this context, then kneeling is surely the primary posture we need to use for worship in order to help teach ourselves that before God we are not worthy, that we rely utterly on his mercy in Jesus Christ to be counted worthy before him. (Prostration would also work but it would be problematic in church buildings.)

“O come, let us worship and fall down and kneel before the LORD our Maker,” is the exhortation of Psalm 95.



Tom Allen said...

Whatever the formal liturgists say, it is local practice which dominates - and different denomiations have different traditions - so may Lutheran churches in Germany sit to sing and stand to pray.

Sitting for prayer has become much more common in Anglican circles - as being more reflective and as churches have fitted more comfortable chairs.

That said there is something instinctively remarkable about standing in a very large crowd - see football or sports crowds

Anonymous said...

The Ancient Church has already ruled on this question centuries ago: kneeling for prayer is a perfectly appropriate posture, but on Sundays (the Lord's Day, the Eighth Day) we are bold to stand in prayer (just as we are bold to pray, "Our Father . . .") because we "joyfully keep the Feast" OF THE RESURRECTION (not the Crucifixion) of our Lord and Saviour. In short, Sunday is not generally a penitential day, so kneeling should be limited (e.g., the General Confession, the Prayer of Humble Access).

A. Morley said...

As usual, Dr. Toon, I couldn’t agree with you more. Kneeling should be natural in all the faithful as a most honest and overt expression of true Christian consciousness. Also, it is so good to see you still posting. Be well sir.

Alastair M. Jaques
Bend, Oregon