Q. Sometimes during the service the priest says “Please stand if you are able” or “Please be seated.” But there are also times – like during the Eucharistic Prayer before Communion – when the bulletin says “Kneel or Stand.” How do we decide which to do? And why do some folks choose one over the other?
A. The early Church knelt for private prayer but stood for corporate prayer. A pattern developed with private prayers — and some public prayers during Lent and Advent — being offered kneeling as a sign of penitence, and other prayers (such as the Great Thanksgiving during the Eucharist) offered standing as a sign of joy and celebration.
The classical Anglican formula was “Sit for instruction, kneel for prayer, and stand for praise.” More recent studies of the early Church customs, however, changed that somewhat to “Sit for instruction, kneel for private or penitential prayer, and stand for corporate prayer and praise.” The Prayer Book leaves it open as to what we do saying simply “the people kneel or stand.”
We reached out to two parish members who have thought through why they choose one over the other. Here are their stories:
Among my earliest memories is praying before bedtime. Every night my mother would come to my room to hear my prayers. “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me. Bless thy little lamb tonight….” It was a Norman Rockwell moment – kneeling beside my bed.
Every week my family attended our parish in Inglewood where dad was the tenor soloist and senior warden, mom was chair of everything, my brother was crucifer captain and my sisters and I were member of Girls’ Friendly Society. There I learned that in church you sit to listen, stand to sing and kneel to pray.
As a product of Christian day school, college and seminary, I’m aware that biblical and theological cases can be made for different postures during prayer – including on your face. Jesus, Peter and Paul knelt when they prayed – and stood. I could say that for me it feels more reverent and worshipful to kneel, but it’s really just the way I’ve always done it. And so when the bulletin says “stand or kneel” I choose to kneel.
If you worship at 9:00 you may have seen me standing during the Eucharistic Prayer — often the only one in the congregation on my feet – and may have thought “What is he trying to prove?”
Well, to start with, for me it’s not about not being able to physically kneel during the Eucharist: it’s more about the theology of what we’re doing during the Eucharist.
When the current prayer book was created (1979) it included what we call Rite One for those who wanted to retain the more penitential language of the 1928 prayer book. (For example “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” and other similar contrite or remorseful phrases.) Instead the 1979 prayer book reflected a move away from this “unworthy” position with language like: “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you.” Every time I heard that I thought “What sense does it make to say that if you’re on your knees?” And so I started standing.
I guess another reason for me is that standing is more contemporary. I’ve heard visiting Episcopalians say something along the lines of, “I was so shocked when after the Sanctus the whole place went down on their knees. For such a progressive place as All Saints, that just seems so 1950’s.”
Finally, I do it out of a sense of hospitality. All Saints is a big, “public” church – a place that many people look forward to visiting when they come to L.A. because our reputation as a vibrant, alive place, filled with social justice activity is known around the country and people want to experience it. So if those visitors’ custom in their home parish is to stand, I want to let them know that it’s OK to stand here, too.
You can see them sometimes: they start to remain standing after the Sanctus, then sort of look around and realize that everyone is on their knees, so they give in and kneel, too – whether they actually want to or not. I hope by standing I can signal that “Whoever you are and whether you prefer to stand or kneel, there’s a place for you here.”
Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Saints Alive — All Saints’ monthly newsmagazine. Have questions about worship you’d like us to consider for future issues? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.