I had thought to name this Blog Bums on Pews because going round many churches, mostly Anglican I must admit, I’ve noticed that sitting is increasingly becoming the norm for worship. After an initial variation in posture – standing at the start of worship, sitting for the first readings and then standing for the gospel, many seem to settle into a seated position for the rest of the liturgy. Instructions in booklets to Kneel or sit for the … seem invariably to result in worshippers collapsing onto a pew, and the invitation “Let us pray” results in the same (unless you have been brought up a catholic). No longer an invitation to adopt a posture for prayer, it’s become one to take the weight off your feet. And, whilst it's understandable that the elderly and infirm may need to sit, the old saying ‘weakest to the wall’ which originally meant they could take advantage of benched around the walls of the church when everyone else would be standing, has now lost its meaning.
Does it matter? Well, in the bigger scheme of things, possibly not. But at a time when many are realising the connection between body and spirit, with the body as both a vehicle for and expression of worship, it seems odd that this isn’t finding expression in worship. Go to any orthodox church and there seems no problem for congregations to stand for most of the Liturgy, venerate icons, bow and prostrate themselves: muslims use their bodies in worship and there’s something moving in the sight of whole congregations standing and kneeling at the same time depending on what the worship demands.
Standing is the most ancient of liturgical positions. It was the ordinary bodily position at worship for almost the first thousand years of Christianity. It is a natural expression of respect, reverence and readiness. All religions in ancient times used this position at worship. Christianity spread its early roots in a culture where kneeling was the position of servitude and slavery. Standing straight, tall and free as baptised children of God had special meaning to them. Only for a brief moment before the Presider’s official prayer of the day did people kneel. Even this exception was cancelled on all Sundays and during the Easter season in honour of the Resurrection. During the Eucharistic Prayer and blessings, the posture of the people was one of deep bowing. Standing during the reading of the Gospel has remained the norm for the proclamation of the Word of God affirms the presence of God, just as it is made manifest through the Eucharistic Prayer for which, once again, we stand.
There is no particular religious significance to the position of sitting. It became popular in the West for the listening parts of the Mass (the Readings and sermon) only after the introduction of pews in the 16th cent. and is a posture of receptive listening and resting. We adopt if to watch television, attend a play or concert or see a film. In terms of the Liturgy it gives the impression of people watching or listening to a performance rather than participating in the action of the Mass.
Kneeling has been a popular devotional position only during modern times. There always was, however, a tradition of kneeling for prayer. St. Paul is described thus when joining with Christians at Miletus (Acts 20:36). Kneeling was gradually introduced into the Liturgy as a sign of penance, supplication, and adoration. Kneeling during Mass was influenced by a growing emphasis on the Divinity of Christ and human unworthiness. In the West it gradually became the normal position throughout Mass from the 9th cent., except during the reading of the Gospel. Since the Liturgical reforms inaugurated by Vatican II, changes were made to restore a more balanced understanding of our relationship with God. It has never been the norm in the Orthodox world.
It seems to me a shame that, with all the advances of Liturgical renewal that have occurred in the past fifty years people are not taught the importance of the way bodies can be used both as an expression of and aid to worship.