Bruce Russell, September 2006
“As soon as prayers were ended, Colonel Rappee again made his appearance, but was rallied by Miss Sainthill… on ‘his fondness for private meditation, and the care he took to avoid all appearances of hypocrisy’…. He hinted, however, ‘that he might have as much true devotion, as those who were always canting about religion and pretended to set up for Reformers.’ Miss Sainthill replied ‘that, to be sure, people might say their prayers in any place, or in any posture, and even in a warm bed; but she could not but think there is a natural decency of behaviour due to the Supreme Being, as well as to our fellow creatures….” The Rev. Richard Graves, The Spiritual Quixote, London, c.1725.
Our first English reformed Prayerbook was published in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI. Its preface written by Archbishop Cranmer suggested: “As touching, kneeling, crossing, holding up of hands, knocking upon the breast, and other gestures, they may be used or left, as everyman’s devotion serveth, without blame.” Notwithstanding, certain rubrics and instructions have, over the centuries, been indicated in successive editions of the Book of Common Prayer for laypersons participating in corporate worship in the Church of England and its extended family. As well, other gestures have achieved a conventional status of long standing among most Anglicans, while others are associated with various tendencies within the Church.
Today, confusion has arisen with regard to these outward expressions of our worship. In these, as in so many aspects of our common life in the Church, we fail to find consensus and even, far too often, a basis for mutual respect. For those who move from one parish to another where customs are unfamiliar, or for those who are new to Anglican worship, some account of these various traditions, their origin, development, and meaning, will allow individuals to consider what others do, and to decide what gestures seem to best express their own piety.
Simply put “to kneel in prayer; to stand in praise, to bow the head as an act of reverence”, is the formula given by the Victorian liturgist Vernon Staley. [The Catholic Religion: A Manuel of Instruction for the Anglican Church, p. 360] The reader should sense that across Anglican tradition there is a common abhorrence of flamboyance or theatricality, and will hopefully come to appreciate that actions that might seem strange are of long standing tradition and considerable personal significance to those to whom they are familiar. This characteristic moderation is in the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching, for example in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke xviii: 9-14) or his rebuke of outward displays of holiness (Luke xi: 37-54) or his instructions on fasting (Matthew vi: 16-18). Yet we are taught to worship with our whole bodies and all of our senses. Saint Paul in Romans xii, in the words so familiar from the Prayer Book, urges us “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship…” Our official rubrics and long established traditions both teach us that dignified and well-considered actions legitimately express our devotion in our worship; our actions must be motivated by humility and not pride. Frederich Engels once quipped that the English would never make a revolution until they learned to walk on the grass. It is I think debatable whether the good manners and deference of English society are an inherent national trait that influenced English worship, or if they are a mark of the influence of English spiritual tradition on national character. In either case the evidence of this influence can be traced in worship throughout the Anglican Communion today. The characteristic reserve and dignity of Anglican worship are a reflection of the simplicity of the ancient Western Latin rite brought to Canterbury by the Roman monk Augustine. This monastic legacy survives to this day in the worship of cathedrals and university colleges as proscribed in the Offices and Services of the Book of Common Prayer.
To begin where we should always begin, it is the example of scripture from which most of our actions in worship derive. The great Caroline divine Jeremy Taylor observed:
…. understand all those places of Scripture, where we are called to worship God, to bow downe to him, to fall downe before his footstoole, of externall or corporal adoration. For where the externall is onely expressed, there although the internal be also meant, as being the root from whence the externall must come, yet there the externall is not excluded… since externall worshippings are expresse acts of duty, and subordination to the person worshiped…. I think it is clear that worship of God supposes externall, and to worship God in spirit is not opposed to worship him in body….
And I bowed down my head, and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the God of my master Abraham … [Genesis xxiv: 48]
Bishop Taylor argues ‘among all nations inclining of the head, or bowing to the ground, nay even in nature itself, it is a duty of inferiors to Superiors… to lay our glory at the feet of another….’ [The Reverence Due to the Altar, p. 221]
Christians bowed their heads to receive blessings from as early as the beginning of the third century. The Apostolic Constitutions, a document from the Syrian Church but reflecting broader usage, gives several instances of the deacon calling upon the laity to ‘Bow down for the laying on of hands’ by the their Bishop, for example during the Evening Office. [viii, 37, 4]. In the early Roman rite the deacon would similarly call out “Humiliate capita vestra Deo” at the time of blessings.
In 1640 the increasingly isolated regime of Archbishop Laud proposed a series of new canons for the Church of England. These were never sanctioned by the Puritan-dominated Parliament, but they were adopted by the convocations of both York and Canterbury as well as by the King and the Privy Council. Canon 7 states:
We therefore think it is meet and behoveful, and heartily commend it to all good and well-affected people, members of this church, that they be ready to tender unto the Lord the said acknowledgement, by doing reverence and obeisance, both at their coming in and going out of said churches, chancels, or chapels, according to the ancient custom of primitive churches in the purest times, and of this church also for the many years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Earlier, in his metropolitan visitation of 1634, Laud had ordered bowing to the altar, and there seems to be amble evidence that for many Anglicans of that time this would have been normal.
Samuel Pepys records “great bowing by all the people, the knights especially, to the altar” in the Chapel of Saint George at Windsor in February 1665. Almost a century later such ceremonial was still specifically ordered during the Installation of the Knights of the Garter at Windsor. The Garter Annual Register of 1762 describes George III “making his reverence to the altar, descending from his stall, and then making another reverence, proceeded to the offering….” [Legg, p. 174]
Bowing of this sort was not limited to the elaborate etiquette of the Court. According to Wordsworth: “in my own childhood, the peasant men and women… made a leg or a curtsey on entering the church… and one or two bowed at the Gloria Patri…” [Dearmer, p. 202]
Although less common today, the latter was, according to Dearmer, another ancient custom that never quite died out in England. It is enjoined by the statutes of St. Paul’s Cathedral prior to 1305, by the Lincoln Statues, circa 1440, and references to it occur in both ancient and modern literature, as for example “ye incline at Gloria Patri…” [Dearmer, p. 203]
Bowing at the sacred name of Jesus had been re-enacted by the canons of 1603 despite the opposition of the Puritans. “When in time of Divine service the Lord Jesus shall be mentioned, due and lowly reverence shall be done by all persons present, as it hath been accustomed.” Following the Commonwealth this practice was restored in the canons of 1661, and in Legg’s words “this canon has never been repealed, so that it is still the law of the Church of England with whatever neglect private persons may presume to treat it.” [Legg, p. 177]
Archdeacon Heweston, writing in 1686, would have us “bow reverently at the name of Jesus” and “to make obeisance at the coming into and going out of the Church, and at going up to and coming down from the Altar.” He also instructs “nor ever turn his back upon the altar in service-time.” [quoted in Dearmer, p. 199.]
Early in the eighteenth century, Dr. Thomas Bisse, author of The Beauty of Holiness in the Common Praye, declared “this custom is very useful against the Arians and other enemies of our Lord’s Divinity; and therefore never more strictly to be kept up than in these days, wherein those enemies abound.” [Legg, p. 177]
Dearmer contends that we “may bow when passing the altar, but none should bow when merely passing from one part of the altar to the other; nor should one bow to the altar when passing in procession.” [p. 215]
But it is important to remember that bowing to the altar is quite a different thing from bowing to the cross on the altar when going from one part of it to the other. For this latter practice we have no authority, and it is very inconvenient, besides distracting from the reverence to the altar itself, which is the point insisted on before and after the Reformation. [p. 202]
Deamer does not consider the question of showing reverence to the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle on the principle altar, as he would have it reserved elsewhere in an aumbry. When it is reserved on an altar, of course reverence should be shown. He argues that the “we have no precedent for ministers or people dropping on one knee when passing the Holy Sacrament; but that both natural reverence and our Anglican canons, rubrics, and tradition do suggest that they should bow when approaching communion.” He quotes Cookson’s Companion to the Altar of 1784, which instructs the communicant to “rise from your knees, bow towards the altar, and retire to your seat.” [p. 207]
There are also instances when it is appropriate to bow during certain rarer ceremonial actions that are not likely to be observed in many parishes. For example, where incense is used it is customary for the thurifer to bow before and after censing persons and for the ministers and servers, as well as the congregation, to return his bows. It is also expected that one should also bow and cross oneself when sprinkled with holy water in acknowledgement of our baptism, for example during the Asperges, or at the Easter Vigil. In reverence for our redemption, sometimes people in the congregation will bow when the processional cross passes by in procession; as well there are those who bow and cross themselves when passing under a Rood Screen. The priest and other ministers sometime bow three times during the recitation of the Gloria in addition to the mention of the Holy Name: at the phrases ‘we worship thee’, ‘receive our prayer’, and during the concluding doxology, as well as the the doxology in the Nicean Creed. Those who are used to serving, but are worshiping in the nave with the congregation will often instinctively do so as well, and there is no reason to preclude anyone else from doing so as well, unless it should appear odd or out of place.
Something should be said of the degrees of bowing. These can range from a slight inclination of the head, or of the shoulder, or a more formal bow from the waist, (the later termed a profound inclination). It is perhaps best to gage what is appropriate from observing one’s neighbours. At one time, especially in Scotland, but also where Scottish influence was pronounced, women would curtsey in reverence, instead of bowing, in church as they would at court, for example at the words “O come let us worship and fall down” in the Venite at Matins. [Eeles, p. 115-116].
Facing East (Orientation)
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings… [Malachi iv: 2]
And his feet shall stand that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east. [Zachariah xiv: 4]
For as the lightening cometh out of the East; and shineth even unto the West; so shall the coming of the Son of Man be… [Matthew xxiv: 27]
Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death… [Luke i: 78-7]
They told of the abbot Arsenius that on Saturday evening with the Sabbath drawing on, he would leave the sun behind him and stretching out his hand toward the heaven, would pray until with the morning of the Sabbath the rising of the sun shone upon his face…. [Waddell, p. 116]
And now we must add a few remarks on the direction in which we should face while praying. There are four cardinal points – North, South, East, and West. It should be immediately clear that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking towards where the true light rises. But a man may prefer to offer his petitions while facing in the direction in which his house faces, whichever way the doors of the house open. He argues that where the house does not happen to have an opening to the East, the view to the sky is something far more inviting to prayer than to see blank walls. We reply that the direction in which a man’s house faces is a matter of convention, while it is by nature that the East takes precedence over the other cardinal points, and that one should choose nature over convention. Moreover, following this argument, why should a man who wishes to pray in the open face the East rather than the West? And if that is the case it is in accord with reason to prefer the East, should we not do so everywhere? [Origen, On Prayer, xxxii]
The apostles therefore appointed that you should pray towards the East… By this may we know and understand that he will appear suddenly from the East. [Didascalia Addai; quoted in Lang, p. 48]
It is said of Polycarp, the martyred Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John, that he prayed standing and facing to the East. The protagonist of the Acts of Hipparcus speaks of praying seven times each day facing the eastern wall of his house on which was painted a cross. This was also the custom of the North African church: Tertullian, however took pains to explains that Christian do not worship the sun, and Augustine, in his discourse on the Sermon on the Mount, states “When we stand to pray we turn to the East.” Orientation is also documented during private prayer in The Apostolic Constitutions, and in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. This practice, as well as the ancient Christian tradition of orientation of churches, sets us apart from Jews and Muslims. In facing the East and the rising sun, rather than towards Jerusalem or Mecca, we turn not to a specific place identified with specific revelation to a specific people, instead we are, as Origen explains, drawn with all creation to the daily renewal of light and warmth, one of providence’s greatest blessings, without which life would be impossible. Although the practice was criticized at sun worship, for example by Islamic controversialists, this could easily be refuted by comparison with the custom of pagans or even the Manicheans who turned towards the sun where ever it was in the sky. The Christian practice was in contrast clearly a symbolic acknowledgement of the ultimate and uncreated light. During the eighth century John of Damascus, writing On the Orthodox Faith in what was already a largely Islamic context, argued:
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. By seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing with both our spirit and with our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and the Spirit… since therefore God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures ‘Sun of Righteousness’ and ‘Dayspring’, the East is the direction that must be assigned to his worship. For everything good must be assigned to him from whom every good thing arises…. So, then, in expectation of his coming we worship towards the East. But the tradition of the apostles is unwritten, for much that has been handed down to by tradition is unwritten. [Expositio fidei lxxxv]
John’s contemporary, the Syrian Catholicos Timothy I, stressed this tradition, which he argued was Christ’s own institution, in his apology argued before the Caliph Mahdi:
He has taught us all the economy of Christian religion: baptism, laws, ordinances, prayers, worship in the direction of the East, and the sacrifices that we offer. All these things He practiced in his person and taught us to practice ourselves. [quoted in Lang, p. 53]
is person and taught us to practise ourselves. [quoted in Lang, p. 53]
Thomas Aquinas reiterated this cosmological Christology:
To adore facing East is fitting, because the movement of the heavens which manifest the divine majesty is from the East. Secondly, paradise was situated in the East according to the Septuagint version of Genesis, and we seek to return to paradise. Thirdly, because of Christ, who is the light of the world and who is called Orient, who mounteth above the heaven of Heaven to the East, and is expected to come from the East according to Matthew, as lightning comes out of the East, and shines even to the West, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. [S. Th. II-II, q. 84]
In subsequent centuries the practice was clearly understood as rooted in Scripture and tradition and survived the Reformation in the Church of England. According to Dearmer:
The ancient custom of turning to the East, or rather to the altar, for the Gloria Patri and the Gloria in Excelsis survived through the slovenly times, and is now common amongst us. (The choir also turned to the altar for the intonation of the Te Deum, and again for its last verse.) We get a glimpse of the custom after the last revision [i.e. 1662] from a letter which Archdeacon Heweston wrote in 1686 to the great Bishop Wilson (then at his ordination as deacon), telling him to ‘turn towards the East whenever the Gloria Patri and the Creeds are rehearsing’: of this and other customs he says, ‘which thousands of good people of our Church practice at this day.’ The practice here mentioned of turning to the East for the Creeds was introduced by the Caroline divines, and has established itself firmly amongst us, though it is not embodied in a rubric at the last revision as were some of the other ceremonial additions of the Laudian school. It thus rests upon a common English custom three centuries old, and it is in every way an excellent practice. But it may well be doubted whether there is any reason for turning to the East to sing that ’Confession of our Christian Faith’ which is ‘commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius’… the proper use is to turn to the altar only for the Gloria Patri at its conclusion. [p. 198-199]
It should be made clear that showing reverence to the altar or holy table, (historically Anglicans have used these terms interchangeably with varying emphasis over the centuries), when passing it, or in coming or going from the church etc. are indications of reverence for what occurs upon it, and not to be confused with turning to the East for the Creed, or when expressly addressing the Blessed Trinity in praise. This is admittedly slightly confusing, especially in churches which do not have an actual Eastward orientation. In such cases the direction of the church is presumed to be symbolically Eastward, and facing the direction of the principal altar is taken as East-facing, but Anglicans do not, as is sometimes supposed, face the altar for the Creed etc., rather it is the altar is aligned with our actual or symbolic orientation.
The Hierurgia Anglicana records that the ancient practice of Eastward recitations were still retained at Manchester Cathedral in 1870, and Procter and Frere record that the custom at Salisbury, for recitation of the Nicene Creed only, “was for the choir to face the altar at the opening words, till they took up the signing, to turn to the altar again for the bowing at the Incarnatus, and again at the last clause to face the altar until the Offertory.” [p. 391] J. Wickham Legg observed :
It will be noticed how persistent has been the custom in the Church of England of turning to the East at the Apostles’ Creed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century certain persons, hangers onto the High Church school, though unworthy of that honored name, discovered that the custom was only English, and they discontinued it in their persons.”
However Legg points out that it was recorded in seventeenth century France and it would seem to have been rather more widely observed than the Anglo-papalists he decries could have known. This would seem to be another instance of the liturgical conservatism of the British Church preserving a distinctive and once more universal expression of popular devotion otherwise abandoned.
Another instance of orientation was the now much rarer custom of turning to the East for the Doxology at the conclusion of the recitation of each Psalm, particularly by those in choir. This was the custom at Probus in Cornwall in the early years of the nineteenth century, as it was in rural North Devon long before the influence of Puseyism: “all the singing time they used to face West, staring at the gallery, with its faded green curtains; and then; when the Gloria came, they all turned ‘right about’ and faced Eastward.” [Legg, p. 180]
This custom was not without its detractors. A mid-eighteenth century satirical tract by Thomas Percival mocked the ritual usage of the Collegiate Church of Manchester, no doubt described with exaggeration for comic effect.
What is in that man’s head? Or is there any Thing in it? When he is so dull that he can’t see Religion in the very bowing, and much more when bowing to the East. For my part I must own I was greatly edified at seeing the two Chaplains face the West, step once, face to the North, step again, face to the East, bow, face the South; step once, face to the East; step once, and then face to their Reading desk, at each Gloria Patri, with as regular a Motion, as just a Deportment, and as grave an Aspect, as the oldest Veteran in the Army. Nay so exact were their Discipline, that I could not distinguish any Difference of Time in their Motions; only I must for the sake of Truth, say, that the lesser has the most religious Bow, and the most pious Rowl of his Eyes I ever saw, besides the mysterious Cross he makes with his Hands before his eyes. [Legg, p. 179-180]
Some evangelical Anglicans argue strongly against the Eastward position, yet as we have noted its use is documented in the earliest records of the Church. They especially oppose it for the celebrant during the Holy Communion because it seems to them to imply an unacceptable theology of priestly sacrifice. In doing so they neglect to notice the arbitrariness of the North position; the South side, for example, would offer an equally unimpeded view of the celebrant’s actions. The early Reformers, who were the advocates of the North position, had in mind the instructions given in Leviticus, that the priest shall sacrifice animal offerings ‘on the side of the altar northward’ [i: 11] and as such its use implies the exact opposite of what contemporary Evangelicals presume is intended.
To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. [Isaiah xl: 23]
Wherefore God hath highly exalted him and given him a name that is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father . [Philippians 2: 9-11]
On the Saturday [of Holy Week] the Bishop shall assemble those who are to be baptized in one place, and shall bid them to pray and bow the knee… [Hippolytus of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition, xx: 7]
It is an ancient tradition to fall to one’s knees when the events directly relating to our salvation, especially the birth and death of Christ, are read from the Gospels in public worship. Similarly, some Anglicans will kneel at the Incarnatus phrase of the Nicene Creed. This custom has never been the practice in the East, and its introduction in the West is only of medieval date. Eeles notes that in the Scottish Episcopal use “the Creed seems to have been looked upon as essentially an act of praise, and it was thought unsuitable to make any gesture of reverence at the mention of the Incarnation.” [Eeles, p. 56]
Where the Angelus is said, it is the custom to genuflect during the third responsorial which quotes the Gospel of Saint John: ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us’, except on Sundays when it is the ancient tradition to bow from the waist. In the Cathedral at Durham it was at one time the custom for the Dean and Canons to kneel down in their stalls when the words ‘O come let us worship and fall down’ were sung in the Venite at Matins, while at Saint John’s Edinburgh in the 1840’ the entire congregation knelt at these words. [Eeles, p. 115].
A distinction must be made between the more ancient practice of momentarily kneeling on both knees and the more recent understanding of genuflection as kneeing on just one knee at times when the more ancient custom would have been to bow. Examples of the former would be in Holy Week during the reading of the Passions, or when venerating the Cross, or in response to the deacon’s call “Let us bend the knee” following each of the Solemn Collects of Good Friday. Another instance of this older form of “double genuflection” would be when the Blessed Sacrament is carried to the infirm in the Church to be received in their pews, or on similar occasions. Genuflection on one knee is however a relatively recent innovation, among both Roman Catholics as well as Anglicans.
In the third quarter of the nineteenth century some of our clergy introduced a new practice, that of ‘genuflecting’, that is dropping on one knee. It is to their honour that they did this from the pure motive of increasing reverence during the solemn act. It was not known at the time that the practice was but an innovation of the Counter-Reformation…. Some misunderstanding was inevitable: indeed it is only recently that the subject has been cleared up, largely through the efforts of Roman Catholic scholars…. Some of the men we most admire have adopted the practice. We can but respect their motives, and it is not for us to criticize them…. [Dearmer 1931, p. 49 ff]
While this sense of genuflection might not have the sanction of very great antiquity, it has been an expression of devotion for many Anglicans for more than 125 years. Its survival is an indication that it fulfills an strongly felt desire on the part of certain Anglicans to honour the Blessed Sacrament. It must now be considered a custom of sufficient duration to have acquired the status of authentic tradition.
There came wise men from the East… And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. [Matthew ii: 1 & 11]
In his fifth book Hegesippus writes: ‘Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone called the Righteous, for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God …’ [quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church, ii: 23]
As for bending one’s knees, this is required when a man is to confess his sins before God and beseech Him for the healing of His forgiveness. One ought to know that this is the attitude proper to one who humbles and submits himself, as Paul says: For this cause I bow my knees to the Father, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named. [Eph. iii: 14ff] [Origen, On Prayer, xxxi: 3]
Tertullian says that Christians do not kneel on Sundays or during the Paschal season. [De or. 23] This custom was observed in the West during the first Christian millennium, and it is still observed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches today. By the middle ages, kneeling began to become more widespread among the Churches of the Latin rites. The Synod of Tours, held in 813, in Jungman’s words, “represents this attitude as the fundamental characteristic posture of the faithful”. [p. 240]
Against the opposition of the more extreme continental Reformers, the 1559 Book of Common Prayer maintained the tradition of kneeling for prayers of confession and to receive the Holy Communion. The later is attributed to the insistence of Queen Elizabeth I. The rubric for the General Confession at Morning Prayer prescribes that it is ‘”to be said of the whole congregation after the minister kneeling.” [Folger, p. 50] Both the text of the Prayer of Humble Access and the accompanying rubric insist that one is to “make your humble confession to Almighty God before this congregation here gathered together in his name, meekly kneeling upon your knees.” [p. 259] As well the bread and wine at Holy Communion shall be given “to the people in their hands kneeling.” [p. 264] These Elizabethan rubrics have remained in use in the broad family of Books of Common Prayer without exception until recently. Bishop Sparrow in his 1684 Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer says of kneeling to receive the Holy Communion: “It is to be given to the people kneeling; for a sin it is not to adore when we receive this Sacrament. And the old custom was to receive it after the manner of adoration.” [p. 218]
There is also a tradition of Anglicans to kneel for blessings as César de Saussure, the author of A Foreign view of England in the Reigns of George I and George II, observed:
Well brought up children, on rising and going to bed, wish their fathers and mothers ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good evening,’ and kneeling before them ask them for their blessing. The parents, placing their hands on their children’s heads, say, ‘God bless you,’ or some such phrase, and the children then kiss their hands. If they are orphans the same ceremony is performed with their grandparents or nearest relations. [Legg, p. 168]
Legg also records Thomas Herne speaking of a daughter asking for her father’s blessing “as soon as she saw him, and again when taking leave,” and of Lady Wortley Montagu falling on her knees and asking a blessing of her father, the Duke of Kingston; and that Samuel Richardson records this practice “as a matter of course.” [p. 169], On the Isle of Man it was customary to request a benediction form any relative or prelate kneeling on one knee. The choirboys of Exeter would gather in the nave to similarly kneel for their bishop’s blessing after services. [p. 170-171] This would also seem to have been the custom when asking a blessing from a priest, or especially from a bishop, encountered in any circumstances. [Legg, p. 170] Evelyn records the slow progress of the eight bishops who would latter become the Non-Jurors on their way to the Tower in 1688, when they were arrested for resisting James II’s Edict of Toleration; and describes how hey were delayed by the kneeling crowd begging for their blessings. A Scottish priest, Dr. Pratt, the incumbent of Cruden, wrote the following in his Short Instructions for Young Communicants, published in Aberdeen in 1863:
They shall kneel at all Prayers, Collects and Supplications to God. Even at Supplications which may be sung; at all Offerings solemnly made or dedicated to God; at all formal Confessions to God – Absolution, and the sacred Elements…. They should kneel when presenting their offerings, and when the priest humbly presents them before the Lord. [Eeles, p. 81]
The Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face …[Genesis xvii: 3]
While in some Christian liturgical traditions prostration is normative for both clergy and the faithful, in the West it has never been a practice of the laity in formal worship, and even for the clergy its use is very circumscribed. It has rubrical authority in the older Roman rite only at Ordinations and on Good Friday. On this most solemn day it is the ancient tradition for all three sacred ministers to begin the service with silent prostration lying on the floor of the choir. Although neither of these instances have rubrical authority in the Book of Common Prayer, in some Anglican churches and cathedrals prostration is observed on these same occasions.
If we examine the instances where prostration, or something of the sort, is mentioned in Scripture, the Western usage becomes clear. First let us consider prostration at ordinations. After the Israelites had followed Moses out of Egypt, on the morning after God had commanded him to make the second stone tablets, Moses returned to the heights of Mount Sinai. The Book of Exodus describes how God descended in a cloud, and revealed to Moses his sacred name. He then passed before Moses, who responded by bowing his head towards the earth. [xxiv: 8] Of all the recorded encounters of Moses with God, this unusual gesture is specifically mentioned only this once. Although Ezekiel falls on his face before the manifestation of the glory of the Lord [Ezekiel, i: 28], it is not recorded of Jacob at Bethel, nor of Samuel when he is called at Shiloh. When prostration is described in Scripture it is limited to occasions that have in common life-changing circumstances, covenantal moments of rededication or transformation, like ordination, not instances of regular prayer or worship. On Good Friday, after the reading of John’s Passion the ministers will plead for all states of humanity in the Solemn Intercessions. This is a Christian equivalent of the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the Jewish year, and the actions of the ministers refer to the high priest’s intercessions. It is for this reason that preparation is made by solemn prostration.
The related practice of kneeling and kissing the ground is also foreign to Western Christian worship. There seems to be no evidence of the laity making prostrations of this sort during worship, however there were very limited occasions when the clergy or choir monks would do this. For example, according to the Sarum rite, the priest would do this before censing the altar at Evensong. On Palm Sunday the choir at Salisbury kissed the ground as they sang during the unveiling of the Rood Cross. [Dearmer, p. 206] During the recovery of ritual tradition by Anglicans in the nineteenth century, a decisive conference on Ritual Conformity was held at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, in London in 1880-1881. The question of prostration at Communion, understood to be a common practice in the Eastern Churches, seems to have been at issue but it was resolved that it was incompatible with the ethos of our tradition. In the official proceedings of the Conference the following is noted: “The 7th Canon of 1604 says ‘all communicants with all humble reverence shall draw near and approach the Holy Table, there to receive the Divine Mysteries’. The rubric says that the people are to receive ‘all meekly kneeling’, a phrase which excludes prostration….” [Quoted in Dearmer, p. 272- 273] This was no doubt an expression of the moderating tendency implicit in the post-Tracterian understanding of Reservation.
The Sign of the Cross
And the Lord said unto him, Go thorough the midst of the city, and set a mark upon the foreheads of men that sigh and cry for the abominations that are done in the midst thereof . [Ezekiel ix: 4]
And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.’ [Mark viii: 34]
The cross placed on the foreheads of new Christians at Baptism from earliest times is the sign of our rebirth into the righteousness achieved through Christ’s redemption of us on the Cross. Benedict XVI has linked the mark that Ezekiel was instructed to set upon the foreheads of the righteous with the seals on the foreheads of the tribes of Israel in the Book of Revelations. Both understood as types of the baptismal seal. [vii: 1-8] [The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 179-180]
Writing around 200 A.D. Tertullian, in his De Corona Militis, explains “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we trace upon our forehead the sign of the cross.” [De Corona Militis, iii] His contemporary Irenæus in Against the Heretics, links Paul’s description of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love to the cosmic significance of our redemption through the cross. [Ephesians iii: 18]
He is Himself the Word of Almighty God, who in his invisible form pervades us all and encompasses the breadth and length, the height and depth of the whole world, for by God’s word all things are guided and ordered. Now God’s Son was also crucified in them [the four directions], since He has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe. In becoming visible, He has revealed the participation of the universe in His Cross. He wanted to display, in visible form, His activity in the visible realm, namely, that it is He who makes bright the heights, this is, what is in heaven, and reaches down into the depths, to what is under the earth, and spreads out the length from East to West, and like a pilot, guides the breadth from North to South, and calls together all the dispersed, from all the corners of the earth, to the knowledge of the Father. [The Scandal of the Incarnation, pp. 15-16.]
The Roman martyr Hippolytus, thought to have been born circa 160 AD, left an unusually early collection of descriptions of various liturgies and services of his time in his Apostolic Tradition. Hippolytus reminds us of the relationship between the Sign of the Cross, Baptismal regeneration, and exorcism.
And when tempted always reverently seal thy forehead with the sign of the Cross. For this sign of the passion is displayed and made manifest against the devil if thou makest it in faith, not in order that thou be seen of men, but by thy knowledge putting it forward as a shield. For when the adversary sees the strength of the heart, that the inner man is a rational being sealed inwardly and outwardly with the seal of the Word, he trembles and flees away in haste pursued by the Holy Spirit who indwells him who makes place for him within himself. [Hippolytus of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition, xxxvii: 1-2]
Durandus, writing in the thirteenth century, records that it was the custom to cross oneself at the end of the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, at the benediction by the priest at the conclusion of the Eucharist, and at the words “thy grace and heavenly benediction” at the conclusion of the Eucharistic canon, as well as at the beginning of the Offices, as well as numerous other times. The tradition is to join the thumb and two adjoining fingers, as a sign of the unity of the Trinity, and to make a cross with these by touching the forehead, lower chest, and in the west, the left followed by the right shoulders. The eastern Orthodox touches the shoulders in the opposite order. A late medieval text, The Mirroure of Our Lady, offers this explanation of the western use:
And in this blessing ye begin with your hand at the head downward and, then to the left side, and after that the right side, in token and belief that our Lord Jesus Christ came down from the head, that is, the Father, into earth by his holy Incarnation, and from the earth into the left side, that is, Hell, by his bitter Passion, and from thence unto his Father’s right side by his glorious Ascension. And after this ye bring your right hand to your breast, in token that ye are to come to thank him and praise him in the enderest of your heart for these benefits.
The ancient custom of communicants signing themselves with the cross at the moment of receiving Holy Communion, (sometimes both before, between, and after the reception two element,) survived the Reformation and Commonwealth eras in Britain. It was, for example, common in North Wales in the seventeenth century. [Legg p. 63] Many Anglicans also make the sign of the Cross at the elevation, at the end of the Creed and Gloria, at the Benedictus during the Sanctus, and at the beginning of the Gospel Canticles during the Offices. As well, signing ourselves with holy water, sometimes provided at the entrance to a place of worship, is an act of reacceptance of our own transformation in the waters of rebirth. The Scottish Canons and Prayer Book of 1911 order it at the laying on of hands at Confirmation.
The manor of signing with the cross at the Gospel is by ancient custom somewhat different than the usual form: only the thumb is used, and the forehead, lips, and breast are marked with small crosses, signifying that our thoughts, words, and affections may accord with the teaching of the Gospel. The lips are customarily signed in this same manner at the response “O Lord, Open thou our Lips” in the Daily Offices.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting . [Acts ii: 1-2]
There was no provision made for pews or even chairs for the laity in churches in the West until the late Middle Ages. But once these were introduced it became customary to sit for readings from scripture, (other than the Gospel lections during the Holy Communion which are heard standing), as well as during for instruction such as the sermon. German fifteenth century preachers invited the people to sit during certain parts of the Mass, for example the 1473 Rule for Laymen permitted sitting during the Epistle and the Offertory. Again Dr. Pratt is useful: “They may sit at the time of hearing and receiving instruction, wether from the Inspired Word, or Sermons and Lectures by the Minister.” [Eeles 1910, p. 82] One of the few specific rubrics for the laity in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer (1959/1962) states: “Then shall the people being seated, the Priest or other person appointed shall read the Epistle….” Here the Canadian Prayer Book follows rubrics originating in The Book of Common Prayer of 1662. It was also customary to sit during times when the sacred ministers are not active, or during the choral singing of long mass settings, or during the preparation of the Eucharistic offerings and the ablutions of the communion vessels. Of course, children, the aged, and the infirm may sit at any time they cannot join with the rest of the congregation in whatever they are doing.
There are two traditions, both of which are perfectly correct, concerning the reading of Psalms during the Morning and Evening offices. In the monastic tradition it is customary to sit during the Psalms after the cantor, precentor, or reader has intoned or read the first half verse, this remains the practice in many Anglican churches, another instance of the survival of monastic observances in English cathedrals and colleges. The other tradition is to stand during the Psalms, especially when they are chanted.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast saying, God be merciful unto me a sinner . [Luke xix: 13]
Stand with hands ‘not raised on high, but raised moderately and fitly, without presumptuous raising of the face either.’ [Tertullian, De Oratione, xvii & xiv]
In Hebrew the verb to stand also meant to pray. Standing seems to have been the most ancient position of Christian prayer. Jesus says “Whensoever ye stand praying, forgive.” The earliest depictions of Christian worship illustrate women standing with up-raised hands, the famous orans figures depicted in the Roman catacombs, thought to represent the Christian soul at prayer. Sadly, this posture has over time become limited in Western worship to the Eucharistic celebrant or the presider at other services. It has been suggested that kneeling was introduced to give rest or relief from standing. Dearmer observes:
Gradually, however, the practice of kneeling grew up, partly because the penitential aspect of prayer increased and that of worship lessened; partly also, and increasingly because to kneel is far less tiring…In the Eastern Churches, indeed, standing is still the universal custom both for clergy and people; and everywhere it is still the normal position of the priest, deacon, and other ministers…. Standing then is the Christian attitude for adoration…. [Dearmer, 1931, p. 48]
The Western tradition seems to have been more ‘week-kneed’ than our Eastern brethren. Pews, protracted periods of organized kneeling, even padded kneelers and misericords, (like chairs and pews), are all Western innovations. There is in some places a tradition of standing for the Sanctus and the Consecration, especially in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Eeles sees in this an expression of “the fact that the Eucharist is the offering not of the priest alone or even the sacred ministers, but of the whole family of God. This aspect of Eucharistic worship, which we find throughout the whole Church in ancient times, and in the East at the present day, became largely obscured in Western Christendom as Latin grew increasingly obsolete and unintelligible, and the people became less and less able to follow the service.” He cites as an example of this the practice of kneeling through the Epistle or even the Gospel. Presumably such correction of Western custom in the Scottish Church, especially standing during the Consecration, came about through the influence of the Non-Jurors’ study of Eastern Liturgy. [Eeles, 1910, p. 80-81] Dr. Pratt instructed his mid-Victorian Scottish readers:
They should stand at Exhortations and Addresses by the Minister as the Messenger of Christ to His people; at the Direct Profession of the faith, at every Hymn, Psalm, or Anthem of Praise, generally ordered by the Rubric to be sung or said; and at the reading of the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments when they occur in the Lessons for the Day; and at the reading of the Gospel for the Day. [Eeles, 1910, p. 81]
To this list should be added that in certain Scottish congregations it was also customary to stand when the angelic salutation ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace, goodwill towards men” as well as when the Messianic names from Isaiah “Wonderful, Counselor…’ etc. were read during the Christmas offices, and during the doxologies contained in the Epistles read on Trinity Sunday, and All Saint’s Day. [Eeles, p. 117]
When visiting churches we have an obligation of courtesy to our hosts. When moving to a new parish we should be wary of marginalizing ourselves by appearing eccentric or disruptive. The best advice, in this regard, might well be to do as one’s neighbors do. In time the reasons for these local variations in custom will likely become apparent and make sense. Perhaps there is a lingering memory of an insensitive incumbent who tried to force something on the congregation without reasonable instruction or that was contrary to their inclinations. An overbearing bishop might have tried to enforce conformity to his personal liturgical tastes. Perhaps a congregation has come to define its worship in distinction from a neighboring congregation or another church tendency through some painful process. Without realizing these histories one’s actions could unwittingly stir up disturbing memories, and even be interpreted as aggressive behavior. It should be only after very serious consideration of one’s motives, and of the impact one’s actions will have on those with whom we are worshiping, that we should act differently from those around us. Ostentatious displays of personal piety when visiting a Low Church congregation are, for example, unlikely to increase their sacramental sensibilities. When visiting a High Church parish where genuflection is the custom, a low church visitor might feel that accommodation would be a betrayal of one’s principles, but failing to at least bow as a compromise when coming or going from one’s place is likely to be seen as extreme rudeness, equivalent to refusing to shake someone’s hand. Such behavior is likely to stick in the minds of one’s hosts in ways that could prevent future familiarity or even open-minded communication. What was once termed ‘churchmanship’ remains at the heart of how we define ourselves in relationship to God, and as such it something about which we are all likely to have very strong feelings. We must remember that others are likely to have equally strongly held convictions, and to let charity always be our guide in these matters.
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