We are always aware of body language, even if unconsciously. Recently a person criticised me because when a ‘lady of great age’ approached, I stayed sitting! Now tell me posture doesn’t matter!
Last Wednesday, we were chatting after Church. One person said ‘Oh, I am getting old, I can’t stand up all the way through the prayer of thanksgiving. I have to sit down’. ‘Bravo’ I said ‘What happens in Church is a recommended posture, but of course if it is painful, no one is going to think any the less of you if you sit.’ But this interchange did stimulate another person to ask about the meaning in the change of our posture recently, from kneeling to standing. The norm for many people has been to stand for the first part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and then to kneel for the section that introduces the words of consecration. At the request of this member I thought that it would be worthwhile saying something in this reflection about ‘posture’ in church and what it means.
The first thing to say is that ‘it does matter’. We are always aware of body language, even if unconsciously. Recently a person criticised me because when a ‘lady of great age’ approached, I stayed sitting! Now tell me posture doesn’t matter!
The meaning of the posture of standing, sitting or kneeling for humans derives from the fact that our heads are on top of our bodies. To be higher than another person gives us an advantage over them. If we were bottom dwelling fish with our heads on the same level as our tails, it would be an advantage to be ‘lower’ than another person, but not for humans.
So making one’s self low or lower than another is, as we know a sign of obeisance. In Japan, great store is laid upon the depth of a ‘bow’ of greeting. Equals ‘lower themselves’ equally. To a great superior one lowers oneself in proportion to the difference in status. Hardly anyone has not laughed at the Mikado, and the ‘grovelling in typical Japanese fashion’ that goes on in front of the Mikado.
So what are we doing in Church. Who are we in relation to God on a Sunday morning and what posture should we adopt when we present ourselves before God?
Views have changed over time.
At one time, when the arbitrary caprices of kings was the norm, people did a lot of bowing and scraping to God as well, as a type of king. It was also the time of Christendom, when everyone was a Christian, so that when a person went to the Eucharist, it was a more individual action that a corporate one. What is more, the words were mostly in Latin, so the tradition grew up of the people saying their own prayers in English, on their own while the ‘show’ went on in a foreign language ‘out there’. Going to church was a private devotion’.
We have some of that carried over into our practices of worship from the 1662 Prayer Book. People ‘knelt humbly on our knees’ and at the most holy time of the Eucharist, knelt in personal devotion and humility before God. This view had the benefit that it gave us a sense of the awe we should have before God, and to make a change risks losing a sense of reverence and awe. But more of that later.
So things are different now. We have re-thought our stance before God. Who are we now? Now, we take our cues from other parts of the New Testament. The Church is described in the New Testament as ‘..a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation’. All of us together have the right and responsibility of ‘standing in the House of our God’ and offering our thanks and praise. When we ask ‘Who is the ‘priest’ in the Eucharist, the correct answer is ‘all of us together’, the ‘priestly people of God’. So we are not recipients of the action of another, but we are the priestly ‘doers’ of the actions.
There are also other sections of the new Testament that give us a clue as to who we are. They are summed up for me in Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘And can it be’. He talks about how his spirit had been imprisoned, but that now, God has set him free. So he says
‘No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus all in him is mine.
Alive in him my living head
and clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne
and claim the crown
through Christ my own.
No one can do this kneeling down.
The good thing about the Wesley hymn is that it gives theological weight to the change in idea about posture. There are some who think that the battle lines are drawn in this way. There are two sides: Those who respect the majesty of God and kneel, and those who have ‘dumbed down’ the Eucharist and have domesticated God by all this frippery of standing!
So Wesley, in the hymn, is talking about the boldness that comes from the assurance that we will not be condemned, rather than talking about the fear that if we are not careful, at any moment we might still be zapped if we don’t act humbly enough.
Clearly there are some who have domesticated God too much, and there is a sense that we are all ‘fluffy’ before God, and that there is nothing at stake. That is not me! Every Sunday there is something at stake. As I have said, being in Church is like being at a football game: the question at stake is ‘will the reality of God take root in our lives this week or not?’
It is also true that some who want to argue for the grandure of God have also domesticated God, because the words that are said are valued because they are the comfortable old ones. This domesticates God as much as being ‘fluffy’.
The difference in posture, from kneeling at the prayer for thanksgiving to standing throughout is aimed to give expression to the reality of who we are before God: God’s priestly people, boldly approaching the throne of grace.
Once that has been established, then it is also highly desirable to kneel at certain times. Just as a good marriage is characterised by the capacity of the couple to be vulnerable to one another, to be able to admit fault when it is ‘my fault’ without feeling diminished, so too we can freely admit to God how we have missed the mark this week. To kneel here is proper. But it is not grovelling, but the proper vulnerability of a Child of God with God or friend with friend. Then we stand up again, and say ‘now we have peace with god’ let us boldly approach with ‘complete freedom’ God’s ‘most holy place’ (See Hebrews 10:19 – 22. That is why we stand for the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.