Elements of Worship

The Episcopal Church is blessed to be comprised of worshipful folks who bring with them the customs of their previous church and denominational affiliations. This adds a richness to the texture of our liturgical practice, but may also lead us to wonder at times what exactly it is that we should be doing. “Should I stand or kneel for prayer, or can I sit?” “Is it okay to genuflect when I enter and exit my pew?” “Do I make the three crosses at the announcing of the Gospel reading?” “Should I reverence at the name of Jesus or the Trinity?” “My back is aching and my knees hurt. Can I stand to receive the host?” The short answer is that these are individual acts of piety, which often become part of the collective customs of a worshiping community, and which are often given a theological explanation. As acts of piety, the rule should be to do what makes you feel closer to God. Do what ritual action you hope will bring you closer to God, whether you feel it or not, but in a way that is considerate of those around you. That said, here are some historical data that may be helpful. 

In the early church, no one sat in pews, no one kneeled, and there was no altar rail. Fixed pews did not enter the church until some time before the Reformation. They were in response to the development of lengthy sermons. In the early church, prayer was done in the traditional Jewish manner: standing, eyes open, head raised to heaven, and arms extended. You still see this in the Episcopal tradition when the priest says the Eucharistic prayer. What the modern church has come to recover is the understanding that the whole of the worship gathering is liturgy, where “liturgy” means the work of the people. That means that it is not just the priest who prays, and it is not the role of the priest to do the work of prayer on behalf of the people. Rather, all the gathered are called to participate in prayer. Imagine the early church where all the faithful would stand with their hands raised in a communal act as the priest reads the Eucharistic prayer. Kneeling during worship was actually forbidden by the Council of Nicea in 325AD. That was the council that gave us the first version of Nicean Creed. Being that the Feast of the Lord’s Day celebrates his resurrection and our redemption, it was to be a joyous rather than penitential affair. Later, in England, kneeling to receive the host was banned in the Anglican Church by the Protestants who were in power at that time because they saw it as too Catholic and expressing the wrong Eucharistic theology. 

The modern church certainly has its customs. Sit to listen, kneel to pray, stand to sing, for example. In some churches, they kneel for all prayer during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, but stand during the other seasons. In others, they never kneel or they never stand. The Episcopal custom has been to look to the early church and its practices, but it has also been a church of the “via media” or middle way between piety of Roman Catholicism and that of the reformed Protestant churches. As a via media church, we welcome various acts of personal piety. Mine happens to include standing for prayer because I want to be connected with ancient practice standing during communal worship. Believing penance has its place, I kneel for confession and during penitential seasons. I encourage you to think more about what brings you closer to God and to practice those things. And let us all be gracious toward others who have different expressions of piety. 

In Christ’s service, 

Fr Bill+