Meekly Kneeling Upon Your Knees

IN ADDITION to a number of rubrical references to kneeling, the invitation to Communion in the Book of Common Prayer bids intending communicants to make their humble confession meekly kneeling upon their knees. The Alternative Service Book continues to indicate kneeling at various points where such a posture is particularly appropriate. Yet it is becoming increasingly common for orders of service produced for special occasions to suggest that the congregation kneel or sit for prayers, and similar directions are given verbally by officiating clergy. It is probably true to say that nowadays a majority of Anglican worshippers are more likely to sit than kneel for prayer.

This may seem in itself a trifling matter, but its importance lies in the attitude expressed by a particular posture. Sitting in the presence of others, unless in response to an invitation to sit, implies a claim to an equality with them. Who would presume to remain seated if the Queen were to enter a room? Yet the respect we rightly pay to Her Majesty would surely be less than reverence we owe to Almighty God, the Creator of all that exists, the Source of our own being, on whom we depend utterly for our continued existence, and the Sovereign of the universe. Chrysostom points out to his candidates for baptism that kneeling is an acknowledgement of divine sovereignty. Deliberately to sit or remain seated when intentionally engaging in prayer surely reflects a lack of awareness of the distance between creature and Creator, let alone that between sinner and the One who is both Judge and Saviour.

Of course kneeling cannot be an absolute requirement. Every priest must surely have had the experience of administering sick communion to people who are physically incapable of kneeling, and yet show a profound reverence in their whole attitude and approach to the sacrament. Circumstances sometimes make kneeling impracticable, e.g. when clergy have to say their office when travelling in trains or aeroplanes. In any case, if we follow St. Paul’s in junction to “pray without ceasing”, there will be many occasions when an arrow prayer will be offered without a change of posture. Similarly a brief incidental prayer may be appropriate, such as grace when seated at a meal table, or otherwise in the course of a meeting or conversation.

It is when we deliberately set ourselves to engage in prayer, as for an act of confession or a series of intercessions in the course of public worship, that kneeling is an appropriate posture to express the reverence we ought to feel as an indispensable aspect of genuine prayer. If particular circumstances such as a crowded church make kneeling difficult, standing should normally be possible as an alternative way of expressing reverence. To sit or remain seated, however, without compelling reason, implies all too readily a casual attitude to prayer. Respect and courtesy in our relationships with one another may be less fashionable today than they used to be. Let us at least not fail to show reverence where it is supremely due.

Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham.