Arthur Middleton on the importance of posture in prayer and worship

Kneeling is the posture which the Church prescribes in prayer and acts of confession. The practice of kneeling in confession, in prayer, and in adoration, is of great antiquity; Psalm 95.6 says ‘Let us worship and bow down and kneel before the Lord our Maker.’ ‘ Solomon knelt before the altar of the Lord with his hands spread up to heaven [I Kings 8.54]. Likewise Ezra fell upon his knees and spread out his hands unto God and made his confession [9.5–15]. ‘Daniel knelt in prayer three times a day’ [6.10]. The martyr Stephen knelt down, praying for his murderers [Acts 7.60]. St Peter knelt and also St Paul when they prayed.

‘Bending the knees’

This posture was customary as the man asking Christ to heal his son [Matt. 17.14], the rich young man [Mark 10.17] and the leper [Mark 1.40] illustrate. Jesus himself, though without sin, yet knelt down when he prayed [Luke 22.41]. Some of the early Christians so frequently used this posture of humility as visibly to wear away the floor on which they knelt.

Eusebius says that St James the Just had, by the continual practice of his devotions, contracted a hardness on his knees, like that on the knees of camels. The practice was so common that prayer was termed ‘bending the knees’. Primitive Christians, out of a peculiar regard for the Lord’s Day, and the joyful season between Easter and Whitsuntide (with the exception of the penitents who were denied this privilege), performed their whole devotions standing, instead of kneeling. This practice was confirmed by the Council of Nicaea for the sake of uniformity. It was regarded as perverse and negligent to pray kneeling on the Lord’s Day, when the Church required standing, or to pray standing when the rules and custom of the Church required people to pray kneeling.

Maintaining order

The Canons of Nicaea and the Council of Trullo took a severe line with those who were bent upon kneeling on the Lord’s Day when they should be standing. Equally they were severe with those who refused to kneel at other times when the Church appointed it. Caesarius of Arles said that it was an indecent and irregular thing that when the deacon announces ‘Let us bend the knee’, the people should stand like erect pillars in the Church. To act so perversely scandalizes and disorders the Church, whose great rule in all such cases is that of the Apostle: ‘Let everything be done decently and in order.’

In the liturgical ordering of public worship in the primitive Church there is nothing casual; every particular, every gesture is instructive. In the presence of God a person fell upon his face to the ground; and by that act humbly confessed his status as a sinner. So bowing to the ground is the formal word for worshipping and it was high treason to practice this before any idol. When from that posture the worshipper raises himself up to praise and to bless God, he raises himself no further than the knee so as to retain the posture of humility. As bowing to the ground is to signify worshipping, kneeling is used to signify blessing.

Every gesture is significant

Posture of the body is important in our worship. It cannot be reduced to the gestures of the disco or pop concert. Worship has its own significant gestures and should not be replaced with the gestures of the entertainment world, if Scripture or reason, or the practice of holy people may be our judges. For if we ought to glorify God in our bodies, as well as in our spirits; if we are forbidden to bow down before a graven image, lest we should thereby be thought by God to impart his honour to it; in fine, if Jesus re fused to fall down, and worship the devil, upon the account of God’s claiming that honour to himself; then it is our duty to make use of such a posture towards God, as may express our inward reverence, and par ticularly in prayer, which is one of the most immediate acts of the glorification of him.

St Augustine says, ‘I know not how it comes to pass, but so it is, that though these motions of the body be not made without a foregoing motion of the mind, yet, again, by the outward and visible performance of them, that more inward and invisible one, which caused them, is increased; and so the affection of the heart, which was the cause of their being done, is itself improved by the doing of them’ [De Cura pro Mortuis].

So the instructions in our liturgies about standing and kneeling (unless absolutely impossible) should be obeyed and not ignored, so that everything is done decently and in order. ND