I have a childhood memory of Grandad kneeling in his striped flannel pyjamas at his bedside saying his prayers. Those were the days when the reflexive response of a congregation to the liturgical command “Let us pray” was to instantly fall to its knees.
Like the American tourist in London overawed by the Tower and the Beefeaters, we didn’t think about it. When the tourist heard one uniformed Tower guard call to another, “Neil! Neil!”, he responded instantly as in church and fell to his knees.
In his diminished height in the kneeling position, in every folded part of his body, Grandad was demonstrating his belief that he was in the presence of One far greater than himself. To bend before such a One is the only way to dare to enter into conversation with the Eternal One.
The Usher sings in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, “Silence in Court, and all attention lend. Behold your Judge! In due submission bend!”
More telling for us Christians is the Biblical example. The Hebrew word “shachah” means “to bow down” and implies kneeling and touching the ground with the forehead. Abraham, Moses and many others “bow down” at least 172 times. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “I bow down” is “proskuneo”. It means literally, “I kiss, like a dog licking its master’s hand”, and occurs 60 times in the New Testament. The people of God expect to bow down, to show loving submission to their God.
We, as a church, have made considered decisions over the past 30 years to abolish kneeling. We have decided to stand as the redeemed people of Christ to hear the Words of Institution during the Eucharist. In many churches, altar rails have been removed to open the space and to encourage people to receive communion standing. These decisions are now inscribed as rubrics in our modern Prayer Books.
What we do in church and in ritual prayers at home is drill or repetitive training. And in those days when we knelt, we were training our bodies, minds and souls to enter the presence of God with adoration, awe and humility.
By standing where we used to kneel, we now train ourselves to stand upright, taking on the posture of people who are not bound and folded up in sin but forgiven and free. I think these changes are a nett gain to us.
What we do in church changes and evolves to meet the needs of today’s Christians. But we have lost much. We must be a people who can bend in the presence of the Almighty. However earnestly I may plead, I doubt habitual kneeling will be restored to general liturgical practice. In any case, I can no longer physically kneel, and as the church ages, there will be many like me.
But I suggest four changes to church we can make:
- To be aware of kneeling as a proper liturgical posture, and to ask ourselves when kneeling is appropriate.
- To kneel before and after Communion and before and after the service to mark those times of prayer.
- To choose to kneel on occasion to receive Holy Communion to express humility.
- For leaders to never say, “Sit for the prayers”, but allow people to kneel by instructing, “Kneel or sit for the prayers as you are comfortable”.
And at home review our posture for our own individual praying. Should we always be relaxed and comfortable in an armchair? Are there times when kneeling is the best posture, like my Grandad at the bedside before we commend ourselves to God’s keeping while we sleep?