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Why do we do that? Liturgy

The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church. The use of the term liturgy has come to mean many things over the years, but in a nutshell, it essentially means two things: that all the people – clergy, liturgical ministers, choir, congregation – are participants in the worship service; and that everything we use, do, and wear in the liturgy has meaning.

Silence in church is – in my experience – a waning practice. It used to be that when we entered a church we entered into a place and time of silence as we, through prayer and contemplation, prepared for worship. Silence allows us to still the mind and our racing thoughts. It calms our hearts so we may allow room there for God to meet us. All too often silence before worship has been replaced by social time and small talk. Silence in our worship – between scripture readings, after the sermon, at the invitation to confession – is meant to allow time for reflection and contemplation. Yet these silences are discomforting to many people, so the clergy tend to minimize silence, or eliminate it altogether. I think this discomfort reflects our societal need for noise at all times to distract us from the inner thoughts of our hearts and minds. Yet silence is a vehicle to God. Its practice as a Christian discipline needs to be encouraged and nurtured.

Historically, we Episcopalians have engaged in a lot of personal physical movement in ourworship. We stand, sit, kneel, and are all over the nave during the passing of the Peace.

In a now famous HBO special, the late Robin Williams listed the ten top reasons to be an Episcopalian. Number 6 was “pew aerobics.” This tongue-in-cheek joke meant that instead of going to a gym on Sunday morning, you could go to an Episcopal church where you could worship and get a workout simultaneously!

So why do we move so much? Well, to begin with, sitting is a comfortable position, especially for longer periods of time. It is a practical position.

Kneeling (along with being prostrate; generally, only done by some priests and bishops at their ordination,
and clergy during the Good Friday liturgy) is a penitential body position. Just like someone being knighted
by the Queen of England, kneeling shows reverence and deference to a higher power. In the case of Christian
worship, this is God, not the Queen.

In our Celebration of New Ministry service, at the induction, the priest is given the option of kneeling in the midst of the congregation they are called to serve. The priest then says a prayer asking God’s guidance in leading the congregation, a portion of which reads, “Make me an instrument of your salvation for the people entrusted to my care, and grant that I may faithfully administer your holy sacraments, and by my life and teaching set forth your true and living Word.” This position of humility and reverence is both before God, who rules over all, and the congregation. It reminds the priest that they, like Christ, are called to be a humble servant of all.

We tend to kneel during the Confession and Absolution, the Eucharistic prayer (after the Sanctus), and for the post-Communion prayer. Many people also kneel when they return to their pew after reception of the sacrament. These are all moments of humility and reverence in our worship; many people feel that kneeling is an appropriate form of physical piety at such moments.

We stand to show honor and respect. Back in the day, when new people entered a room, the people in that room stood to be introduced, say hello, shake hands, or kiss. Doing so shows respect and honors the new person joining the group. So, when we stand in the liturgy, we do so to show respect to God. The most noticeable moment we do this is for the proclamation of the gospel. Traditionally the gospeler stands in the midst of the gathered community to proclaim the Good News. We Christians emulate this movement from the synagogue service where the Torah is touched (actually the velvet cover, not the scrolls) by the standing
congregation as it is carried with great joy, singing, and dancing into their midst.

We also stand when the procession enters for a service or when, in the absence of a procession, the celebrant enters the sanctuary to begin worship. Our standing shows respect for the clergy who are Christ’s representative in worship.

Some folks also bow, either just their heads or sometimes a full, from the waist bow, at various points in worship. Common times for this are when a processional cross, the gospel book, and the bishop process. Each of these items or persons are understood to be imbued with holiness, worthy of our reverence. Ergo, the bow.

Other places we may bow are when the names of the Trinity are mentioned in the liturgy. We do this to offer homage and reverence. In Philippians (2:9-11) we are called to such piety. “Therefore, God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Standing seems to be overtaking kneeling in many congregations, something that many people rue. Standers sometimes upset kneelers for a couple of reasons. Kneelers sometimes see standers as being less respectful to God. But they may also be irritated because when they kneel and the person in the pew in front of them stands, their view is of someone’s behind, not the celebrant, or the altar.

I am both a stander and a kneeler during various parts of the liturgy. But when it comes to the Eucharistic prayer, I am reminded that in form B we pray, “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you.” That seems pretty unambiguous to me as we determine our physical position at this juncture of worship.

Many Anglicans make the sign of the cross and many do not. Making the sign has long been a distinguishing mark between low church adherents (who do not) and high church adherents (who do). For some it has been seen as being “too Catholic,” by which they mean the Roman variety. But making the sign of the cross is a meaningful way to do several things: sanctify ourselves, (by which I mean setting ourselves apart and reminding us we belong to Christ); to be a marker of our belief in the Triune God; and to receive God’s blessing from the clergy. Some see making the sign of the cross as a prayer in itself.

Roman Catholics make the sign using the four points of the two bars of the cross; the main beam and the cross bar. The pattern would be head, heart, left shoulder, and right shoulder. Anglicans almost always add a fifth point back at the heart, which can mean many things, but for me reminds me that Christ dwells in my heart and that’s where I always want to end up with him.

The sign of the cross is made whenever we recite or hear the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), at the pronouncement of Absolution after Confession, and either before or after receiving the sacrament of bread and wine. You may see some folks also making tiny signs of the cross on their forehead, mouth, and heart at the announcement of the gospel. And many also make the sign of the cross during the Sanctus et Benedictus when we say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

All these various physical postures and motions have meaning and remind us that worship of God should be a full sensory and body experience. Trying new ways of using our bodies to give praise and thanksgiving to God is a good thing for all of us. So, try it. You may like it. And in the process, you may experience God in new ways.

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