On Kneeling in Easter

One of the major changes that the American ’79 BCP wrought was a look Eastward. The mainstream of BCP tradition was that of the Western Church as filtered through the Sarum Rite. Furthermore, the previous great movement towards Big-T Tradition–the various parts of the Anglo-Catholic movement–took the high medieval West as their paradigm. Something that I’ve heard from the time I started frequenting Episcopal Churches is that you don’t kneel during Easter. But what I’ve observed at many traditional churches–and even at a few liberal ones–is that the common culture is to kneel during the prayers of the People and after the Sanctus as usual.

We ran into this on Sunday. The congregation was split from what I could tell…

I’ve been told that the move to not kneel in Easter is an ancient decision of the Church codified in the Ecumenical Councils of which–according to Andrewes’ dictum–we recognize the first four (though most Anglo-Catholics retain the first seven…). I have to admit a certain degree of suspicion here, though. One of the things I’ve noted in the VII revision and its Protestant offspring is a desire to de-emphasize the penitential and to emphasize the joy and rejoicing throughout the Christian year. Insofar as this is a reaction against an overly sober and somber way of being the people of God, I’d agree. But, like many things, I want to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing to far. Get too far on the other side and we capitulate to the cultural message that we’re all just fine the way we are, no repenting, no introspection, no cultivation of virtue needed (and when in doubt, blame somebody else…). So I got curious about this and thought I’d look it up…

Now, what I had in mind was John Cassian’s comments. This is what he says in the Conferences:

But it is now time to follow out the plan of the promised
discourse. So then when Abbot Theonas had come to visit us in our cell during
Eastertide after Evensong was over we sat for a little while on the ground and
began diligently to consider why they were so very careful that no one should
during the whole fifty days either bend his knees in prayer or venture to fast
till the ninth hour, and we made our inquiry the more earnestly because we had
never seen this custom so carefully observed in the monasteries of Syria. (Conf. XXI.11)

What I’ve taken away from this is that not kneeling during Easter was a custom assiduously observed among the desert monastic communities in Egypt–but apparently not in Palestine and maybe other places as well (Rome?).

In essence, this seems to recommend what I’ve received, to wit, not kneeling during Easter was an ancient custom practiced in the time of the Fathers particularly in the East.

So far, so good.

But then there’s the reference to the Ecumenical Councils… Here’s what we find in the canons of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea:

Canon XX

Forasmuch as there are certain
persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost,
therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed
everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that
prayer be made to God standing.

Ancient Epitome of Canon XX.

On Lord’s days and at Pentecost all must pray
standing and not kneeling. (First Ecumenical Council, Canon XX)

[As a note, it must be said that “Pentecost” was used as the name of the season between the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Pentecost (cf Tertullian).]

Hmmm… This does mention not kneeling during the whole 50 days–but also on every Sunday! While I’ve heard the first part of the custom proclaimed, I’ve not heard this–nor would I want to, really. I find kneeling to be a very effective way of kinesthetically experience the liturgy and it does help the proper attitude of supplication. I think the key to remember here is the principle of balance. This canon assumes a culture of near constant liturgical activity with numerous prostrations every single day. For them, then, not kneeling or prostrating themselves was a celebratory shift from a more penitential norm. But that’s so not our case… When I say the Office by myself I sit, not kneel, and in my experiences of the Office in community at Smokey Mary we didn’t kneel either. For us to obey the canon’s letter seems to miss its spirit in terms of kneeling and prostrations.

The canon’s explicit spirit isn’t about kneeling, though. It’s about liturgical uniformity. I find this interesting particularly in light of Cassian’s comments above: he was writing about a hundred years after Nicea… Whatever uniformity the council hoped to establish didn’t take.

So where does that leave us? Well, it means that:

  • there is ancient Eastern precedent for not kneeling in Easter (Egypt)
  • but also ancient Eastern precedent for kneeling (Syria/Palestine).
  • There’s also Western precedent for kneeling in Easter.
  • An appeal made to the Council seems specious on a few grounds.
    • First, it makes a really selective reading that undercuts the authority of the canon.
    • Second, the canon seems to make sense within a very different liturgical environment than we have today.
    • Third, the canon attempts to create–or impose–a liturgical uniformity that did not obtain throughout the Church.

So, if you’re going to try and use this custom in your parish, it’s really not a good idea to appeal to the council. (Here’s where my earlier suspicions come in to play about motive…) Furthermore, competing precedents show no clear voice on the matter from the practice of the early church. There’s no reason why, all other things being equal, East should trump West.

My personal feeling? Actually, I think I’m for not kneeling during Easter…(but for kneeling the rest of the time, naturally). I think our current problem in the church is forgetting that Easter is fifty days long. We are able to remember that Lent is forty days, but have misplaced the fact that Easter is fifty… Things like using the Pascha Nostrum as the invitatory at Morning Prayer and standing at Mass do actually help with this by shifting our routine for the length of the season. But we should teach accordingly–that is, tell people why we’re doing it and how it ties in with a proper and joyful remembrance of the resurrection…which is the point of this whole exercise anyway…

12 thoughts on “On Kneeling in Easter

  1. Caelius Spinator

    Up until a couple of years ago, I worshipped in parishes that didn’t kneel post Sanctus, and thus I developed a fairly active Eucharistic kinesthetics. Kneeling messed it all up.

    Nice post, by the way.

  2. bls

    I’m standing up for the fifty days of Easter; it just feels right to me.

    I get the idea, though, of standing on Sunday, too – but as you say, Sunday is at this point basically every observance compressed into one. So kneeling seems right to me the rest of the year. Anyway, if we kneel in prayer before and after the service – which I do, and so do many in my parish – what’s wrong with kneeling during the service? Here’s my routine: Kneel for everything in Lent; kneel after the Sanctus the rest of the year; stand for everything in Easter. I suppose this might change at some point, too – or at some points.

    What I can’t stand is clergy trying to impose their own personal preferences on everybody; I don’t see the problem with having a half-and-half congregation, either. And it’s fine for the Orthodox to talk about standing for Divine Liturgy; they wander around and do multiple prostrations during the course of two hours, and light candles, and kiss icons. When Episcopalians start doing that, then maybe I’ll stand for the service….


  3. Derek the Ænglican

    What I can’t stand is clergy trying to impose their own personal preferences on everybody; I don’t see the problem with having a half-and-half congregation, either.

    I’d certainly agree with this–but more often than not the split-congregation things happen because of a serious lack of catechesis. Too many people attempt liturgical changes by ramming them through; if you want to make a legitimate change, a good explanation of both the old way and new way should be presented to demonstrate why the new way may be a better proclamation of the Gospel. I keep harping at my students that there’s no such thing as liturgical changes–there are theological changes with liturgical consequences…

  4. bls

    Yes, you’re right. The problem, I guess, is either one of two things:

    1. Poor interpersonal skills; or
    2. Not enough patience to wait for the time it takes for such explanations to be given and thought about – and along with that, a belief that the laity won’t understand or be willing to listen.

    It’s really clerical ego in both cases, I think; so many people seem to have to “make their mark” and “get things done” according to their own personal preferences. (Remember our old friend the WS?)

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Actually, I’d say that pure and simple disregard for the liturgy and what it means for Christian living is a big part of it. You can freely change something on a whim if it’s not something that really matters…

  6. bls

    But the root of that is ego, too: my way is better because it’s my way. I can do anything I want, and nobody in the old days knew anything.

    Sort of childish, actually, isn’t it?

  7. lutherpunk

    Liturgical change is SLOW SLOW SLOW. When I first arrived at my current parish, it was low church Lutheran worship at its *ahem* finest: let’s do the bare minimum required by the rubrics and get out of here. We had one of those strange communion schedules. It was offered every Sunday, but rotated through the different services. It took about 2 years to move to wekly communion (every Sunday, every service). It took about three years to introduce an icon of Blessed Virgin, and about three years to use incense. Almost four years to offer washing of feet. Now, at the five year+ mark, it is Stations of Cross and no Confession as part of the service in Easter. People have (for the most part) seen the change as positive. But all the groundwork was done carefully and far in advance.

  8. *Christopher

    Sometimes Derek, there are liturgical practices with theological consequences…
    Augustine’s work on Original Sin in part arises out of the practice of infant Baptism in North Africa, but on the whole, you’re correct, theological changes have liturgical consequences, the problem is that theologically Episcopalians are on a sliding scale and so it makes regularizing of posture and gesture nearly impossible at times imho.

    But posture and gesture may or may not have theological implications. Breaking the bread can simply be breaking the bread for preparation for distribution, or it can take on much more. I was leading a practicum yesterday for presiding, and some students insisted on fracturing the bread at the Verba, something I have never seen. We talked a bit about the Reformation, fraction at this point as a Reformed gesture to demonstrate lack of Real Presence and about historicizing the Lord’s Supper in a memorialist rather than God’s present self-gift to us way. That the people of Brandenburg revolted at the instigation of the princess (Lutheran) when her husband (Reformed) imposed a Reformed pastor who broke the bread for this purpose. The people knew better. Christ is really present. So was this something that Lutherans given this history might give some greater care to? Yes, to my mind. Some thought not.

    I must say, I’m the living embodiment of a mess with regard to gesture and posture. I still long to genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross when entering the sanctuary, but that’s odd in my parish to do so. In the RC, we knelt after the Sanctus, but never have I done so in TEC. It feels strange to this day–I miss it. I also find myself still bowing at the Verba though my parish rings the bells at the Epiclesis again because I became used to one way of doing things at one parish and in this parish it’s done differently. I think that the conglomerate of people in my parish means you’ll see a wide variety of practice in this regard because we have come from so many different places both within TEC and from other traditions. So when I gave a discussion some time back on this because we’re a mixed group, I discovered how all over the map we are in this regard and sometimes with good reasons.

    I think your proposal makes a lot of sense and mostly happily is honest enough to recognize that a variety of practice has been extent. It’s when someone says “all times, all places” my ears perk up, because we know at this point in history that’s simply unfounded and so theological thought must be applied rather than simply “because they did it this way when or where”.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, *Christopher, I know my line’s hyperbole (and I tell them that)–but it’s pedagogically useful hyperbole! Especially when many seminarians have never been trained to think that what they do in the liturgy means something theologically.

    Most people and parishes these days do exhibit a variety and most parishes do have a local culture whose tolerance for variety depends on the place. Liturgical catechesis is most frequently accidental through imitation of local custom than intentional. While I have no problem with the imitation of local custom, I think we need to be much more intentional about our formation practices.

  10. *Christopher

    I’m wondering, actually, given my experiences in teaching to date of your experiences of students thinking theologically to begin with as this way of going about life seems to be falling on hard times. It seems I’ve found myself repeatedly emphasizing what I would have thought were remedial matters like justification by grace or (though I haven’t run into any divinity or Trinity deniers lately, which is a welcome change) in papers pointing out that believer’s baptism is not the same thing as adult baptism, which in a Lutheran setting carries with it the same theology as infant baptism, as it does in TEC and the RC.

    It seems that what is most important in the intentional is those who “set” the customs both ordained and lay leadership and long-time parishioners to be giving thought to the matter, because most folks who arrive simply will imitate what is done, which is itself part of formation. Again, though the dispeptic and twisting of the body, sometimes literally that results when one has embodied too many local cultures that are at odds in gesture and posture. The same thing happens when every parish uses a different version of the Our Father or the Creed.

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    *Christopher, the reality of the situation is that what goes on in seminary is less and less often Masters level work than basic catechesis. So few come with a good grounding in the faith any more…

    Good bold catechesis has to happen at the parish level. Even as an Anglican I still think Luther’s Small Catechism an ideal starting place.

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