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:
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…