Sunday, 23 April 2017

Why Kneel?

Elephant Misercord, Exeter Cathedral

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why Kneel?

All the possible attitudes have been used for worship down the centuries. Because kneeling is among the most helpless and uncomfortable it has been employed by all who have wanted especially to express before God their humility, their supplication, and their penitence.

So when Solomon had made an end of his great prayer that God would continue to bless and keep his people after the Ark of the Covenant had been brought into the new temple that he had built, `he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven' (I Kings viii. 54).

Christians seem to have knelt rather more than other people at their prayers, perhaps because their sense of sin and unworthiness was stronger. In the early days, however, as they particularly associated kneeling with humiliation and penitence, they stood for general public prayer.

This was the usual custom among the Jews, as it was among the Romans. In the story of the Pharisee and the publican, for example, Jesus has described how `the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself ... and the publican, standing afar off . . . ' (St. Luke xviii. I r-13).

St. Mark also tells (ch. Xi. 25) how Jesus said to his disciples, `When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses'.

Early Christians when they stood praying often extended their arms: Tertullian says in the attitude of Christ crucified. There was, however, one group. of people in the early centuries which had to kneel almost continuously at worship. This group comprised the penitents, people who, unlike the outcast `mourners', had been allowed back at least into the church porch, but were dismissed by the bishop before the prayer of consecration, until such a time as their penance was complete.

They were, indeed, commonly called `kneelers' or `prostrators', as early Christians did not distinguish in language between full prostration or kneeling upright or bowed, all of which positions they described indifferently as `kneeling'.

Even when a seventh-century Council ruled that the faithful should not kneel at all on Sundays or between Easter and Whitsun, since these were joyful days, not days for remembering sin, the `kneelers' were especially excepted.

Despite this ruling, and the feeling that to kneel was especially to admit sin, some Christians took it upon themselves to kneel when they need not. Some of them became remarked for their holiness because of it, as did St. James the Just, whose knees, from his constant kneeling, became calloused like those of a camel.

As time passed, however, some people preferred kneeling to standing, and wished that the formal occasions for it were longer; others disliked it and continued to stand when they should have knelt. Among the first were monks and others who had to stand through long offices; when the time came to kneel they would some-times prop themselves on their arms or hands, or even lie prostrate, and be glad of the rest. It was as an act of mercy towards such people that many choir stalls were fitted with misericords from the thirteenth century.

 Beverley Minster

These additions to the underside of the ordinary hinged-seat of the stall, jutted out unobtrusively, and so furnished a small ledge on which the monks or canons could prop themselves as soon as they had to stand and their hinged- seats had been folded up. There are some very spirited carved misericords in some English churches, as for example those in Beverley Minster.

Among the second group of people who preferred standing was the congregation of Bishop Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century, which gave him occasion to exclaim, `When I often, as I ought, and heedfully take notice, as the deacon cries, "Let us bend our knees," I see the greater part standing upright like columns!'

A thousand years later, in England, some upright and unbending people became known as Puritans. They held, as Lutherans and others still do, that they should stand and not kneel to pray. It was against this opinion that the Prayer Book rubrics reiterate the order that the congregation shall be meekly kneeling upon their knees, even on occasions when primitive Christians stood.

Jenny Geddes so much disliked the introduction of these rulings into Scotland, that on the 23rd of July, 1637, she threw a footstool at the head of the Bishop of Edinburgh in St. Giles's Church.

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