Stand. Sit. Kneel. Repeat. Stand. Sit. Kneel. Repeat. To the casual observer, a Sunday morning Eucharist in the local Episcopal Church might look a bit like a calisthenics class. We’re up. We’re down. And we’re up again.
Have you ever noticed the rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer? The rubrics are those little comments in italicized fine print. They are like the rules in the playbook. They function as stage directions for the clergy and congregation as we celebrate our liturgy together. There are some rubrics that are meant to be optional and others that are not. Many of the rubrics refer to our posture – the physical stance of our bodies – during a specific portion of the service.
The Eucharist begins with the rubric stating, “The people standing...” We stand to begin our celebration. We continue to stand until the Lessons (the Bible readings) begin, when we are instructed simply, “The people sit.” The lesson from the Gospel, the final reading, is framed with the rubric directing “Then, all standing, the Deacon or a Priest reads the Gospel…”
Following the Sermon, we recite the Nicene Creed “…all standing.” Here it is interesting to note that the prayer book makes no mention of a change in our posture for the Prayers of the People that follow the Creed. The flow of the rubrics encourages us to continue to stand for our prayers. This is not a new idea. In fact, it goes back to the ancient Judeo-Christian stance for prayer that is standing, not kneeling, or sitting.
After the Peace, The Great Thanksgiving (Communion) begins with the rubric instructing, “The people remain standing.” Following the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…”), and then only in Eucharistic Prayers A, B, and D, we are given an option. Our stance may change according to the rubric “The people stand or kneel.” At this point, one is given the opportunity to kneel. This is the first and only mention of kneeling in all the service. Even so, the first stance listed in any optional prayer book rubric – here “The people stand…” – is the preferred posture.
Why is it that for some, especially for long-time Episcopalians, it just doesn’t feel right to pray without kneeling? Perhaps it is the memory of the old 1928 edition of our prayer book that required “…the Priest and all those who are minded to receive the Holy Communion, [shall be] humbly kneeling.” Truth be told, our new prayer book was authorized in 1979, now 35 years ago. Our current rubrics are half-a-lifetime the norm.
So why do we have these rubrics for how we pray? A hint to the answer is found in the name of the prayer book that houses these rules. The Book of Common Prayer is our guide to our common worship. We pray as a group in common – with one another – celebrating together with the same words, the same prayers, and the same postures.
So, shall we stand, sit, or kneel? If your back or your will requires you to stand, or to sit, or to kneel, then please do. The rubrics, however, can guide your heart to a fuller common understanding of our common prayer.