Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I don’t think we pay enough attention to posture these days. Liturgically, I mean.

When I first started in ministry half a century ago, most congregations were more or less sedentary, with not a lot of movement involved in their worship. People seem to prefer to stay put. So once they had parked in a pew, they’d just as soon settle in for the duration.

Apart from singing hymns and a few other pieces, worship was done sitting down. We sang hymns on our feet because the musicians told us that we’d sing better if we did—a good practical reason.

Most of the hymns and other songs we sang (but not all) were hymns of praise and enthusiasm, and deserved the reverent and respectful posture of standing. There’s theology in that reason, and for most hymns, it’s a viable rationale even now.

Prayer, on the other hand, was almost always done by the congregation sitting down. Not to be boisterous as singing might be, prayer was considered a quiet, personal, even private exercise. With head bowed and eyes closed, each person retreated into his or her own exclusive prayer-chamber.

Not a whole lot has changed these past five decades, at least not in understanding what the different postures might signal in terms of the theology behind our worship. But some things have changed, and point the way to new understanding.

We now stand at other times than just for hymns and songs of praise. We now stand for other reasons than we will sing better vertical, and it’s good to stretch our legs every now and then. We’ll stand to say a creed—confessing faith publically is praising God.

We are clearer now that standing is a posture of honor and respect. So, we stand, for example, for the reading of the Gospel. In the Gospel text, the Word Jesus Christ is most clearly present to us, and it is in reverence that we rise to our feet in greeting and welcome. I also like to think that standing for the Gospel reading indicates we are at attention and ready to hear our marching orders from the Master.

We also are called upon to stand up for the Great Thanksgiving as we approach the Lord’s Table. Again, it is a sign of our need to be attentive and reverential at this Holy Meal wherein we will be fed and nourished by spiritual food. Standing for prayer has biblical precedent to commend it (see 1 Samuel 1:26 and 1 Kings 8:22, as well as Matthew 6:5 and Luke 18:11). Note that kneeling for prayer is biblical also (see Luke 22:41 and Acts 7:60), yet most Presbyterians seem to stay seated instead.

The use of the Psalter on Sundays is a new development for most of us. The Psalm appears as a response to the Old Testament lesson, and is considered a reflection on or response to the reading. Most often, the Psalm is a prayer, and even though it is sung, may be offered seated. There are occasions, perhaps, when we should consider staying seated for a hymn with a prayerful tone.

Seated with heads bowed and eyes closed is not always the preferred posture for prayer. The closed quality of such prayers seems to deny the commonness of our common worship, as though one should go to church and, among the gathered community, indulge in one’s private devotions. If seen this in Catholic services, but in Protestant, even Presbyterian ones as well.

Praying with eyes wide open is a good option to consider. Especially at the Great Thanksgiving, we should be aware of the community around the Lord’s Table. The Prayers of the People deserve our awareness of our sisters and brothers uniting their prayers with our own.

The point is that posture has significance and adds meaning and emphasis to specific acts of worship.

In giving liturgical instructions, of course, about standing or sitting (or kneeling), one needs to be careful about choice of words as they might apply, or not, to worshippers with disabilities.

When do you stand and when do you sit during Sunday worship? What changes would you suggest?

1 comment:

  1. hmm never really gave this much thought. The church we attend pretty much does the stand to sing thing, and that's all. Sometimes stand for the creed, but usually because it's right after a hymn and we're all standing already I think. Never have stood for the reading of the Gospel. I think paying attention to 'posture' like this would be a great way to engage the congregation in the worship more, rather than allow them to take an audience-type role.


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