Sunday, May 16, 2010

To Kneel or Not To Kneel? That is the question.

At my church today we had a voters meeting to vote on what new pews would grace our nave. Really the question that was posed to the congregation was what type of wood would be used--oak or mahogany? In the end, oak won out simply because it was cheaper. It should have been a really short meeting, but like all voters meetings, this one just dragged on because other issues, not illegitimate ones, kept coming up.

One of the issues raised was whether kneelers would be part of the pew deal. It was not and it was not even part of the bid. So, a motion was made that new bids be sought out including kneelers as part of the deal. The motion failed. The arguments put forward for kneelers was that several parishioners kneel (on Sundays and at other times) during the epiclesis when we call down the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and that kneeling is done as "pious custom" to honor this meeting of Heaven and Earth.

While I do not doubt the sincerity or the piety of the people who do such an act, it is a Western innovation that has crept into the Eastern Rite, especially here in America. As one of the proponents mentioned, a great number of churches of the Eastern Rite have both pews and kneelers to accommodate the faithful despite the fact that such is never found in the churches of the Old World. (I'm not going to get into arguments about whether pews are appropriate or not. That is for another time). However, just because all of the other churches have given into this innovation doesn't mean that we should as well.

Nevertheless, this issue got me thinking about when it is appropriate to kneel and when it is not. I think it has no place on Sundays as Sunday is always an anti-Pascha (i.e. mini-Pascha) and to kneel implies penitence when we should be rejoicing at our Lord's triumph over death. We also do not kneel at any service between Pascha and Pentecost when it returns on Vespers of Pentecost Day. Such is the rationale behind the 20th Canon of the First Ecumenical Council (Coincidentally, today we commemorated the 318 fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea). But does that preclude all kneeling?

As indicated earlier, kneeling does not always have to be an action of lamentation or sorrow or penitence. There can be a "joyful knelling" if you will and a lot of shades of gray in between.

I don't have the necessary learning to parse all the arguments for and against kneeling in various contexts, but the late Archbishop CHRISTODOULOS of Athens once wrote something about this very issue. You can read it here on the MYSTAGOGY blog. For what it is worth, I believe that kneeling is part of the Western Rite inheritance which has jumped rites to the Eastern Rite. When, however, kneeling is called for in the rubrics of the Eastern Rite, it actually should be understood for the faithful to make a prostration. When the epiclesis occurs on a Liturgy for a feast day, outside of the Pentecostarion period, I will prostrate at the words "changing them by the Holy Spirit."

But read it and make your own judgments. I believe that this is one of those American spins on Orthodox faith and practice and tradition that can really divide people from the greater Truth that should be proclaimed in our churches each and every week.


  1. On one of the Russian liturgics lists (Ustav or Typikon), an Old Believer noted that kneeling or prostration during the epiklesis and at other points during the Liturgy are done throughout the Paschal season and on every Sunday in the Old Rite. That is, prostrations and kneeling are disallowed for any and all penitential purposes, but not for those moments of awe and honor due to God.

    This is part of the argument against the Nikonian reforms of the 17th Century that resulted in the Old Believer schism. These 'reforms' were an attempt - in advance of a Russian push to free the Balkans, Constantinople and the Greeks from the Turks - to bring Russian practice in line with then contemporary Greek practice as it was assumed that the Greeks had retained the 'original' practices. In fact, Greek practice since that time has evolved yet further and scholars have shown that the Old Rite of Russia retained more faithfully earlier forms and practices of the faith - some of which had gone out of use completely in the rest of the Orthodox world. Similar remnants were maintained in those communities not under Muscovite control such as the Carpatho-Rusyns under the EP that had not succumbed to the Unia. When Muscovy rediscovered these Carpatho-Rusyns they often assumed their distinct practices were due to Western influence when in fact they had simply better maintained a more ancient Orthodox practice - which was sometimes also preserved in Rites of the West, as well, making the situation more complex.

    All that being said, I make sure to be in the back of the church or in the choir in parishes that kneel on Sundays. The Tradition I received was that there is no kneeling or prostrating on Sundays and between Pascha and Pentecost with great bows touching the floor still acceptable. This background has been helpful when I see priests and some Romanians prostrate at the epiklesis on Sundays and during the Pentecostation; it isn't a great help when parishes (like mine) introduce kneeling on Sundays against their own tradition (i.e., the Greek practice).

  2. Thanks, Chris. One of the further difficulties that I observe, especially with the Antiochians, is that there is often a great attempt to somehow fuse small-t traditions from other Orthodox jurisdictions to make the Antiochian churches truly "Pan-Orthodox." In our church, you can see traditions that are distinctly Greek, Arabic and Slavic. I think that in the quest to be accommodating to other Orthodox backgrounds, there is a great danger of identity crisis or that there is just going to be random picking and choosing for what traditions to employ by individual priests and congregations. The Antiochian churches still follow the Greek typicon and should continue to follow it strictly.

  3. My OCA parish does a little of that, but one would primarily experience the services as very, very Russian (not even just OCA Russian). The only difference being singing "Most Holy Theotokos, save us" in the litanies, the way the priest blesses antidoron, and what feasts are served and when (lots of Georgians show up on Old Calendar Christmas looking for a service, so we serve a Liturgy even though we're on the New Calendar; we will commemorate saints that are minor on the OCA Typikon but more major in others). Otherwise, we chant in various languages sprinkled throughout a primarily English service. Mainly, the church is simply open to those coming in from other little-t traditions and for them expressing them (e.g., our Romanians almost all prostrate during the epiklesis).

    What seems to be at issue is the conscious manufacturing of a new, composite tradition rather than simply allowing for the normal course of things. Self-chosen idiosyncrasy (e.g., use of New Skete style liturgics in parishes) and forceful standardization (e.g., the way the New Calendar was enforced in eastern PA in the OCA) are to be avoided.