If you have a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, go and find it, then come back.
Okay. Now find page 323 – Holy Eucharist Rite I. Follow through all the small words written in italics, especially looking for words regarding what posture one should adopt. Rite I this begins with: “The people standing …”
Now find page 351 – the Penitential Order for Rite II – and, again, go through Rite II looking for the words that suggest what posture should be adopted. Rite II also begins: “The people standing …” – the exact same as what is said in the Rite I Service.
If you continue through both Services, though, you will find some differences, and these differences, subtle though they may be, are actually quite profound.
As early as the fifth century, the Church proclaimed ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’ – “as we pray, so we believe”. This proclamation became part of the Anglican Church – which, of course, includes us – so if want to know what Episcopalians believe, you should study what and how we pray.
Conversely, it also means that how we pray expresses what we believe. It is because of this understanding that liturgical, sacramental churches, like ours, do not change their liturgy on a whim, but rather choose words and actions prayerfully and expertly.
With all this in mind, it was fascinating for me to attend a Clergy Retreat, held by the diocese, which had as its main speaker a man who was involved in the reforms that led to our present Prayer Book. Most of the changes do, indeed, seem subtle, but the theology behind them isn’t.
For Rite I, apart from keeping the traditional Elizabethan language, the 1979 BCP also kept the penitential outlook of the 1928 Prayer Book (contrition, remorse, shame, guilt). The prayers and the theology behind the Rite I Service emphasize our unworthiness before God, and the ‘rubrics’ (the directions/instructions) were shaped in order to emphasize this.
What this means is that the Prayer Book was written with something particular in mind – when it comes to what position your body is to adopt – that being, when an option is offered, the Prayer Book would prefer you to adopt always the first one listed.
So, the rubrics in the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer says, “The people kneel or stand”, thus, the preference is for the people in the congregation to kneel. There are several reasons for this, but the short version is that many believe this is the best posture to adopt if one is approaching God with a sense of unworthiness and humility.
The Rite II Service, on the other hand, shifts the focus of worship from approaching God on our knees, asking for forgiveness, to approaching God on our feet, offering praise: “We celebrate … our redemption … in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (page 363). Eucharistic Prayer B makes this theology even more explicit: “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you” (page 368). This language is no accident, here we are being encouraged to get up from our knees and celebrate the Good News of our redemption in Jesus Christ!
It is because of this change in theological emphasis that the Rite II Service rubrics switched the preference from kneeling to standing: “The people stand or kneel.” And so it is that our new version of our Rite II Service Booklets makes explicit what may have been a little hidden: that standing is the preferred posture.
Of course, some people are not able to stand for long periods, and some people’s personal theology is more suited to kneeling, but don’t worry: in the Episcopal Church you are not forced to adopt something with which you are uncomfortable. It is always good, though, to be aware that there are real reasons behind all that we do, recalling that how we pray reflects what we believe.