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Taking a knee

29 September 2017

THE decline of kneeling in church (Out of the Question) has many causes: an ageing, less agile congregation; a pref­er­ence for standing as an ancient stance for prayer; pre-1900 pews for post-2000 body sizes; post-2000 chairs or benches in rows too close together; carpets (paradoxically) instead of stone floors and substantial hassocks — all these are factors. The chief, though, is lack of example: almost nobody kneels because almost nobody kneels. Posture is a source of immense awk­ward­ness and embarrassment for newcomers, as anyone will attest who has made the mistake of sitting safely three rows from the back . . . and then, with a swift glance, discovered that the regular congregation has filed into the two rows behind. Even with the help of the Prayer Book’s emphatic instruction — “meekly kneeling upon your knees” — there is no saying what might be the local custom about kneeling, sitting, or standing.

A huge amount of effort and money over the past 20 years or so has gone into making newcomers feel comfortable in church, and old-comers have no gripe with that. Backache from badly designed pews and chilblains from poor heating are a path to holiness that appeals only to a few. But we are less sure about feeling comfortable with God. The nature of church archi­tecture, even in the present day, states unequivocally that God is not domestic but other and mysterious. Attempting to grasp this through contemplative prayer is one thing: a good seated posture is ideal for a long period spent quietening the mind and body and patiently directing one’s thoughts towards God. But church worship entails what might be called demon­strative prayer. A better understanding of incarnation has led many believers towards an appreciation of the part played by the body in worship. Faith is not merely cerebral. An act of worship performed without full attention — as if any ever were — remains valid. If it were otherwise, the efficacy of the euchar­ist would be called into question. Thus the act of kneel­ing, most notably for the penitential prayers and at commun­ion, expresses a desire to humble oneself before God — and before one’s fellow penitents — and also signals to the mind that a different level of commitment is called for at that point in the service.

Into this debate comes the move in the United States to “take a knee” during the veneration of the Flag at sporting occasions. The act of dropping to one knee, started in 2016 by an NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, has caught on as a means of express­ing solidarity with persecuted black communities in the US. As a protest, it is effective perhaps because it is confusing, sig­nal­ling both humility and defiance. President Trump has no truck with subtleties, however. Ever inflammatory, he declared last week: “When somebody disrespects our flag, you say get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” Somehow, we don’t think that the “Nonconformist crouch” would provoke such a reaction.

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