Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Faith Works 2-20

Faith Works 2-20-10

Jeff Gill


Sometimes, You Just Don't Know Whether To Sit Or Stand




Lent has surely begun, Ash Wednesday not so much ashy as snowy, but the days, as the Old English "lencta" would have it, are lengthening.


I mentioned my plan to avoid plastic and non-essential shopping or buying or consuming for this Lenten season, and many of you wrote or Twittered ("tweeted") me your plans to give up pop or candy or swearing at your car, or the snow. My prayers are with your spiritual disciplines, that you learn from them and hold that commitment with faithfulness – and I ask that you pray for me!


Before Lent got going, I'd been writing about some of those "edge phenomena" around worship, "adiaphora" or "indifferent things" philosophically & theologically speaking. One was about coming late, or just as services start, and the other was about where to sit when you get there: these are matters that may barely intrude into the consciousness of those of us who attend church regularly, but are major questions for seekers and/or first time visitors.


Another of these "indifferent" matters is standing . . . or sitting.


Non-Catholics, and even cradle Catholics make jokes about a typical church wedding in their tradition. Up, then down, then up, then – whoa, what are those things swinging down at me? – you kneel, and then it's back up, and . . .


OK, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. It isn't just a Catholic Christian thing, though, since some Protestant Christian services have a fairly good cardio-workout component to them, even without kneelers. And much non-denominational  contemporary worship has the hovering question of when to stand hanging over their unstructured services, as well.


Before we ask when to stand, what about "why?" Why do we stand at certain points in corporate worship?


Actually, in the ancient traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, you find in most of their worship spaces a distinct lack of seats. That's right, no seats. None. And the Divine Liturgy tends to go around two hours.


In this country, a Greek Orthodox church may have pews, but it's a practice picked up from surrounding church life (or from buying a decommissioned Protestant church). Back in Russia or Romania or otherwise, the congregation gathers in an open space, with seats along some walls for the elderly and pregnant women, and children sit, if young, at the feet of their parents. Many American Orthodox sanctuaries still are this way, seatless, and standing. For two hours. Plus.


That accurately echoes the Roman law court, or basilica, which Christianity inherited after Constantine around 325 AD. The people gathered to watch and listen and participate, and Orthodox Christianity would also affirm participation in the act of worship through their active, attentive witness: but they stood, they stand out of respect and in veneration of God's active power in worship. You wouldn't sit in the King or Emperor's presence, would you?


So the practice of standing, out of respect, carries down into certain moments in other traditions, punctuated by kneeling (that's what those padded rails are for in the back of the pew in front of you). In fact, the big "worship wars" debates in Licking County congregations of the early 1800's, before the Civil War, were in two areas: whether or not to move to sitting during the congregational prayers, and whether or not men and women should sit together.


A reliable way to tell a church building's date is if it has two doors, which points to a pre-Civil War era building. After the war, the trend for families to sit together was affirmed with great vehemence by returning veterans, and you can understand why – that was the end of sex segregation in worship.


As far as I can tell, the practice of standing during prayer in most Protestant churches was already over by 1860, but I'm quite unclear on the details. There's no doubt quite a study for someone in this question.


Now we see churches struggle again with when to ask the congregation "please stand, if you are able." What do you feel promotes worship, and best represents personal devotion to God in a corporate context?


The debate continues . . .


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him how long you're willing to stand to show your thankfulness at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.com.

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