Why do we stand in church?



Non-Orthodox visitors to our church are often surprised that we don’t have any seating except for the pews around the walls. This practice is traditional in Orthodoxy, and it used to be traditional in western churches too. The photo on the right is of Saint Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell, Essex built by Saint Cedd, an Orthodox saint from the seventh century. There are no fixed pews or seats – the movable benches are a modern addition.

Odda’s Chapel in Gloucester (left) is another fine example of an Anglo-Saxon chapel. Note the benches around the walls. Built in 1056, the chapel became a house in the 13th century, and it is quite possible that this saved it from being converted into a typical English country church.

The ancient features in most English churches have not been preserved so well. The wooden church at Greensted, Essex is described as the ‘oldest wooden church in the world’ and some parts have been dated as early as the sixth century.  Unfortunately the interior of the church has suffered at the hands of Victorian builders who installed fixed pews (below).

The English proverb the ‘weakest go to the wall’ is said to derive from the fact that English churches in the late middle ages only had seating around the walls – like our church today. Those who were physically incapable of standing were able to rest during the service by ‘going to the wall’.

Although standing is traditional, there are many other reasons we stand for worship. By standing in prayer we show honour and reverence to God. We can see something similar in everyday life. We stand when the Queen arrives at an event and we stand when a judge enters or leaves the courtroom.  Standing therefore is a sign of respect to someone in authority. If we stand before earthly kings and queens, it is clear that we should stand in church where we worship the King of heaven and earth (cf. Matt. 28:18).

We are reminded of the importance of standing reverently during the Divine Liturgy when the deacon says:  ‘Let us stand well. Let us stand with fear. Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace’.

This exclamation comes immediately after the reading of the Creed to show that as well as believing correctly we have to worship correctly. The word Orthodox after all, means ‘correct belief’ or ‘ correct worship’. An essential part of this correct worship is our struggle against sin and the passions of the flesh.  Saint James the Apostle teaches that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17).

Standing in prayer is part of our spiritual struggle and practices such as standing, fasting and making prostrations are called asceticism – a word which means ‘training’.  Saint Paul speaks of this spiritual struggle in his Epistle to the Romans:

For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom. 7:22-25)

 A Orthodox priest making a prostrationWe mentioned making prostrations earlier and this is another practical reason for not having seats in church. For example, during Great Lent and on feast days of the Cross (to name only a few examples) we make prostrations (right) as part of the service. It’s impossible to do prostrations if the church is filled with seats.

We worship in a very different way to western Christians which also explains why we do not have seating. In Orthodoxy we worship together with the priest – the word Liturgy itself means the ‘work of the people’. In other words, we do church we don’t just attend church.

Worship is very different in Protestant churches. The pastor faces the people and preaches to them – the congregation are the audience. Although the people join in with their pastor in singing, Protestant worship is more individual than Orthodox worship. In Protestant churches, the congregation sits down as the Scriptures are read, and they look up any quotes that the pastor uses in their own Bible. In Orthodoxy, we stand and listen together to the New Testament readings out of reverence for the Word of God.

Today, most Roman Catholic churches look quite similar to modern Protestant churches at least as regards seating. Ancient Catholic churches, like the Orthodox, would not have had seats. Roman Catholics do not prostate as we do in Orthodoxy but traditional Roman Catholics kneel at the most important parts of the service – kneeling is their form of reverence (right). Traditional Roman Catholics kneel to receive Holy Communion, for example, whereas we stand. Although this form of kneeling is not appointed in Orthodox worship, it was common in some parts of nineteenth century Russia and remains so in modern Romania. It has therefore become a sort of traditional local custom, but not one that must be followed by everyone.

Standing in church is also a metaphor for our whole Christian life. Saint Paul says this in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

Therefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girded about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, with which you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Eph. 6:13-16)

Finally, standing in church is a reminder for us to stand firm against sin and the passions. In fact, it is not only a reminder, but when done with faith in God and love for neighbour it brings spiritual benefit as St. Gregory Palamas teaches:
It is impossible for anyone who stands in God’s holy church collecting his thoughts, lifting his mind to God, occupying his understanding with the sacred singing from the beginning until the end and waiting patiently, not to undergo a divine change, in accordance with his attention to God and His teachings. Through this attention a certain warmth is born in the heart which chases away evil thoughts like flies, creates spiritual peace and comfort in the soul and bestows sanctification on the body, according to him who said: ‘my heart grew hot within me, and in my meditation a fire was kindled’ (Ps. 38:3). 1
1 C. Veniamin (trans.) Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p.76

Comments

  1. You mention that kneeling is not appointed in Orthodox worship, but that is not quite correct. Kneeling is required during the prayers at vespers of Pentecost and during parts of the Liturgy of the Presanctified. It is also common practice to kneel at points at weekday Liturgies in Russian churches. Also, the clergy ( and people ) in Greek churches often kneel during the anaphora, even on Sundays. Best wishes. M

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    1. By the word 'kneeling' we meant kneeling in the western fashion. As you rightly said, we prostrate during the week, on the kneeling prayers at Pentecost etc. When we prostrate we lower our bodies to the ground which is a bit different to kneeling. Sometimes, as in the Pentecost kneeling prayers we remain in this position for some time. Sometimes we simply prostrate and get up again (such as before venerating icons). As we mentioned in the article, there are considerable variations in local customs. I hope this makes some sort of sense! If I can find a royalty-free image of a prostration I will add it to the article to remove any confusion.

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  2. We've made a few changes and added a couple of pictures.

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