Doing the Actions.

Prior to my first visit to St Leonard’s for a ‘normal’ parish Eucharist I asked how formal the service was. “Is there a lot of processing about?” I asked. “No, hardly any at all,” was the answer. I can only conclude the question had been mis-heard… my first impression being ‘if that’s hardly any ceremony, I’d hate to be here for something really formal.’ My second thought was ‘there’s a lot of kissing of things’ and my third thought was unprintable. Once I’d really become more of a regular at the 8am and 6.30 services, the questions about why things are done faded into the background. Now I’m back to more 9.45 services, curiosity got the better of me.

Taking our ceremonial/ ritual aspects of a Parish Eucharist for granted is common. Surely everyone does it this way? (Ask me about my trip to Jubilee Church in Enfield). The variety of expressions of worship in the C of E is either one of its strengths or its biggest weakness, depending on who you talk to. The more I paid attention the more I noticed the details – and the more I wondered why those details were important – why do we do what we do? Some of them are easier to see and understand than others. I didn’t need to have an explanation of why the Gospel reading is done from the centre of the congregation, with its ceremony (although it was reassuring to later be told that my reasoning – that it’s all about the importance – was correct). I’ve never really just sat and watched a service. I’m paying attention to my own worship, thoughts and prayers, and trying not to be distracted.

So on Ash Wednesday, when I had been to church at lunchtime in London, I took the opportunity to sit and observe from the balcony. I think this did somewhat confuse some of the choir members.

I have been to a few different churches lately, and seeing people bow, or cross themselves and not knowing quite why or when was also interesting – at my lunchtime Ash Wednesday service I was the only one not, it seemed, and the order of service did not indicate where or why. What did they know that I didn’t?

So it seems the simple principles are: one bows to acknowledge the name of Jesus. (As was pointed out to me, is foretold in Philippians 2:10). Cross whenever you acknowledge the Trinity and before receiving communion (and absolution). At the Gospel, touch (cross with thumb usually) forehead, lips, chest and think to self “God be in my head, in what I say, and in my heart”. I’ve only ever noticed the priest doing this last one, though (but that might be because I wasn’t looking in any other direction).

We are reminded by our leaders at various intervals that prayer and worship involve the whole of our selves – mind and body, all our senses. Last spring Teresa preached on this – and subsequent conversation meant I had ‘kneeling in church’ as something to try as Lent discipline. Kneeling had seemed to me to be overkill, an affectation, and surely unnecessarily formal. So I was surprised when the change in posture helped me focus more on both the corporate and personal prayers, (after the first few times when I had stopped feeling awkward and entirely too self-conscious). Now, it’s habit.

And for many although other actions are habit too, they have the same effect of focusing the mind. At worst, then, crossing oneself is instinctive as something learned in childhood. But at best it helps people refocus on what they are saying when using familiar liturgy. One friend said that the childhood teaching she’d received about this was all hellfire and damnation, that it was sinful not to follow suit and cross herself. Another was taught as a child that the “I” of downstroke is crossed out so ‘I’ become part of God’s love as shown on cross. I think I prefer the latter explanation…

But these explanations are just reminders and – do vary. Teresa says she was taught that “the downstroke represented God’s love in the incarnation (heaven to earth) and the horizontal reminded us that Jesus came to take us out of darkness into light (L to R) and the final touch in the middle was ‘for me.’” Someone else said ‘I was raised RC, and it is hard to stop your hands and body moving, even in low church settings. I am infecting others,’ and others were honest about how they felt these movements were too ritualistic, too anglo-catholic, and don’t see the point. Which I guess, just goes to show that there’s no right or wrong way of ‘being’ in church – that everyone’s approach is personal and what works for one person might leave another person completely perplexed..

For me the jury is still out. Increased self-consciousness would be counter-productive – thinking about me when the point is to focus thoughts elsewhere. I note though that I was never quite happy in a church where ‘spontaneous’ raising of hands in worship was the done thing, so maybe one day I’ll be able to – literally – get over myself and try new ways of being a more focused, more attentive worshipper.

Oh – and thanks to Richard Gillin for reminding me of this…


  1. Interesting post Sara. My tradition is pretty low church – actually my background was an independent church, so no (written) liturgy, no processing about, and absolutely no incense ever. (Not like the Jubilee Church you visited though – it’s fairly local to us in Enfield; we sometimes to go the cinema where they hold it – but I’ve never been to a service).

    Being of my particular theological persuasion, one of the issues I have with ‘genuflecting’ (if that’s the right word) is the view of what’s happening in the Eucharist: is it _actually_ the body and blood of Christ [transubstantiation], or is it symbolic? Is it making an idol of the elements?

    I think a lot of people probably just do it without thinking about that, but I’d say it was probably worth at least bearing in mind.

    I suppose the problem in a lot of churches is that it’s easy to feel out of place if you don’t “fit in” with the usual way of doing things, whereas actually people should be able to do what they find helpful. I’ve felt out of place in churches where everyone is raising their hands, as I’ve felt out of place in high churches where everybody is bowing before the communion table.

    I guess it’s important to find what is helpful for you without worrying too much about what anyone else thinks! Easier said than done, though.

    • Thanks for your comments! Good questions. Jubilee Church was a bit of an eye-opener for me – I thought St John’s was fairly laid back but hadn’t quite realised how far it had to go… Recently I went back through my journals from the time I was a regular there and I find myself recording painful discomfort at being part something I didn’t feel I wanted to join in with – so I guess what that teaches me is I am happier kneeling than I am with my hands in the air (nice safe hymn book to hold on to), and that I can feel idiotically self conscious in any environment. At least I score for consistency!

      I don’t believe in transubstantiation but I do believe that the Eucharist is important and needs to be made special – your definition of that might vary from mine, which I am in reality only just figuring out for myself.

      • I like to think I have an ‘Anglican’ understanding of the Eucharist (see articles 25-31 of the 39 Articles – I like Article XXV “Effectual signs of grace” and XXVIII “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.”)

        I do think a lot of churches don’t think enough about posture in worship, it’s just whatever has been done for the past … 10, 20, or 500 years! So it’s good to be asking these questions. But I guess it’s just good to get it in perspective, i.e. it should be done as an aid or a sign for us, and not become a rule 🙂

  2. I was interested to read both this: and, slightly less seriously, this and, indeed, this:

    The first one is the interesting, more theological discussion of why we do what we do. The other two are interesting examples of taking what is typically seen as fuddy-duddy (RC or _very_ high Anglican) and making it modern.

    Maggi Dawn has, I think, done a whole series of lectures on posture in worship across the whole spectrum of churchmanship. I like that we’re agreeing we all need to think about it. We all know that good posture helps us concentrate and bad posture harms it. Why kneel? Why stand? Why not just get comfortable? Why constantly change?

    It interests me that those who get most upset about their inability to wear a cross at work are often those least likely to actually cross themselves – why is one “higher” than the other, or are we each in our own way simply seeking to remember the cross? Why do some of us concentrate more on the Eucharist and others more on scripture? Is one of us more/less right? Or is it that God is revealed to each of us in our own way so that we might best receive him into our hearts and live his word – in the same way that some of us learn even the most secular of tasks best by reading, some by listening, some by seeing and some by doing? Do I have an answer? Alas, no!

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