In the second part of the The Fount of Knowledge St John of Damascus (drawing heavily upon the Panarion by St Epiphanius of Salamis) attempts a comprehensive heresiology. Number 91 in the list is the heresy of the Agonyclites “The Agonyclites” St John explains “will not kneel during any of the times of prayer, but rather always pray standing up.”

It is interesting to see this practice straightforwardly described as a heresy by two Eastern Fathers of the fourth and eighth centuries because liberal liturgical archeologists have been striving for half a century to convince Eastern Catholics that this very heresy is in fact an integral part of their tradition (with some success). A friend of mine (who had spent some time in Central Europe attending the Byzantine rite where the faithful always knelt at various times in the liturgy) was recently shocked when he was rebuked for kneeling by a neophyte cleric of one of the Eastern Churches in the American diaspora. I reproduce below some of the information he gleaned in the hope of charitably re-educating the erring presbyter.

Kneeling is par excellence the sign that the one kneeling accepts the one to whom he kneels as lord. In the Letter of St Paul to the Philippians it becomes the ultimate sign of recognition of the divinity of Christ.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.”

From the second century at least there has been a liturgical practice of exclusively standing to pray during Pentecost and on Sundays. This is not a particularly eastern practice. Our earliest evidence for it comes from Roman North Africa an emphatically western region of the Church whose Latin theological and liturgical tradition pre-dates even that of Rome. The next clear reference comes from the Ecumencial Council of Nicaea which although held in the east was attended by Latin delegates including of course Papal Legates and the Emperor’s theological advisor Ossius of Cordova.

It is clear from both references that the practice has always been controversial.

Tertullian – De Oratione Chapter 23

“In the matter of kneeling also prayer is subject to diversity of observance, through the act of some few who abstain from kneeling on the Sabbath; and since this dissension is particularly on its trial before the churches, the Lord will give His grace that the dissentients may either yield, or else indulge their opinion without offence to others. We, however (just as we have received), only on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude; deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil. Ephesians 4:27 Similarly, too, in the period of Pentecost; which period we distinguish by the same solemnity of exultation. But who would hesitate every day to prostrate himself before God, at least in the first prayer with which we enter on the daylight? At fasts, moreover, and Stations, no prayer should be made without kneeling, and the remaining customary marks of humility; for (then) we are not only praying, but deprecating, and making satisfaction to God our Lord. Touching times of prayer nothing at all has been prescribed, except clearly to pray at every time and every place.”

First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea – Canon 20

“Since there are some who kneel on Sunday and during the season of Pentecost, this holy synod decrees that, so that the same observances may be maintained in every diocese, one should offer one’s prayers to the Lord standing.”

Two observations should be made about these initial references (other than their ecumenical character). First, they both indicate that the practice is controversial presumably because it might be taken to indicate a withholding of latria. Secondly, it is clear that the significance of the omission of kneeling on Sundays and during Pentecost lies in the observance of kneeling at other times.

The first observation probably lies behind the fact that the practice of omitting to kneel at these times was eventually abandoned in the west.

The second observation is emphasised by the Council in Trullo, a particularly eastern perhaps even anti-Latin council held in 692. Canon 90 reads:

“We have received it canonically from our God-bearing Fathers not to bend the knee on Sundays when honouring the Resurrection of Christ, since this observation may not be clear to some of us, we are making it plain to the faithful, so that after the entrance of those in holy orders into the sacrificial altar on the evening of the Saturday in question, let none of them bend a knee until the evening of the following Sunday, when, after the entrance during the Lychnic [Compline], again with bended knees we offer our prayers to the Lord. For inasmuch as we hare received it that the night succeeding Saturday was the precursor of our Saviour’s rising, we commence our hymns at this point spiritually, ending the festival by passing out of darkness into light, in order that we may hence celebrate en masse the Resurrection for a whole day and a whole night.”

Here even more explicitly it is shown that the significance of the standing posture is grounded in the contrast with the kneeling posture at other times. Perhaps this is suggested by Luke 21:28

“ ἀρχομένων δὲ τούτων γίνεσθαι ἀνακύψατε καὶ ἐπάρατε τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν, διότι ἐγγίζει ἡ ἀπολύτρωσις ὑμῶν ἀρχομένων δὲ τούτων γίνεσθαι ἀνακύψατε καὶ ἐπάρατε τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν, διότι ἐγγίζει ἡ ἀπολύτρωσις ὑμῶν”

St Germanus of Constantinople makes the same observations as Trullo about the practice of kneeling and its periodic omission. Nicholas Kabasilas in Chaper 24 of his fourteenth century commentary on the Liturgy give an indirect hint as to at which points in the Divine Liturgy kneeling was usually observed.

“The priest, having said the doxology aloud, comes to the altar of preparation, takes the offerings, and reverently holding them head-high departs. Carrying them thus, he goes to the altar, after walking in slow and solemn procession through the nave of the church. The faithful chant during this procession, kneeling down reverently and devoutly, and praying that they may be remembered when the offering is made. The priest goes on, surrounded by candles and incense, until he comes to the altar. This is done, no doubt, for practical reasons; it was necessary to bring the offerings which are to be sacrificed to the altar and set them down there, and to do this with all reverence and devotion. This is the way in which kings of old brought their gifts to God; they did not allow others to do it for them, but brought their offerings themselves, wearing their crowns. Also, this ceremony signified the last manifestation of Christ, which aroused the hatred of the Jews, when he embarked on the journey from his native country to Jerusalem, where he was to sacrificed; then he rode into the Holy City not the back of an ass, escorted by a cheering crowd.

During this ceremony we must prostrate ourselves before the priest and entreat him to remember us in the prayers which he is about to say. For there is no other means of supplication so powerful, so certain of acceptance, as that which takes place through this most holy sacrifice, which has freely cleansed us of our sins and iniquities. If any of those who prostrate themselves thus before the priest who is carrying the offerings adores them as if they were the Body and Blood of Christ, and prays to them as such, he is led into error; he is confusing this ceremony with that of “the entry of the presanctified”, not recognizing the differences between them. In this entry of the offerings, the gifts are not yet consecrated for the sacrifice; in the liturgy of the Presanctified they are consecrated and sanctified, the true Body and Blood of Christ.”

It is clear from this passage that kneeling is usually associated with those moments in the liturgy at which the real presence of Christ in the Liturgy is most clearly manifested. This is why Kabasilas feels the need to explain the practice of kneeling at the Great Entrance when the Lord (except in the liturgy of the pre-sanctified) is not yet present.

It should be observed that the practice of kneeling in the west was not systematically arranged until the time of the Reformation when the possible doctrinal implications of laity’s posture became of more concern and so a certain uniformity became necessary. This seems to have provoked a reaction against kneeling in general among Latinophobe elements in the dissident eastern churches. This view is expressed in the commentary on Canon 90 of Trullo in Nicodemus the Hagiorite & Agapius the Monk’s Pedalion a guide to the Canons of the Councils.

“When and by whom was this Evangelical, Apostolical, and Patristical custom of genuflection abolished from our Eastern Orthodox Church? We cannot say with accuracy. We conclude, however, as a matter of guesswork or conjecture, that this custom was abolished after the schism, perhaps as a result of some of our own excessively zealous adherents being inclined to oppose the customs of the Western Church, and consequently also this canonical custom. In verification of this conclusion of ours, see our Meletius Pegas, at the end of his third book concerning Christianity where he mentions genuflections (on p. 240 of the Bucharest edition). For even the so-called papalethra — or, more plainly speaking, the stephanos worn by clerics on their head — in vogue among the Westerners, though a canonical custom, was abolished by our officials; and see c. XXI of the present C. Though even continuous communion of the mysteries as practiced by the Latins is canonical, it was abolished by us; and see the preface or preamble to the Tome of Love. And other canonical customs suffered the same fate. In saying genuflection, however, I do not mean what are commonly called “penitences” (or, in Greek, “metanoeae”), but that which we practice when kneeling to pray.”

This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the extremely liturgically conservative Old Believers kneel for the consecration as is also the practice among ordinary Greek Catholics throughout central and eastern Europe. The recent vogue for standing at all times and throughout the liturgy seems to be the product of kind of misinformed archaeologism which imposes a misunderstood and partly imagined tradition upon the actually far more traditional and authentic piety of the faithful.