April 26, 2010

Kneeling In Church On Sundays

By Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens


The issue of kneeling on Sundays continues to engage clergy and laity, due to the fact that diametrically opposite views have been formulated concerning this practice.

On the one hand there are those who claim that this practice is prohibited by the Sacred Canons. In particular, Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Synod states that no kneeling should be practiced on Sundays and during the period of Pentecost. According to this canon, kneeling, it states, is not consistent with the joyous and paschal character of these days, because kneeling is an expression of repentance and of godly sorrow.

On the other hand, there are others who make the opposite claim. They argue that kneeling at the time of the blessing of the Bread and the Wine, at the point we say “Your own from Your own we offer…,” is not a kneeling of sorrow, but of worship which is done because of the miracle which is effected at that moment by the God of our worship.

There is also a third category of theologians, who claim that kneeling on Sundays is neither recommended nor prohibited. It is simply tolerated, wherever it is enforced and observed.

There is no doubt that those Christians who kneel on Sundays do not do this out of irreverence, but out of great piety. They do it because they have been taught that at the point when we say “Your own from Your own we offer…” awe-inspiring mysteries take place: the Bread and the Wine that are used in the Eucharist are changed by the invocation (epiklesis) of the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of Christ. At the same time, however, it is certain that these Christians have not read the Sacred Canons, and have not studied the Holy Fathers. They simply behave according to what their Christian conscience dictates, without realizing that their behavior violates the order of the Church.

In the following paragraphs, we try to present in an analytic and objective manner the various aspects of this issue in an attempt to specify what is right and should be followed by the faithful Christians.

A. What Does The Term Kneeling (In Church) Mean?

The Sacred Canons on lesser and proper kneeling: Before we proceed to the next step, it is useful to observe what the Sacred Canons mean by the term kneeling in church. To begin with, kneeling in church is an ancient religious custom, whereby the people who are at prayer express their faith. Such kneeling is distinguished by two types:

Firstly, there is the kind when a person that prays bends the knees while holding the body upright and looking towards the foreground. This position is usually accompanied by simultaneous crossing oneself. It is the position we take at the Vespers of Forgiveness, i.e. the Vespers of Pentecost. (Indeed, the first prayer of this Vespers alludes to this in saying, “offering supplication by bending the neck and inclining the knees”).

Secondly, there is the type when a faithful rests on his knees on the ground, places his hands on it and bends down his forehead onto the earth, or when he is standing up and decides to go down on the knees to the point that his face touches the floor and then stands up again. This is repeated several times.

Kneeling and Repentance: The first kind of kneeling is called a minor repentance, and the second, major repentance, or prostration or ground prostration. Major repentances are practiced in the Presanctified Divine Liturgies, at the point when the Holy Gifts pass by the faithful. Greater use of them is made by monastics, and sometimes spiritual masters impose these major repentances as a penance on those Christians who have sinned and repented for their sins. Saint John the Faster introduced this custom of penances, and called the major type of (church) kneeling simply kneeling. Basil the Great closely identified repentance with the prostration.

When do we kneel and when do we not kneel in church: A differentiation is made between the minor and the major types of kneeling in the Kollyvadian Book of Liturgical Rubrics of the erudite economos Fr. George Regas of Skiathos, where we read the following: “Repentances are of two kinds, minor and major. The minor ones are the prostrations we do when we cross ourselves and bow only our head without bending the knees. These minor repentances are done each day and on many occasions throughout the day without ceasing. The major repentances are characterized by the bending of the knees. These are never allowed on a Saturday or Sunday (apart from the Feast of the Precious Cross), but are done only during the Great Lent and on any day except Saturday and Sunday.”[1]

Kneeling and the four types of repentant persons: From what has been said so far, we gather that prayer which is accompanied by repeated kneeling has the meaning of repentance, i.e. the return of a sinner. It is known that in the ancient Church the repentant persons were subdivided into four types:

Firstly, there were those who mourned. These people remained outside the church nave and invited other faithful to pray for them.

Secondly, there were those who simply listened to the services. These people entered only the narthex, and listened from there the reading of the Scriptures.

Thirdly, there were those who bended the knee or knelt to the ground. These people remained in this position in order to indicate their repentance.

Fourthly and finally, there were those who remained standing.

These types of repentance indicated people who had humbled themselves and were seeking God’s mercy. They symbolized human falling into sin and standing up against it. The falling to the ground indicated contrition and compunction, whereas the standing up indicated deliverance and salvation. As Basil the Great writes, “Each day by practicing kneeling to the ground and standing up again we show that through sin we fell to the earth and through the love for mankind of our Creator we were recalled to heaven.”[2]

B. What The Sacred Canons And Their Interpreters Say

What to do or what not to do on Sundays: Sunday was always distinguished from any other day as a day of joy and celebration, because of the Resurrection. This is why on Sunday we do not fast, and when we go through a period of fasting and do not use oil, Sundays and Saturdays are exempted. The 66th Canon of the Holy Apostles stipulates: “If any clergyman is found to be fasting on a Sunday, or on a Saturday, except on Great Saturday, he should be defrocked.”[3]

Why we should follow the Sacred Canons: One may ask, why do the Canons deal with such matters and do not leave the people free to do what they like and what they wish? The question is plausible. Nevertheless, we should not follow on all matters what we like, but what is right. Otherwise there will be no order in the Church and the symbolic actions will not be observed, in spite of their essentially dogmatic content. The ever-memorable professor of Liturgics John Foundoulis had this to say: “The position one takes in the Divine Liturgy should not be determined by our own personal piety and disposition, but by the Tradition of the Church, on the basis of the meaning which is given to every liturgical position and at every moment of the Church’s worship.”[4]

On Sundays we neither kneel nor fast: Along with fasting, the Sacred Canons prohibit all kneeling on Sundays.

What the Canons say: Saint Irenaeus writes: “The practice of not bending the knee on a Sunday is a symbol of the Resurrection, through which we were delivered by the Grace of Christ both from our sins and from the death which was put to death by Christ himself.”[5]

In a similar fashion pseudo-Justin bears witness in his 115th answer to the prohibition of all kneeling on Sundays. ´This custom was initiated in Apostolic times as blessed Irenaeus, the martyr-bishop of Lyons, says.”[6]

Of great importance for this matter is Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Synod, which stipulates: “Because there are some persons who kneel in church on a Sunday and during the days of Pentecost, with the view to preserving uniformity in all parishes, it seemed best to the Holy Council that prayers should be offered to God while standing.”[7] In other words, the Holy Synod stipulates that on Sundays and during the period of Pentecost Christians should pray in Church standing.

Canon 90 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod is even clearer. Here is what is specified: “We have received it canonically from our God-bearing Fathers not to bend the knee on Sundays when we honor the Resurrection of Christ. Since this observation may not be clear to some of us, we are making it plain to the faithful, that after the entrance of those in holy orders into the sacrificial altar on the evening of Saturday in question, let none of them bend the knee until the evening of the following Sunday, when, after the Entrance in the Vespers, we bend the knees again, and begin to offer prayers to the Lord. For inasmuch as we have received it that in the night succeeding Saturday was the precursor of our Savior’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.” In other words from the evening of Saturday, after Vespers, until the Vespers of Sunday we are obliged not to kneel when we pray. Here is Balsamon’s comment on this Canon: “The Resurrection of Christ took place on Saturday evening, i.e. before Sunday had dawned, so that what relates to the feast might start at night and end towards the light and so the vigil of the Resurrection is celebrated through the entire night and day.”[8] Indeed, it is known that the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated during the days of the Great Lent, except on Saturdays and Sundays. The reason for this is that the Divine Liturgy is a template of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

What the Fathers say: Let us now see what the Fathers say about this matter. Peter of Alexandria says this in his Canon 15: “As for Sunday, on the other hand, we celebrate it as a joyous holiday because of Him who was resurrected on it, on which day we have not even received instruction to bend the knee.”[9]

St. Nikephoros the Confessor stipulates through his Canon 10 the following: “One must bend the knee for the sake of bestowing a kiss on Sunday and throughout Pentecost, but one ought not to make the usual genuflections.”[10]

Basil the Great says in his Canon 91: “We offer our prayers on the first of the Sabbaths (Sunday) in a standing position.”[11] And he goes on to explain the reasons which obligate us not to make the major genuflections on a Sunday and during the entire period of Pentecost. These reasons are basically the fact that Sunday is the day of the Resurrection of our Lord and consequently we are obligated to remain standing in an upright position as resurrected persons. Besides, every Sunday is a symbol of the eighth day, i.e. of the age to come and for this reason the Church trains and teaches the faithful to remember the age to come and to be prepared to welcome it in an upright position which indicates vigilance. “In which (Sunday) the upright position of prayer should be preferred as the stipulations of the Church have trained us to do, so that by a sort of active reminder our mind might transmigrate from the present to the future realities.”[12]

The minor kneeling (genuflection) or repentance used in worship. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite is the one among the Fathers who clarifies that the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays does not include the minor kneeling, the so-called minor repentance, which we make when we venerate the holy icons. The Church does not forbid practicing this type of genuflection in church on Sundays. This is why we hear, “Come let us worship and prostrate before Christ…”[13] These minor prostrations which are done in veneration are not forbidden. The major kneeling, however, which involves bending the knee to the ground and touching the floor with the forehead, is forbidden, because it is contrary to the paschal and eschatological character of Sunday, i.e. to the joyful and festive spirit, which, on this account, is incompatible with any sense of mourning or contrition which is indicated by the major kneeling. This why the Church sings: “This is the Day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in It.”[14]

C. Other Views

There are theologians, however, who do not agree with what we wrote above. Here are their main arguments. When the Myrrh-bearing women met with the Risen Lord they fell on his feet and venerated Him. It was a Sunday when this took place. It was on the Mount of Galilee that the eleven Disciples venerated the Lord in the same way after His Resurrection. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, describes the gathering of the church for worship where each believer “falls down with his face onto the ground to worship God.”[15] Here, of course, it is not clarified whether the Apostle refers to the Sunday gathering for worship.

Serious arguments for major (proper) kneeling on Sundays: Such arguments, biblical, historical and canonical, are provided by Professor P. Trempelas in his book “Kneeling on Sundays.”[16] In this book, the wise professor invokes the witness of Codices 865 and 2055 of the National Library of Greece concerning the Hierarch who “makes three repentances.” Nevertheless this detail is not serious enough as to justify kneeling on Sundays. The same observation applies to the Typikon (Book of Liturgical Rubrics) of the 12th-13th century which has been published by Dimitrievsky and makes mention of “a triple kneeling of the priest.”[17] For these references, however, Matthew Vlastares’ comment made in the Pedalion (Rudder) is important: “The typika (rubrics) which are made by the founders of monasteries should be observed as long as they do not contradict the canons.” The same professor tries, on the basis of Canon 91 of Basil the Great, to render relative the upright position in Sunday prayers by writing that the opinion of the Holy Father is derived “from the unwritten tradition,”[18] although Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Synod had preceded it. At the same time the ever-memorable professor appeals to the witness of the Typikon of St. Savva, saying that it foresees for Sundays “bending of our knee and bowing towards the earth.”[19] Nevertheless in the edition of this Typikon of the year 1771 that was printed in Venice by Hierodeacon Spyridon Papadopoulos, the exact text reads as follows: “bending and bowing unto the earth.”[20] Indeed, it is known that Trempelas’ arguments were offset by other counter-arguments through the special study of Metropolitan Hezekiel the Thessaliotis in the journal Ekklesia.[21] Finally, with regard to the argument that in the ordinations, which usually occur on Sundays, we kneel down, it should be carefully observed that the most important codices do not refer to kneeling, either of the candidate or of the people. The later liturgical practice speaks of the kneeling of the candidate, but not of the people.

In addition, the ever-memorable Archimandrite Epiphanios Theodoropoulos in his book “The Period of the Pentecostarion” insists on the distinction of various forms of kneeling. He clearly states, regarding this matter, that “this manner of combining the upright position with the bowing down in worship does not contradict the stipulations of the Church but satisfies a deep psychological need. This need is the worshipful prostration in the face of the one who already stands before us, under the species of bread and wine, namely, our King and Savior.”[22] And it seems that the solution to the whole problem is hidden behind this point.

Professor Basil Anagnostopoulos of the Theological School of Halki in his monograph “Kneeling at the Consecration of the Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord on Sundays: The Tradition of the Theological School of Halki” deposits his living memories from the School, where all the Patriarchs and Rectors of the last decades, such as the Patriarchs Maximos and Athenagoras, Melito of Chalcedon, Germanos of Thyateira, Gennadios of Elioupolis, Michael of America, as well as the two last Rectors of the period of his studies and the two of the period of his professorial service, used to kneel on Sundays. Ezekiel the Thessaliotis, however, deposits the witness of Polykarpos of Trikke and Stagoi (as Deacon to Patriarch Anthimos VII) according to which in the Patriarchate “no one ever bent the knee on a Sunday, because they regarded this custom as alien and strange to Greek Orthodoxy.”[23] Also, Archimandrite Eusebios Matthopoulos, the founder of the Zoe Brotherhood of Theologians, honored the custom of kneeling, having taken it from his Geronta Fr. Ignatios Lampropoulos.

A serious argument in support of the non-absolute character of the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays, which is put forth, is the Church’s praxis, whereby she transferred, through its pertinent authority and apparently for pastoral reasons, the Vespers of the Sunday of Pentecost when all believers kneel, from the vesperal hours of the Sunday of Pentecost when believers also kneel (because there is no prohibition of kneeling on this occasion, according to Canon 90 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod) to the morning of the Sunday of Pentecost. Therefore, according to this view, the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays does not have an absolute character, but can be overlooked on account of spiritual-pastoral expediency. The position of Trempelas is indeed, that “since the transference of the Vespers to the morning was allowed, the prohibition of kneeling is of relative force and tolerable of exceptions and flexibility.” Also, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes, that the prayers of kneeling should not be said in the morning because in this way the prohibition of kneeling is thereby abolished. “Hence when we read these prayers in the morning, we do it wrongly and sinfully and in contradiction to the Sacred Canons.”[24] In addition, it is known that the Church has accepted the liturgical repentances on Sunday worship. At this point we should remark that we regard of special importance the observation of Professor Trempelas that the Sacred Canons which prohibit kneeling on Sundays do not impose penalties for possible transgressions of the specific stipulation.

Professor Ioannes Foundoulis attributes the introduction of the custom of kneeling to Russian influence, which was exerted upon our customs most probably by Queen Olga through the practice that was established in the Palace chapel and was transmitted from there to the parishes. In Russia, this custom was introduced at the time of Peter the Great and was due to European influence. The same distinguished Greek liturgist, criticizing the support of this custom, writes: “The tragic aspect of this case is not that some faithful and even some clergy bend their knee at the consecration of the Precious Gifts, but that this is taught and encouraged by the teachers of the Church in spite of the Sacred Canons and the ages long ecclesiastical tradition and order. Our piety in worship is bound to the liturgical order and consists in our coordinating ourselves to the rhythm and the pattern of common prayer. Otherwise we cause disarray and arbitrariness by not obeying the ecclesiastical institutions and not trying to understand their spirit, but, rather, to introduce our personal pietistic and pious-looking practices which are alien to our ecclesiastical tradition.”[25]

D. The View of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece at its meeting of October 1999 included in its agenda the topic entitled, “Liturgical precision, orderliness and unity, and ballot vote on a Constitution for a Special Synodal Committee of Liturgical Regeneration” with Metropolitan Nikodemos of Patrai as chairman on account of his tempered knowledge of liturgical matters. The Most Reverend Metropolitan Nikodemos presented to the Synodal body the conclusions of the 10 member Committee which had examined the above topic under his chairmanship. On the matter of kneeling the Committee proposed the following: “That kneeling on Sunday is not required at the consecration and is not imposed. It is simply tolerated.”

This view was based on a combination of the two opposing views that were outlined above, because it was determined that neither those who over-emphasize the absolute character of the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays are right, nor do those who bend their knees at the awesome moment of the consecration ignore “what the Spirit (of the sacred Canons) says to the Churches.” In other words, the Holy Synod took the view that according to the rule (canon) Christians should not kneel on Sundays at the moment of “Your own from Your own we offer…” because this is what the Sacred Canons suggest because it is characteristic of these days to stress the Resurrection. Nevertheless, kneeling can be tolerated by concession (kat oikonomian), because it does not indicate any irreverence, but rather indicates great reverence and conscientious recognition of the awe-inspiring sacrifice which takes place on the Holy Table at the invocation (epiklesis) of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

What St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite says: We prefer to base our view not so much on the exercise of concession for those who bend the knee, or less on the absolute potency of the prohibition, but mainly on the distinction of the two senses of “kneeling” – as they were explained above and as St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite had explained the Canon. Here is what he writes in his interpretation of Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Synod. “Note, however, that the present Canon is not referring to those genuflections which among us are more commonly called major repentances, which, properly speaking, are called prostrations that are made before kissing the icons of the saints or before the awesome sacraments and are not prohibited neither on a Sunday nor on the days of the period of Pentecost as Canon 10 of St. Nikephoros says. Indeed this is what the sacred hymns also say on occasions: 'Before You we fall down who was raised from the Tomb,' or 'Come let us worship and fall down before Christ the risen One…' and other such like hymns.”[26] And St. Nikodemos continues: “In my view the Canon does not refer to this kind of genuflection, but to the genuflection wherein while bending our knees we pray, as we do, for instance, during the evening of Holy Pentecost.”[27]

That is to say, yes the literary meaning of kneeling is the attachment of the knees to the ground, but this should be avoided on Sundays, because the Sacred Canons explicitly prohibit it and therefore, both clergy and laity should bend their body deeply when the consecration takes place in order to indicate that they stand before the sacrament in a spirit of veneration and worship. In this way, neither the Sacred Canons are infringed, nor is the pious disposition of the faithful overlooked or criticized.

Certainly we understand that this solution may cause the reaction of those who are used to kneeling to the ground on Sundays. This matter, however, has to do with pastoral and liturgical discipline, because people should be taught rightly why the Sacred Canons prohibit kneeling in church on Sundays. This is the duty of the clergy, who are required to undertake the responsibility to teach the faithful what is right and to use the liturgical sermon to educate their parishioners. There is no reason to allow the infiltration into the Divine Liturgy of personal and sentimental elements which change its character. Also, there is no need to try to find on every occasion pretexts or explanations of deviations which are not approved by the Church. The Divine Liturgy is not a personal affair. The Church lays down the order and she has specified that paschal character of the Divine Liturgy which stresses the Resurrection and which has been from the beginning associated with Sunday. We do not need to prove the paschal character of the Divine Liturgy which is connected with the Resurrection and the Last Things (eschatology). Besides, the Church prohibited the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on days of fasting and this, of course, has been today restricted to the period of the Great Lent, but the primary sense still remains intact: the Eucharist is an eschatological event and cannot be anything else but a celebratory occasion, full of joy and radiance.[28]


[1] See his Typikon, Thessalonica, 1994, p. 42.

[2] Ralles-Potles, Syntagma, vol. 4, p. 286.

[3] Translator’s note: See the Πηδάλιον Ἀγαπίου Ἱερομονάχου καὶ Νικοδήμου Μοναχοῦ (3η ἔκδοσις, Ζάκυνθος, 1864), ἐκδ. Ἀστήρ, Ἀθῆναι 1970, σ. 82. The English translation of the above, i.e. The Rudder of Agapius and Nikodemus, translated by D. Cummings, published by The Orthodox Christian Education Society, Chicago Illinois, 1957, p.110 gives the number 64 for this Canon, because, as it states it is so number in the majority of editions. However, the more recent editions of the Sacred Canons (Ἱεροὶ Κανόνες) of H. Alivizatos (1949) and Bl. Feidas (1997) give the number 55 to this Canon.

[4] Ioannes Foundoulis, Liturgics, p. 237.

[5] Εἰρηναίου, Ἀποσπάσματα ἐξ ἀπολεσθέντων ἔργων, ΒΕΠΕΣ, vol. 5, 1955, p. 174, 15-17.

[6] ΒΕΠΕΣ, vol. 4, 1955, p. 128.

[7] The Rudder, p. 196.

[8] The Rudder, pp. 394-5.

[9] The Rudder, pp. 754-5.

[10] The Rudder, p. 965.

[11] The Rudder, p. 855.

[12] The Rudder, p. 855.

[13] The Introit of the Small Entrance of the Divine Liturgy.

[14] The 3rd Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy.

[15] I Cor. 14:25.

[16] Ἡ Γονυκλισία ἐν ταῖς Κυριακαῖς, Τύποις Φοίνικος, Ἀθῆναι 1948.

[17] Ἡ Γονυκλισία ... ενθ. αν. σ. 8. Πρβλ. Αlekej Dmitrievskij, Opisanie Liturgitseskich Rukopisej, I, Τυπικά, Kiev 1895 (repr. Hildesheim 1965), p. 812.

[18] Εκκλησία, τευχ. 33-34, 1948.

[19] Εκκλησία 25-26 σ. 198.

[20] p. 5.

[21] Εκκλησία 33-34, 1938.

[22] Περίοδος Πεντηκοσταρίου, Το Εκκλησιαστικόν Έτος 2, έν Αθήναις 1973, σσ. 94-95.

[23] Ekklesia, issues 33-34, 1948, p. 280.

[24] Pedalion, p. 151.

[25] Ioannes Foundoulis, Liturgics, pp. 239-240.

[26] The Rudder, p. 965.

[27] Ibid.

[28] On this see further the article of The Most Reverend Metropolitan John of Pergamon in the journal Synaxis, 51 (1994) 88-89. See also, Archimandrite Kyrillos Kostopoulos, Sacred Tradition Regarding Kneeling: A Theological Reference to the Jewish Sabbath and to the Lord’s Day, Athens 2000.

Source: Translated by Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas and edited by John Sanidopoulos.