Stand to pray, sit to sing

The latest Liturgical Titbit:

Lutherans, unlike everyone else it seems, stand to pray and sit to sing. Why?

The reason for sitting for hymns is almost certainly entirely prosaic. Lutheran hymns were traditionally long, and often sung very slowly. If hymns last 20 minutes or more, sitting down is quite sensible. Since that’s rarely an issue these days, perhaps this is a tradition we would do well to reconsider.

As for prayer, the Bible knows three postures for prayer: standing, kneeling and prostration. All of these are ways of recognising the fact that when we pray we are in God’s presence.

Just as we stand in the presence of a judge or a monarch, we stand in the presence of God—unless of course we kneel or prostrate ourselves. These latter postures are expressions of humility and penitence, of our dependence on God and our unworthiness. This is why kneeling for prayers of penitence (such as the Confession) is particularly appropriate. Again, perhaps this is something for us to reconsider.

3 thoughts on “Stand to pray, sit to sing”

  1. I think there’s more to the Lutheran posture for hymns than just their length. Lutheran hymnody is typically didactic, and it makes sense to sit down while you’re taught. This also applies to the depth of their theological thought; they make you want to sit still and ponder. These factors don’t tend to apply to English-language hymnody of other theological traditions, which tends to be oriented more to prayer and praise. Of course, here’s something to think about. Perhaps we Lutherans should look at the content of the hymn before deciding whether to stand or sit. Hymns of prayer and praise ought to make us jump to our feet (as we’ve already learnt to do for concluding doxological stanzas).

    1. Tom, thanks for your comment.

      I have heard that theory before. I’m not fully convinced, though. In fact, as in various other matters liturgical, I suspect that there is a certain amount of post facto symbolising involved. As such, though, it does make sense. Perhaps that’s why in the ELCE at least, it’s common to stand for the opening and closing hymns, which tend to be hymns of invocation (opening) and praise (closing), but to sit for the hymn of the day, which tends to be didactic, and the distribution hymn, for which it makes little sense to stand (though kneeling might be the proper posture there!).

      Given that it’s a brief bulletin insert, the explanation above is necessarily very brief and incomplete. Moreover, I haven’t done the research to justify all my claims. Historically, I suspect but can’t prove that the continued existence of the liturgical choir in the Lutheran service (as per Joseph Herl’s work) might have something to do with it as well. Whereas in the Reformed churches, congregational participation (Psalm and, later, hymn singing) became the only form of singing, the Lutheran congregation would continue to sit and listen to various portions of the service.

      Another hunch I have is that the Reformed/Anglican practice of standing has something to do with the fact that for a long time, they only sang Psalms—for which even Lutherans stand.

  2. Don’t forget that along with the liturgical is the practical – The human voice is better supported when standing. To blend and project correctly, we stand – which is why the choir stands to sing, professional singers stand to sing, etc. So, I would suggest that standing has the added benefit of helping the congregation sing.

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