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Standing to worship: does it exclude disabled people?

Yesterday I came across this tweet from Heather Renee Morgan, @H_R_Morgan:

“"Stand if you are able" isn't the inclusive statement people think it is. When I hear these words, I assume that everything that comes after until people are seated again is off-limits to me. My preferred alternative? Come into your body and respond with your body.”

The context was worship in church settings. At church, congregations typically stand for sung worship and may also stand for prayers, parts of the liturgy, and Bible readings.

This got me thinking. Why do we stand to worship? Does it matter if we do or don’t?

If it doesn’t matter, then we can all stand or sit or kneel or lie down or jump up and down as we feel inclined. But if it does matter, then ‘stand if you’re able’ may remain appropriate because we are making a statement that those who can stand should stand at those moments.

My first step was to read some of the responses to the tweet, to see what others had to say. My second was a quick google of ‘why do we stand to worship’.

Immediately I came across a pair of blog posts titled “10 Biblical reason to stand in worship”. Reading through the two blogs, it became apparent that there are good reasons for standing to worship, both cultural and biblical, and that these should not be lightly thrown away. Indeed, standing to worship should probably not be thrown out at all.

Standing is an action that demonstrates respect, reverence and awe. Some of us may have been to schools that were old-fashioned enough to require pupils to stand up when the teacher came in. This was a mark of respect for the teacher. A couple of centuries ago, a man would not have sat down in the presence of a woman unless invited to do so; and visitors generally would not sit down until invited to do so. People would even make sure they sat properly, rather than lounging in another’s presence as if they didn’t matter.

In the Bible, we see God’s people stand whenever the pillar of cloud (God’s presence) was at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33); standing in awe (Habbakuk 3:2); standing for the reading of Scripture (Nehemiah 8); standing in worship (1 Chroinicles 23:30; 2 Chronicles 7:6); Nehemiah 9:5); and standing for confession (Nehemiah) and prayer (Genesis 18; Ezekiel 22:30). We read about God giving us a firm place to stand (Psalm 40); being able to stand in God’s presence because he has cleanses us (Psalm 24); and standing at the crossroads to look for the good way to walk Jeremiah 6).

There are good, strong reasons for standing during worship of God and other parts of the service. So what about those of us who can’t stand?

We could decide to feel excluded by our inability to stand. We could decide to take offense at whatever form of words the service leader uses to invite people to stand. We could decide that no-one actually has, or ought, or should feel as though they ought, to stand.

But our first response should be to look to what the Bible has to say.

Firstly, the Bible shows that the people of God have historically stood to worship him, when in his presence, and when hearing from him. Even in our relatively informal culture, standing continues to be a sign of respect for another person. So I think that there is value in continuing to stand, especially if we have stopped to consider what standing means. If we don’t know why we stand, then instead of throwing out the practise we should reflect on why we stand – and then decide if it is worth keeping. I think it is worth keeping, because standing continues to be the posture that shows respect. At other times, we may wish to bow or kneel – postures that show our humility before God. And at still other times, we may wish to dance or jump or wave our arms – postures that show celebration and rejoicing in God.

What does sitting show? Sitting shows a degree of comfort in God’s presence. It shows a relaxation and an informality, appropriate to a child with their family. But it doesn’t, and I don’t feel that it can, show reverence or awe.

So what about those of us who can’t stand? I don’t think that the right response is to have standing done away with, for two reasons. Firstly, it implies that our bodies and what we do with them doesn’t matter; when actually God gave us bodies for a reason and what we do with them does often affect how we think, feel and act. Standing rather than sitting can create a subconscious process that helps us to remember the respect that we should show to God. Similarly, kneeling to pray can remind us of our humility and dependence upon God. Our bodies are important, and with them we act out our responses to God. We are not merely spiritual beings, and we do not offer merely our thoughts to God. We offer our whole bodies and selves, because God has made us in a way that means our bodies are deeply tied into who we are.

Secondly, God tells us that love is not provoked and does not store up wrongs. I think an approach that takes offense at phrases that are suitable for the majority (e.g. ‘please stand’) is not a Christian approach. If we find ourselves taking offense, we should stop to ask why. Why does this bother me? Is it because I think the other person is excluding me – or is it because it’s a reminder of my physical limitations, and that is a grief and loss of which I don’t wish to be reminded? It is painful to have my illness and disability brought before me. But it doesn’t follow that other people should tread on eggshells around me for fear of saying anything that might possibly remind me that I have a chronic illness. The fact is that life repeatedly reminds me that I have a chronic illness, and if I can’t deal with that then that is an issue that I need to work on. If I don’t, then I’m going to face a lot of repeated trauma in my life, from issues that are not inherently, and don’t need to be, traumatic. Instead I bring my frustration and grief to God and leave it in his hands, knowing that if he wanted me to be capable of more than I currently am, then he would have given me the capacity to do it. I accept my weakness and trust my Father to look after me; and I don’t ask others to be scared of what they say around me.

When I hear the leader of a church service invite people to stand, I am reminded of the respect and honour that is due to God. When people around me stand up, I feel the respect and honour that they are showing God. They act with their bodies what I can only do in spirit; and because they act it with their bodies, I can join them in spirit. If everyone remained seated, not because they couldn’t stand but because they thought it helped me, then we would not collectively be showing God the respect that he deserves. We would be prioritising my emotions and inadequacies over the honour that is due to God. Yet the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We should fear to downgrade God in one another’s eyes.

God accepts my sitting because he knows I cannot stand; it does not follow that the healthy person should remain seated also. When God gave the Israelites his commands on sin offerings, he gave them different options according to the means of the sinner. But the fact that poor people could bring a sin offering of a tenth of an ephah of flour did not mean that a rich person could do the same; to do so would be offensive to God given the capabilities of the rich person (Lev 5:5-12).

I think that it is important that those who can stand to worship God should continue to do so. Those who can’t stand should feel welcome to remain seated. “Please stand if you are able” therefore remains a good phrase to use, to express both the importance and worth of standing in the presence of God, and offer permission to those who can’t stand to remain seated whilst being spiritually included in the physical standing of those around us.

Let those who can stand do so, and those who can’t stand do so in spirit.

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