Written in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Wessler, Kantor at First Lutheran Church of Boston. Jonathan is a super awesome Lutheran organist who has a lovely wife and three wonderful children. Along with being a consummate organist, he also enjoys good beer, mocking terrible church music, and driving super fast on the Autobahn. You can learn more about the FLC music program at: https://www.flc-boston.org/ministries/music-ministry
Does the posture we take to sing in church matter? This may seem like a trivial question, but on reflection, the posture we take to sing generates a world of difference in the quality and life of our song. In most churches the congregation sits for the singing of hymns, only rising when the hymnal instructs or when there is a processional. However, if you look at the vast majority of professional singers and choirs, they stand when singing. Why not the congregation?
To begin with, standing is the historically normative posture in worship. Not only in worship settings but in lecture settings as well, it was the rabbi/teacher/learned man who sat (presumably in an elevated place, in order to be seen), while those being taught stood. This is attested to in Scripture. All the way back in Exodus, the Tabernacle courtyard was just an empty space for the Israelites to stand in, and the same was true for Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple. When Jesus taught in the synagogue (Luke 4:20) and preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), He sat while His listeners stood.
The practice of congregations standing continued in the early Church, and on into the Middle Ages. Indeed, St. Basil the Great describes in detail a fascinating tradition of the Church of his time: the congregation refrained from kneeling during Eastertide and on Sundays (the weekly observance of the Resurrection), standing instead in imitation of the posture of the risen Christ.
We stand up when praying on the first of the week, though not all of us know the reason. For it is not only that it serves to remind us that when we have risen from the dead together with Christ we ought to seek the things above, in the day of resurrection of the grace given us, by standing at prayer.… Of necessity, therefore, the Church teaches her children to fulfill their obligations to pray therein while standing up, in order to constantly remind them of the deathless life to prevent them from neglecting the provisions for the journey thither. And every Pentecost is a reminder of the expected resurrection in the age to come. For that one first day, being multiplied seven times over, constitutes the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost.… The laws of the Church have taught us to prefer the upright posture at prayer, thus transporting our mind, so to speak, as a result of vivid and clear suggestions, from the present age to the things come in the future. And during each kneeling and standing up again we are in fact showing by our actions that it was through sin that we fell to earth, and that through the kindness of the One Who created us we have been called back to Heaven.
(Canon XCI of St. Basil the Great, emphases added)
St. Basil’s description focuses completely on avoiding kneeling during prayer. Of interest is that his verbiage does not imply standing instead of sitting, but rather standing all the time instead of standing simply when not kneeling in prayer. This indicates that the concept of sitting during the liturgy was a non-entity.
Even the pew itself is a modern invention. The great European cathedrals have no pews, only freestanding chairs arranged in rows, and the fact that those chairs are there in the 21st century does not imply that they were there in e.g. the 14th. This is also evident in the Eastern Orthodox denominations, who still adhere to the Church’s earliest practices because they conveniently never change anything at all: there are no pews in most Eastern Orthodox churches (This article also provides a further discussion of what sitting in pews means, which is fascinating given the fact that megachurches one-upped pews entirely and went straight to stadium seating).
Pews were installed in the Lutheran churches of Germany at least by the late 17th century as by the time of Bach it was common for rich parishioners to purchase their pews to be away from the masses (see Gardiner’s book on Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven). Churches of the English Reformation had pews for the choir and clergy to sit in choro behind the rood screen, but the section for the congregation again was just chairs, if that (cf. King’s Chapel in Cambridge).
Aside from the historical liturgical practice, standing for singing has many salutary benefits. The first is that it is the natural posture of the body for singing. Standing straightens your back and allows more space in your abdomen for your diaphragm to expand downward, opening your lungs more fully. This, in turn, creates the support necessary to sing in tune, with volume, and with confidence. If you have ever found it hard to sing, it is likely that you are used to singing while sitting and have never had the proper posture and support. Humans are built to sing and there is nobody who cannot do so. Proper posture can go a long way to making a feeble congregational song into a robust choir of saints.
The second benefit is that standing frees the body to move. We are not talking about the swaying, arm raising, fanaticism of the evangelicals who try to whip themselves up emotionally to prove they are spiritual. Rather sitting chains the body down from the natural motions it makes when singing. The body naturally moves with music in subtle, and not so subtle ways. Whether singing an energetic dancing chorale, or a somber penitential song, or a marching warlike hymn, the body has different motions and responses to a song. This motion is a good thing as it allows the singer to more naturally express the music. While emotion is never the main thing in worship, rightly directed emotion in conformity with the Word is a salutary secondary effect. This motion and emotion are properly in line with the words being confessed in the music.
This brings us to point three, standing allows music to breathe and have life. A common complaint, and frankly rightly so, is the lifelessness of traditional worship. We have all been to churches where the worship is rightly done by the book, but is lifeless and dead. This should not be. The solution to the problem of lifeless robotic worship is to breathe life back into it, for the service has become vain repetition. One of the best ways to breathe life back into the service, aside from actually believing what you are singing and playing hymns at the right tempo, is to stand for singing. There is a marked difference between the song of those who stand while singing and those who do not. Standing hymns and songs are more natural and earnest for the congregation is able to breathe and act naturally rather than being chained down by the pew.
In the end, the liturgy is not the words on the page, but rather the lived out worship of the church. This worship is living and active because of the Word of God in the words we speak and sing to one another. As such we should sing and say and mean and feel what we believe. The whole body should be allowed to be in conformity with this truth. Standing creates this freedom for the body so that it may move and breathe freely in the grace of Christ and sing His praises loudly and with a joyful heart.
 St. Basil’s references to Pentecost actually refer to Eastertide, as is made clear in context.