Continuing in our series of "Why do Anglicans..." this week we will look at a question I didn't realise so many people had. Why do Anglicans bow to the cross?
What's up with the bowing?
There are actually around four different types of bowing that you might encounter in an Anglican service of worship. There is the genuflect, the deep bow, the small bow and the nod of the head. Each relates to some particular element, prayer or idea in the service. In many Anglican communities, there would be no bowing at all. It tends to fall back to what we label 'Churchmanship' which really does need a gender-neutral update.
The Anglican Church is a diverse group of people, formed on the idea of the via media or middle way. As the church came into its own at the reformation, there was a need to incorporate the necessary elements of change and reform with the ancient practices of the church catholic. The result is that every Anglican church is a little different. They all sit somewhere on a spectrum between what we call low church and high church. Low church is marked by a lack of robes, formality, candles and rituals while high church is marked by an abundance of those things. It is the middle of this spectrum up to high church that sees most of the bowing.
There are a number of dynamics behind this, but primarily it is about acknowledgement and respect. Taking the time to acknowledge the cross as the means of access, means of grace and means of salvation within Christian understanding is a helpful way to bring the mind and spirit into the worship of God. The bow acknowledges a sacrifice of time of awareness and of humility to God for the gift of the cross, in particular the empty cross. Not bowing does not mean we are ignoring these things, but rather that we acknowledge them in different ways. Bowing is best understood as the outward expression of grace and truth known in our hearts - grace and truth that can be acknowledged in other ways as well.
This is the action of kneeling on one knee and crossing oneself with the sign of the cross. Traditionally, this was done when there were elements from the communion remaining in the aumbry, a space for storing consecrated bread and wine. The genuflect was an acknowledgement of Christ's presence in the sacrament and a statement of humility and respect. Within the broader Anglican church, the genuflect has also come to be an action people undertake as they enter and exit the church building. This is generally directed to the cross rather than the sacrament. Again, it is a physical reflection of an acknowledgement of God's presence in the space.
The Deep Bow
This bow is found at significant moments in the liturgy of the church. It is characterised by a bow generally from the hips. Particularly it relates to the utterance of the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but also to the consecration of the bread and wine at communion. It reflects a humble acknowledgement of God's presence.
The Small Bow
This is a hard one to explain. This tends to be a bow from the upper torso or shoulders and generally mirrors the deep bow of a priest or other person leading the service. It is a small acknowledgement of something significant occurring in the words, prayers or actions of the service.
The Nod of the Head
The nod of the head occurs in similar moments to the small bow but generally is shorter. It is somewhat equivalent to the raising of our eyebrows when we notice or acknowledge someone we know. Generally, you will encounter this in the more 'broad church' tradition where there is a mix of high and low church practice.