Recently I was trying to put together a brief welcome brochure for folks who are visiting St. Matthew's, and I wanted to say something about all the physical gestures we use, so I did the obvious (to me) thing, and did a Google search. I ran into the blog post below (it comes from Holy Cross Episcopal Church of Weare, New Hampshire), which seems to cover the basics nicely.
As you read it, you will probably notice subtle differences between their practice and what we do at St. Matthew's. I think that's OK. We really do not have an "Episcopal Liturgy Police" that will make trouble for you if you cross yourself at the wrong time—or even go the other direction according to the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church! The ending advice of Holy Cross is good: Be reverent; don't disrupt the worship of others or call attention to yourself; let this be an outward expression of your inward devotion.
Someone coming to from another denomination remarked, “The thing I like about it here is people are free to do different things at church: sit, kneel, stand, cross themselves, bow or not.” We do have that kind of flexibility. But sometimes people want a bit of guidance in feeling their way to what works for them in worship. So here’s an attempt to provide that.
First of all, the ground for what follows is a reminder that we worship with our bodies, not just with our minds and hearts. Just as Jesus was God “embodied” in human flesh, so we are spirits in flesh. If you’ve ever watched people of other cultures dance or move in worship—Africans, Latin Americans, gospel choirs—you get the idea. Some of us are more comfortable with that than others, but exploring a little movement is something we all can try.
Standing, sitting, kneeling. The old rule in the Episcopal Church used to be stand to sing, sit to listen, kneel to pray. But scholars of worship have told us that until the Middle Ages people stood to pray, often raising their arms to heaven (as the priest does at the Altar, and as is common in the charismatic tradition). So now the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer generally lists standing before kneeling when giving the options for prayer. Standing is more a corporate posture; kneeling a privatized one. Standing is also the customary posture during the reading of the gospel lesson. Of course, sitting is most comfortable for those with disabilities—and it’s just fine.
Crossing yourself. Here again, it’s a matter of what works for you. Making the sign of the cross is a way of expressing bodily the love of Jesus on the Cross for us. It’s done in the Western Christian tradition by taking the fingers of the right hand and touching, in order, forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and (optional) chest again. A safe practice for beginners is to cross yourself whenever the priest crosses him or herself and when he or she blesses you or signifies the forgiveness of your sins by making the sign of the cross over you. When the gospel is proclaimed, it is also the custom to make a little cross gesture with just your right thumb over your forehead and your lips (signifying that you believe the gospel in your mind and will proclaim it with your mouth). There are a few times in the Eucharist or Mass where you may see people making the sign of the cross when it is no longer deemed appropriate. These times are at the Benedictus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”)—because it’s Jesus who is blessed here, not you; at the mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Creed—the sign of the cross here is a superstitious relic to ward off death; and at the conclusion of the Gloria in excelsis. There are, finally, a few places where you might want to make the sign of the cross when the priest doesn’t: notably when you receive Communion. And, of course, making the sign of the cross is often a part of private prayer, at meals or bedtime—or even before attempting a free throw! Again, if it’s helpful to you, go for it—just be reverent in your gestures as you would be in your words and thoughts.
Bowing, genuflecting. Two other gestures of reverence are used in worship. The first is bowing, which properly should be a real bending at the waist, not a token nod of the head. This is a gesture of reverence traditionally given to the cross, especially when carried in procession at the beginning or ending of a service, and to the Altar, when entering or leaving the church or moving towards or past the Altar. Genuflecting means bending the knee, again more than just a little bob if your joints permit. It is the traditional gesture of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated Bread and Wine). When the Sacrament was reserved behind the Altar, people would genuflect to it there; that gesture tended to carry over as one of reverence to the Altar when the place of reservation was moved to another site, but technically it is appropriate to genuflect only when approaching the Altar on which consecrated Bread and Wine are actually present.
Having written all this, it should be stressed again that fussiness is to be avoided in body language; the aim is achieving a harmony of body, mind and heart. Also remember that when we worship in a congregation, it is not appropriate to do ostentatious or disruptive gestures that might interfere with others’ worship or call attention to ourselves. That goes among other things for the way we exchange the Peace of Christ in the Eucharist. Read other people’s body language and adapt your own to theirs when exchanging the Peace with them!