I was a new Anglican, trying to participate by watching everyone else. I heard a voice shout “Please stand” and then “Blessed be God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!” As a cross passed, some people bowed their heads.

Parade of Clergy?

Everyone stood up as we sang a hymn. I was looking upfront and nothing seemed to be happening. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a parade of sorts moving toward the front of the church. I turned and noticed that many in the congregation were half-turned toward the parade of vested clergy.  A number of people bowed their heads as the parade passed. Not everyone did, but I decided to jump on board and bow my head as the clergy  passed.

I didn’t know why this was happening. It seemed very solemn to me, very reverent, and I loved it. I assumed that for some reason the people were bowing to the parade of clergy-people. I was intrigued and wanted to understand a bit more about this tradition that I had never experienced.

What I called (in my mind) “a parade” is really called a processional. I thought it was all clergy because everyone was wearing a robe (vestments). Yet I found out that it was a mix of clergy and laypeople. The congregation was not bowing to a “parade of clergy”; instead, they were bowing to the cross as it passed.

If you are new to Anglican worship, like I was, you may not be familiar with the tradition of bowing the head when the processional cross passes. So let’s talk about it.

The Processional

We have already written about the processional here at Anglican Compass. It is an ancient and longstanding Christian tradition. In ancient times, as attested by the nun Egeria in her third-century travel journal, everyone processed into the church behind a cross. The Venerable Bede used the processional as a way of evangelism. He went to pagan lands in what is today Canterbury, England and processed all the way through the town so everyone could see the cross and the people.

As time went on, this was ritualized by having those leading worship process from the nave (where the congregation sits) to the sanctuary (where the altar area is). Because this procession represents all of the people, it usually includes both clergy and laypeople. Usually, the deacon is carrying the Gospel book, a crucifer is carrying the cross, and acolytes are carrying the torches (candles).

The Cross

Jesus died on a Roman cross. Crucifixion was one of the main ways that the Romans terrorized the lands they had conquered. They would take a leader, an insurrectionist, or a criminal, and nail them to a cross. These crosses would often be placed on busy roads where many people would see the rebel leader who had threatened Roman power as he died an excruciating, public death. The local population was powerless, and this evil tactic worked.

Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross because he was falsely accused of leading a rebellion against Rome. The religious leaders of the people wanted him gone, and the Romans were always happy to crucify someone who might serve as an example to other would-be rebels.

Of course, for Christians this horrible means of oppression and death became a symbol of salvation because Jesus allowed us to crucify him so that he could become the final and ultimate sacrifice. And when he rose again on the third day, the cross became an eternal symbol of his complete reversal of all of our fallen human expectations.

The Symbol of the Cross

Because Jesus turned the world upside down, the cross became a symbol of salvation, of God’s grace, of the Christian Faith. People have created crosses and visual images of the cross based on their own cultures and history. The cross as a symbol has been used in many ways, some of which are not in keeping with the cross of Christ, such as an Imperial army fighting under the banner of the cross. In Anglican worship, the processional cross may look different in different places, but its purpose as a symbol is to help us lift up the cross of Christ in our own hearts and in the midst of our congregation.

Bowing to the Cross

You might see four main types of bowing in Anglican liturgical worship. Genuflecting, which is less common, is the act of bowing the knee and making the sign of the cross. A deep bow is when you bow from your waist. A simple bow is when you bow the head at the neck. In some places, what you might call a nod of the head is a bow of reverence at the name of Jesus Christ.

The simple bow is most common when people bow as the processional cross passes.

Why?

So we come to our original question. With liturgical matters, it is important that we do not give rigid explanations for why we do such and such. The liturgy and ritual is traditional, meaning that it has been passed on. It was not passed on with rigid, detailed definitions of each act. This is because it is something we practice together, reflect upon, and pass on to others.

Yet there are some very clear Christian foundations to this action as well. Referring to his cross, Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that “before your eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”  Since the Galatians were not actually at the crucifixion, it is believed that Paul is referring to a liturgical act that represented the cross of Christ. Finally, a cross carried in procession harkens back to the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: ”Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” 

With this foundation in mind, we bow to the cross to reverence Christ, his cross, and his triumphal procession. The cross leads the way. The cross leads us into the presence of God. The cross leads us out into the world. We are under the cross, we march under that banner alone, to love and serve the Lord.

In the Books of Exodus and Nehemiah, the people often bow the head as they worship the Lord. The Gospel of John also records that Jesus bowed his head as he died on the cross.

Since bowing the head has, from ancient times, been a common human gesture for reverence and respect, it is fitting that we would bow the head as the cross passes. And since the congregation does not normally process into the church on most Sundays, the act of bowing the head is a way of acknowledging participation in the processional toward the manifested presence of God in the sanctuary.

Why Doesn’t Everybody Bow to the Cross?

Anglicans tend to emphasize Christian freedom from liturgical rubrics (rules) that would require everyone present to participate in every common gesture. If a person does not choose to participate in this action, they are not seen as disrespectful.

And yet the invitation to participate is always there. Bowing the head as the cross passes is a longstanding and common way to participate in the procession, and to reverence Christ himself.

How to Participate

This is a very simple act. As the processional begins, turn your body about 1/4 toward the center aisle, and turn your head slightly so you can see the procession as it approaches. There is no need to turn completely sideways. As you see the procession nearing you, simply bow your head at the neck as the cross passes.

Pandemic Reality

Currently, as I write, many churches are worshiping online, or in small groups, or outdoor services. Many of the Anglican churches have had to remove the processional from the liturgy. When participating online, of course one could bow the head when the cross first appears on the screen. In an outdoor service, some might bow the head toward the cross before being seated. Perhaps a cross could be placed at the entryway of a socially distanced in-person worship service so that worshipers could bow the head upon entering the church. As we adjust to the realities and constraints of COVID-19, we can still find ways to carry on the worshiping traditions that we have received from those who have gone before us.

I look forward to and imagine the day when we’re safe from the virus. While mourning those we have lost, we will also rejoice in God’s provision of a vaccine or some other means of prevention or healing.

 In doing so, we might have congregational processions together. Praying a Litany of Thanksgiving, we could process around our churches and perhaps even the community around the church, bowing our heads reverently in thanksgiving to the Lord who humbled himself and became obedient, even to death on a cross, for our salvation.