“We have something for you,” said the manageress, with a pardonably smug smile, as soon as I entered the coffee-shop. And she went to a door, rummaged in the cupboard and produced—my bag with my jacket and my embroidery! I had left them there the previous week in a distracted moment, had spent days frantically telephoning the bus depot and other places where I assumed they might have been…and it was simply wonderful to have them safely back in my possession.
And so I have resumed work on the church kneeler.
Remember when kneeling in church became seriously unfashionable? Some churches replaced pews with hotel-style chairs and no room for kneeling at all. There was this idea that kneeling in adoration of Almighty God was somehow too, too hopelessly humbling. Perhaps even superstitious. Anyway, absolutely wrong and unnecessary. Church should be about relaxation and comfort—or perhaps joy and moving about. But not kneeling.
Then Mother Angelica started the fight-back with her own specially-marketed kneelers bearing the EWTN logo, and urged people to take one along to Mass, and just kneel there at the Consecration. And at about the same time there came a steadily growing surge in the practice of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—young people at World Youth Day, at charismatic prayer-groups, at retreats and gatherings organized by the New Movements. It gained momentum: suddenly kneeling was back in fashion. Among many other powerful moments, I remember kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in London’s Hyde Park along with Pope Benedict—just yards away from where martyrs had died for their Catholic beliefs on Tyburn gallows four centuries before. I remember the silence, the hundreds of glittering candles, the awed descriptions of the scene later in the media—that same mass media that had initially greeted news of Pope Benedict’s visit with vicious attacks on his supposed hideously strict and old-fashioned teachings.
I remember a similar vigil the following year at World Youth Day in Madrid—the more memorable because the night also included a ferocious thunderstorm. And I think of so many other times of prayerful silence kneeling before the Lord—in a meadow at Walsingham with the New Dawn charismatic gathering, at Night Fever in a London church, at Paray-le-Monial in the scorching heat of a French summer, in Austria at a mountain shrine…
Kneeling is back in. And for those of us who enjoy doing cross-stitch, there is scope for the work of our hands.
Now, I recognize that not everyone likes cross-stitch kneelers. In Britain, they are definitely seen as an Anglican thing. Very few Catholic churches have them—the old standard leather-covered kneeler that stands the whole length of the pew and is attached to the back of the seats is certainly efficient and adequate to its task. And in too many Anglican churches the bright wool-worked kneelers somehow draw attention away from the things that should really be enjoyed—medieval gothic arches, glorious stained glass, soaring spires, layers and layers of history.
But a special kneeler has its value. I have been working on a set of kneelers for the John Fisher School at Purley, which stands near a former airfield which was a major headquarters during the Battle of Britain. The school’s playing field occupies part of the airfield site. A kneeler in the school chapel now commemorates that battle—I made it in 2015 to mark the 75th anniversary—and the boys now know just a bit more about the fact that they regularly play sports at a place where heroes fought and died for our country’s freedom.
For the Church of the Most Precious Blood in London I recently completed a kneeler to be used specifically and only for the bride and groom at weddings. Worked on a white wool base, it has a special design showing wedding bells and two overlapping rings, and ribbons, and flowers. I worked against a deadline—a young couple from the choir had their wedding at the end of June and I completed the thing in time. And they rather liked the idea that they would be the very first couple to kneel on it, and somehow that becomes all part of the story of the parish, and their family story. It’s just a church kneeler, but it’s a tiny part of what makes up Christianity in our country.
Kneeling is an act of humility, of dedication to something greater, of awe, of reverence. Being at church isn’t essentially about being part of a community—it’s about worshipping God. In worshipping—recognizing God’s true worth and therefore sinking to our knees before him—does in fact bind us as a community, both with one another in the present time and with those who have gone before and will come after us.
Church kneelers, unlike statues or icons or stained glass, don’t have a very long life. They look messy when they get old and saggy. There is no point in pretending that I am making any great contribution to history with my cross-stitch. But the kneelers that I and others have made are part of a tradition that has its own value. And I am rather glad to have contributed to the return of kneeling.