There seems to be a lot of confusion right now over the terms “high” church and “low” church – the terms seem to have lost their meaning in our contemporary church context. In part, this is because these are terms of past struggles with which people are less familiar. It is also due to the fact that the “high” church movement has won much, at least ceremonially, in the new Prayer Book. We have regularized Communion, Confession, Holy Week liturgies, and much more that would once have been unthinkable to include in our corporate, agreed upon common life. Moreover, things like candles on the Altar, vestments, and the like are a regular part of many, many congregations.
The deeper issue has to do with the heart of the forms and the externals. Even though vestments are regularly used, how many Episcopal priests would or could articulate that their vestments are sacrificial ones? Their use was opposed on the grounds that the Eucharist was not a sacrifice and thus such vestments were inappropriate in Anglican churches.
I was once at a Morning Prayer service at a largish Episcopal Church in New Haven. It is one of the few churches left in the Episcopal Church that maintains the tradition of Morning Prayer with Hymns and Anthems as a principal Sunday service. As I was leaving, I heard a young woman get on her phone and say to her conversation partner, “This church is so high!”
What she meant was that the liturgy was dignified, the choir magnificent, and the liturgical atmosphere relatively formal. It was rather like visiting the best of an English Cathedral matins service.
Equally, serving in an Anglo-Catholic parish, I had a seminarian ask me if the parish was “low” because we offered morning prayer every day. Of course, she had gotten the message that Sunday morning prayer was a low tradition and translated that to mean that parishes with regular morning prayer must be low ones.
The challenge is more than semantic – it has to do with essentials of parish identity. The terms are no longer really significant but the approaches to sharing the Gospel and drawing others to Christ are deeply relevant.
The cathedral I serve now has a contemporary, experimental liturgy with world music and very modern language for the Eucharistic prayer – yet that same service also includes lots of incense, meditative prayer stations with icons, censing of the stations of the cross, and more. Is it high? Is it low? I’m not really sure – what I do know is that it draws many to the Church in a way that many other services might not be able to do. We use EOW regularly but we also have Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament every Wednesday evening. This is, in some ways, the vocation of a Cathedral – to represent the best of the liturgical life of the whole diocese.
Yet it is also the vocation of every church – to draw on the riches of our heritage and share it such that we are also sharing something life-giving of the life of Christ.
We like the short-hand of “low” and “high” – it gives us an easy way to describe (or think we are describing) other churches or even people. Yet, the Church is more complicated than any shorthand can manage to adequately encompass.
I was once asked if I’d only like to serve at Anglo-Catholic parishes – I borrowed a friend’s description and replied, “I really don’t care – I’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper from the North end of the Lord’s Table in a dirty surplice and tippet. I just want to be in a place that is authentic and takes its worship life seriously.” Well, confusion abounded at my reference to the north end of the Altar (as directed in the 1662 Prayer Book).
We are being challenged, as a Church, not so much to live into a predefined definition of who we think we are but to do the deeper work of offering praise and worship that comes from the deepest place of our being as a Body. This will not always be “high” or “low” or in any other way definable. I saw a catty comment about sung compline by candlelight referred to as “playing” church the other day on Facebook. More of us might need to “play” – to rediscover the joy and wonder of lovingly offered adoration of God in Christ.
The simplest thing I can offer about high and low is this – look to the Prayer Book. Learn it, live with it, wrestle with it. It protects the Church and the people from liturgical and theological malpractice. It is neither high nor low really – it provides the ground for rich exploration and we have really barely begun to delve into its riches adequately.
Whether you consider yourself and your church high or low, the Prayer Book serves as an excellent source and shape for the lived Christian experience in and with Christ. Whatever our preferences are – there is ample room in its expansive breadth to be Church in a way that is at once corporately and universally authentic to our Church’s identity while offering an authentic shape for local congregational exploration and experimentation. The answer lies in intentionality – the lovingly offered outpouring of our thanks and praise that takes its shape in excellence and intentionality of giving.
Is your Church a place of solemn processions and sung Te Deums? Brilliant. Is your church a place with sung Morning Prayer and minimal Eucharistic fussiness when you do offer it? Great. Are you a place of family Eucharists with banners made by kids and children gathered around the Altar? Perfect.
So long as we are always allowing the Spirit to move us to new places and seeking to offer whatever we do with integrity and an eye toward the One who comes among us when two or three are gathered, then high or low are pretty irrelevant. Any church can make an idol of its worship and the priests the center of a show – it takes care and discipline to make sure that our churches are always focused, in every way possible, on the Living Word.
Something that occurred to me during Vespers about form and intent was this – the intention of a certain form is essential to its integrity and identity. For example, I would argue that a parish that offers Morning Prayer as a principal Sunday service with the intent of drawing people into Baptism and regular Communion (if infrequent) is operating out of a “higher” Sacramental theology than a parish that offers Communion Regardless of Baptism with minimal theological and Sacramental preparation. Of course, few examples are so cut and dried.
Parishes with a “high” seeming liturgy full of chant and incense – like Compline at Christ Church New Haven or Saint Mark’s Philadelphia might be using “high” form but at its heart they are offering an evangelical service designed to draw others into the first steps of a relationship with Christ. The regular pattern of daily office that so many parishes maintain has both an evangelical and Catholic nature that teaches and forms the soul and intention of those who pray and pray on behalf of others.
The beauty of our tradition is that it is suffused with multiple strains of piety and purpose that blend together to create a unique and potent blend with appeal to those looking for a faith tradition that is comprehensive in its embrace of Truth and comfortable with the complexity of profound questions and multi-layered history.
Last night I remembered a piece that was important to me in seminary that offers an expansive understanding of the term “high” – more on that here.