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.
Géo McLarney said:
There is an unfortunate tendency in some Anglo-Catholic circles to use “high church” (sometimes disparagingly) when what is meant is “ritualist” – using an ornate ceremonial, regardless of the theological content (or lack thereof) behind it. This is actually the reverse of the historical meaning of the term. “High church” strictly speaking describes a theological position, irrespective of liturgical praxis: “high churchmen” (in the gender-inclusive sense!) held a “high” view of the Church’s divine mandate, the sacraments, and dominical institution of the ministry. Of course as we know for many that eventually translated into externals. But that is not what makes one “high church” and many generations of “high churchmen” were none the less so for the lack of it. Some, indeed, balked at the ceremonial innovations of the “second generation” wave. (In Canada, we have the example of Bishop Strachan, who initially admired the Tractarians’ efforts to recover the apostolic heritage of the Church, but by the end of the “Tracts” had begun to say, in effect, “You’re losing me … “).
Bob Chapman said:
You could have posted the postscript, and said everything that needed to be said.
Whatever happened to “high” and “low” being approach to the importance of the church? Formal liturgy only attached itself to the high view of the church. In some ways, that sung Daily Morning Prayer service really was the high view of the church at work.
Well, that happens with sermons too – you write and write and finally find the point. Thanks for the comment – I agree with you about “high” and “low” being about the nature of the Church rather than externals. The modern critique of structure and hierarchy paired with the contemporary emphasis on personal experience and privatized religion seems to have relegated those with a passion for the Church and her mission to those whose liturgical preferences reflected that sense of the dignity and purpose of the worshiping gathering.
That may have reinforced the distrust of the “high” party for they were then seen as a party obsessed with the externals when they began with a firm sense that the internal and external must be in alignment to have integrity. In other words, the dignity with which we treat worship and one another grows out of a disciplined life of prayer whose form is offered by tradition. That has both high and low roots – which is why so many of the early Anglo-Catholics had solid evangelical roots.
Thomas Loy Bumgarner said:
Today high church often means formal liturgy(plainsong and/or Anglican, etc.) using pipe organ, choir anthems while low church is often inferred as spoken Prone/Service of the Word, jazz/rock praise music being non-liturgical, more common to Baptist and Pentecostal/Charismatic denominations. Or so it is in some Lutheran congregations in North America. More in terms of “Worship Wars”.
In other words, “We put the ‘war’ in Worship”?
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“Authenticity” and “alignment” — those are the two most important factors this disenchanted layperson finds in identifying soul-nourishing worship. If the priest engages in a form of worship that allows him/her to express the Gospel in the way he/she knows to be True, then that will show forth, whatever the style of worship. When the mode of worship is incompatible with the priest’s understanding of the Gospel, it is a miserable experience for those of us who sit in the pewish hinterlands.
Kris Stoever said:
High church, low church–I don’t know that faithful parishioners much care except to be able to tease the high priests. whom they like very much, about their ostentatious vestments, for example, or the clouds of incense that send our elderly asthmatics into paroxysms of coughing. On the other hand, it’s also good sport to gently make some fun of the praise bands preferred by the low church types. I myself tolerate a range of worship styles and enjoy the teasing, of both low and high. But I find myself, recently, resenting beautifully crafted, content-free homilies. Most serious parishioners care a great deal that preaching contain provocative theology, even basic theology on, for example, Atonement and sin, and, failing that, that their priests live provocatively engaged lives, particularly among the poor. We don’t see a lot of that. As Pope Francis recently tweeted: “Let us contemplate the humility of the Son of God born into poverty. Let us imitate him by sharing with those who are weak.” More Francis and more Jesus, I say, and let the good preaching begin, for the churched and unchurched alike. We do listen to the sermons!
Fr. Jonathan said:
There is much to think about in this reflection, so I thank you for it. I can go along with what you’re saying a good bit of the way. Certainly, “High” and “Low” have lost their historic meanings. And I agree with you that the authenticity with which we worship effects the kind of offering we are able to make. A beautiful sung Morning Prayer, done with great intentionality, is in some ways more valuable as an exercise in worship than a smoky communion service in which the priest and people are simply shuffling along, not sure why they are doing what they do and not caring. I also agree that the prayer book is the rich and wonderful gift that we have been given that helps us to negotiate the boundaries of diversity and to make sure that whatever our churchmanship may be, our witness is rooted in God’s Word as the Church has received it.
But the question then becomes, how do we understand the prayer book? Just what has it provided us with that can center us? Why do differing forms abound if we are all united in common prayer? This is no easy thing to tease apart. It never has been. But in our era, when even the prayer book itself has become not just one common set of prayers but a multiplicity of rites, it is harder than ever for Anglicans to be grounded in catholicity and authenticity. Add to that the abundance of supplemental liturgies that now exist, many of which are in plain contradiction to the prayer book, and the mess only grows. Anglicanism is built, at least in part, upon the bold notion that prayer itself, common prayer, can be the foundation for the Church’s doctrine and life, that we do not need unending strings of confessions because the liturgy itself is our confession as well as our heritage. The prayer book has a kind of magisterial authority. But our inability to live with that authority, and our eagerness to show how cutting edge we can be, is the single biggest challenge that exists in our churches today. I submit to you that it is a far bigger problem and a far greater dividing line than anything else that we have fought over in the Church during the last four decades.
I think that you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. We really are at a crucial point in reclaiming authentic, rooted expressions of Anglicanism. Our discomfort with authority or submission to wider wisdom and historic norms is cause for deep concern. This has missional and evangelical implications as well. The chief motivator driving many young adults is the search for authenticity and connection – these are things that are not “innovated” but are expressed in the disciplined, grounded identity of the Church through the ages with which we are not only in Communion but ongoing conversation.
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Rev. Bosco Peters (@Liturgy) said:
Thanks so much for this reflection.
I was pointed here in part of a fascinating discussion on clergy attire http://liturgy.co.nz/collaring-clergy/17662
I find the different boxes unhelpful, counter-productive http://liturgy.co.nz/orthodox-charismatic-evangelical-catholic/87
Sudduth Rea Cummings said:
Robert, somehow I had lost track of your wise and winsome writings, but am glad to find them again. Keep up the good work! Regarding the “high/low” thing that seems to be peculiar to Anglicans, you know that I love and cherish the power and beauty in an Anglo-Catholic liturgy, but I also rejoice in evangelical fervor of faith and Biblical preaching of the Gospel of God. The Oxford Movement fathers were truly Evangelical Catholics and I have always sought in my ministry to live out the unity of grace that is the fullness of God’s grace and Biblical truth. (Note: that’s why I wrote a thesis on the Anglican soteriology found in Cranmer’s Homilies and the BCP that was revived by John Wesley.) Having served both low and high churches in my ministry I want to affirm your observations about reverence, thoughtfulness and conviction in offering the worship of God. A “blended liturgy” with all the various elements of low/high and evangelical/catholic seems to me as the ideal approach. ( I was able to implement that in one parish, St. Timothy’s, Catonsville, an exquisite jewel of mid-19th century architecture and art that is tragically now closed due to years of divisions over TEC’s current theology and practices.)
Judith Woodard said:
I was confirmed an Episcopalian way back in 1950 in the Diocese of West Texas. Morning Prayer is my Liturgy and I miss it so very much. It is a beautiful, warm and caring service as is Evensong. I no longer feel as I did when we had Morning Prayer – the Eucharistic Liturgy seems much more ritualistic and rigid. I´m considering leaving my beloved church and attending another denomination. I am sad and conflicted.