Ruminating yesterday on the nature of “high” and “low” and “broad” Church caused me to remember something written by Father John Alexander as part of a series on the history of Anglo-Catholicism that was important to me in seminary. The bit fleshes out the notion of high beyond liturgical and ceremonial choices but also illustrates how ceremonial and liturgical actions would flow out of such a view of the Church, Incarnation, and God’s action.
There are some tweaks I would make but I wanted to keep his original work intact as I think it is helpful in reformulating our understanding of how we might more profitably articulate the nature of the Church. My preference would be to frame this not in the binary of high or low (though Fr Alexander is very much using the popular term to flesh out its true meaning) but would rather we generally spoke in terms of a sort of web of catholicity – a theological ecosystem in which living into one portion gives life and light to another such that the whole becomes more readily seen and known.
In this way of thinking we are welcomed to contemplate grades of fullness and richness in our common life rather than on doing it right or wrong.
Fr Alexander summarizes the “high” position as follows:
1. A High View of God. Anglo-Catholic worship at its best cultivates a sense of reverence, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy One before whom even the angels in heaven veil their faces.
2. A High View of Creation. At the same time, we delight in the beauty of God’s creation. The Anglo-Catholic view of the world is highly sacramental, seeing signs of God’s presence and goodness everywhere in the things that he has made. In worship, we gather up the best of creation—as reflected in art, craftsmanship, music, song, flowers, incense, etc.—and offer it all back up to God.
3. A High View of the Incarnation. Our salvation began when Christ took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. God became man in order to transform human existence through participation in his divine life. The Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas expresses the Anglo-Catholic vision perfectly:
“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ…”
4. A High View of the Atonement. An authentic Anglo-Catholicism looks not only to Christ’s Incarnation but also to his Sacrifice. The image of Jesus on the cross reminds us of the depth and horror of human sin, and of the price that God has paid for our redemption. Anglo-Catholic spirituality entails a lifelong process of turning from sin and towards God. Many Anglo-Catholics find the Sacrament of Penance an indispensable aid in this process.
5. A High View of the Church. We come to share in the divine life of the risen and ascended Christ by being incorporated through Baptism into his Body, the Church. Thus, we regard the universal Church neither as an institution of merely human origin, nor as a voluntary association of individual believers, but as a wonderful mystery, a divine society, a supernatural organism, whose life flows to its members from its head, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
6. A High View of the Communion of Saints. The Church, moreover, consists not only of all Christians now alive on earth (the Church Militant), but also of the Faithful Departed, who continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God (the Church Expectant), and of the Saints in Heaven, who have reached their journey’s end (the Church Triumphant). We have fellowship with all who live in Christ. Anglo-Catholicism thus affirms the legitimacy of praying for the dead, and of asking the Saints in Heaven for their prayers.
7. A High View of the Sacraments. We believe that Jesus Christ really and truly communicates his life, presence, and grace to us in the Seven Sacraments, thus enabling us to give our lives to God and our neighbor in faith, hope, and love. Holy Baptism establishes our identity once for all as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven (although we can by our own free choice repudiate this inheritance). And in the Holy Eucharist, Christ becomes objectively present in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Eucharistic adoration is thus an integral component of Anglo-Catholic spirituality and devotion.
8. A High View of Holy Orders. Since the days of the Oxford Movement, Anglo-Catholicism has borne witness that the threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in Apostolic Succession is God-given. The validity of our sacraments, and the fullness of our participation in the life of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, depend upon our faithful stewardship of this divine gift. For this reason, innovations threatening the authenticity of our apostolic orders must be resisted at all costs.
9. A High View of Anglicanism. We affirm that the Anglican Churches are truly part of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. The prophetic vocation of Anglo-Catholicism has been to bear witness to the catholicity of Anglicanism. Yet it can be an uncomfortable vocation that requires us to take unpopular stands against developments that threaten this catholicity. Since the days of the Oxford Movement, our standard has been the faith and practice of the ancient, undivided Church. Our vocation as Anglo-Catholics remains one of holding ourselves, and our Anglican institutions, accountable to the higher authority of the universal Church.