WHAT’S UP WITH “HIGH CHURCH/LOW CHURCH”?
When my Virginia cousin Henry was in confirmation class in the 1950’s one of the questions raised by the students concerned the difference between “High Church” and “Low Church.” “That’s easy,” the teacher replied, “St. Thomas’ in Richmond is ‘Low Church.” What made it so? Because “any church that observes ‘Stonewall Jackson Sunday’ is Low Church.”
That may be one of the more eccentric definitions, but it serves to illustrate how much variety one may expect when exploring their meaning. In the 18th Century, “High Church” meant that you opposed doing anything to relax restrictions upon non-Anglican Protestants and Roman Catholics. In 1710 a mob were so inspired by a High Church sermon that they burned several Presbyterian chapels in London! During this period, “Low Church” meant you were Whig in your politics and kindly disposed to Protestants in general. By the 19th Century the “Low Church” had been energized by the Evangelical Movement inaugurated by John Wesley and others a century before, which emphasized personal conversion and holiness. Beginning with the “Oxford Movement” in 1833, the ‘High Church’ party (I am serious…they all spoke of their affiliations as “parties”) was inspired to emphasize the continuity of Anglicanism with the pre-reformation church.
All Saints’ Margaret Street, London
In the 1880’s a High Church Bishop in England was prosecuted for having lit candles on the altar during Holy Communion, while in the United States a group of High Church clergy left the Episcopal Church and became Roman Catholics because the General Convention approved the practice, on occasion, of allowing ministers of other denominations to preach in Episcopal pulpits. It is hard for us now to imagine why such commonplace things were major issues, which is the point I would like to make on this subject: the meaning of terms like “High” and “Low” has changed so much they have lost whatever meaning they may have once conveyed.
In the 1950’s, when I was being enculturated into the Episcopal Church, it was still common to hear such terms used, but they meant something very different from what they had in the 18th Century. The major division at that time was about the “centrality of the Eucharist.” If you had Holy Communion as the main service on most Sundays, you were more -or-less “High”. If you had Morning Prayer and Sermon on most Sundays, you were more-or-less “low.” All that changed in the 1970’s, when ordination of women was approved (1976), and a new Book of Common Prayer authorized (1979), and old affiliations dissolved and rearranged themselves around the new developments. Most of the women being ordained would be considered “High” by the old terminology, because they had not gone to the trouble of getting ordained as priests only to refrain from exercising their ministry at the altar. Among the opponents of Women’s ordination were extremists from both the High and the Low ends of the spectrum. The result has been a new set of “parties” in the church, which have been described variously as “liberal”, “traditionalist”, “inclusive”, “orthodox”, and, as the humorous website “Ship of Fools” puts it, as “Stiff Upper Lip” or “Happy Clappy.”
The Diocese of Michigan, before the 1970’s, was known as “Low Church.” Today, that description would not apply to any church in the diocese. The only congregations in this diocese where the Eucharist is not the main service on Sunday are the ones where no priest is available to preside, and Morning Prayer is offered by lay persons. This consensus doesn’t mean there is no variety in worship: Christ Church Cranbrook is known for the “cathedral style” dignity and beauty of its liturgy and music, whereas the
Church of the Messiah in Detroit adheres to spirited “Black Church” norms of worship. At the same time, gospel music and other forms that might be considered “happy clappy” are regular features of worship at CCC and throughout the Episcopal Church.
If there is anything to be learned from this, it concerns the transitory nature of “parties” in the church and the limitations of partisanship in general. The fiercely contested issues of the past often seem trivial to us now, which ought to encourage a measure of humility in us, and a desire to cultivate “inquiring and discerning hearts” with regard to the issues of our own day. Reflection upon the past can sometimes reveal key moments when outspoken partisanship made a difference that still impacts our lives today. Such reflection can also reveal the way old controversies often synthesize into enduring assumptions accepted by nearly everyone.
What are the controversial issues of our own time that may have lasting consequences for future generations?