More on attracting “low church” folks

As promised in yesterday’s post,  here’s an email conversation I had with Peter Jesserer Smith of St. Alban’s Catholic Church,  in Rochester, New York, on how one attracts those from low-church backgrounds.

Peter writes:

I’ve never been what you’d describe as “low church,” but I think it’s worth learning from and appropriating good ideas and insights from “low church” Christian communities about how to “do church.” My impression is that when you get down to brass tacks, the low church aesthetic is motivated by a sincere desire to encounter Jesus Christ. This might surprise people, but honestly there’s plenty of precedent for this Christian current: the early Cistercians embraced a church aesthetic that emphasized light and stripped-down simplicity. (Not everyone’s cup of tea in the Middle Ages, but it was nonetheless there). Both examples of low-church Christians and Cistercians may in part have been a reaction against Christian communities with a “high church” aesthetic where Christ seemed absent, or his absence seemed obscured by high church pageantry.

To me, it seems how you invite a person from a low church background into a “high church” Catholic community is to be sincere and authentic in high church worship that manifests the deep and abiding love of Christ. How you worship and prayer must show we are truly coming here to encounter God made manifest in Jesus, and not putting on a pleasing concert performance. People can tell if what you offer is a deep encounter with the Living God who is Love, because the liturgy will increase the love (agape) of the brethren for each other united with Christ the head. But people will conclude the high church liturgy is about showmanship if either clergy or people manifest contempt for the brother and his mistakes, or if it makes no difference in how they live out the Christian life through the week. Jesus meant what he said, and there is no way around it: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). It’s important to remember that low church aesthetic is not immune to what it originally may have reacted against: people still may ask, “is this an really encounter with Jesus, or is this just a high quality show without Jesus?”

So, if you’re high church, and feeding people Jesus, they will get that. The worship in the “beauty of holiness” will speak to their senses, because Jesus is speaking. Because Jesus is attractive. Give them Jesus. In Word. In Sacrament. In Fellowship. 

The other reality is that a lot of “low church” groups are just doing church at subsidiary levels well. It’s nothing a Catholic church with “high church” worship cannot do. Parish priests just need to work with a core group of lay disciples, men and women, who will build the church throughout the week particularly through small gatherings of prayer and fellowship. For example, I’ve been intrigued by the “community groups” structure of one large Christian church in our area called Northridge Rochester. This church has a central campus, with three satellite locations — think of it as a kind of Protestant cathedral with three other branch churches — but they have dozens of small groups throughout the county (not just the immediate neighborhood) that the church’s members have formed. Even though the church is very large, it is these community groups that keep the experience of faith very personal and build relationships that are the bridge to inviting people to come to church and follow Jesus Christ.

Catholic churches and fellowships, esp. in the Ordianariate, could learn how to appropriate these ideas into their own context, particularly in the intervals between when their community meets. At St. Alban’s Catholic Church, we’re about to roll out our own take on Northridge Rochester’s community groups thanks to Flocknote. We’re smaller in numbers, so rather than have dedicated community groups, we’ll roll out in the next week or so a dedicated “St. Alban in the Community” Flocknote page / community board for St. Alban’s members to submit announcements for informal fellowship gatherings through the week, other Catholic activities, such as adoration, Mass, social ministry, etc. that our priest and parishioners are involved in. Parishioners who subscribe to the group will get an immediate heads up via text or email as they prefer.

We’ll see how it goes, but I think there’s real opportunity for Ordinariate communities to grow and for pre-Ordinariate Fellowships to establish themselves as it gives people an opportunity to see Jesus truly present and living among the members of this community. And when they experience Jesus among people, that will only solidify the connection to how they experience Jesus in an Ordinariate Catholic church’s worship.


7 thoughts on “More on attracting “low church” folks

  1. Even if the best one can manage are what we call working definitions, an attempt to define the terms “High Church” and “Low Church” is necessary in these kinds of discussions, I think.

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers the following definitions.

    High Church: favoring especially in Anglican worship the sacerdotal, liturgical, ceremonial, and traditional elements in worship

    Low Church: tending especially in Anglican worship to minimize emphasis on the priesthood, sacraments, and ceremonial in worship and often to emphasize evangelical principles.

    To distill things down even further, the adjective “high” refers to a high—by which is meant a sacerdotal—view of the priesthood. The adjective “low” thus refers to a view of the clergy as not being primarily sacerdotal but more ministerial. (Low Church clergy tend to invest themselves more completely in their sermons than in other aspects of worship.)

    Discussions quickly degenerate into confusion when the adjectives “high” and “low” are taken to mean distinctions on other levels. For example, an implicit assumption which often needs to be ferreted out and refuted is that “high”-vs.-”low” in the sacerdotal sense means “high”-vs.-“low” in the sense of socio-economic class, “high”-vs.-“low” in the sense of superior education, “high”-vs.-“low” in the sense of aesthetics, and so on. The High Church Tractarians moved into “low class” areas of London in the 19th century, for example, while the royal family (considered the pinnacle of the socio-economic strata) were “snake-belly low” in their Churchmanship. Disagree though I do with some of the writings of such Low Church and Puritan writers as Cranmer, John Milton, and the Wesley brothers, it would be folly to impugn their erudition and the “high” aesthetic standards they attained in their writings.

    The references to “ceremonial” in the Merriam-Webster definitions make sense to me only if “ceremonial in worship” is never, but never, considered apart from the “high” (sacerdotal) view of the clergy and thus from all of the sacraments. Though respect for the sacraments means a healthy reverence for the traditions that have developed in celebrating them, many of us have experienced punctilious, fussy “sacristy rats” and self-described “High Church” aesthetes for whom the adjective “high” means something other than worshiping God in the beauty of holiness.

    For this reason, I do not regard the Cistercians, for example, as low-church. (Peter Jesserer Smith does not actually say they are, though he mentions them along with “low-church Christians.”) As a former Cistercian (and as a Benedictine who is more latently Cistercian than my black habit indicates), I would suggest that the pared-down ceremonial of the Cistercian reforms was as “high” as anything Cluny was doing at the time. Indeed, one of the points of the Cistercian reform was to allow monks and nuns the time and space and silence to enter even more profoundly into the sacramental realities they were celebrating.

    To get back to the original question about “attracting ‘low church’ folks,” my suggestion would be to focus on liturgy. But this would be liturgy that privileges that time and space and silence referred to above so that everyone participates in the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that liturgy actually is. Especially for smaller parishes and groups—i.e., parishes that simply don’t have much in the way of personnel and resources—this will often mean liturgies that are not “high” in the sense of elaborate ceremonial but are “high” in the sacramental sense of being more fully present to both word and sacrament.

    This was basically the priority of the Oxford Movement. Newman, Keble, Pusey, and the others were not that interested in ceremonial as such. Keble and Pusey, who remained in the CofE as the Ritualist movement developed, were somewhat wary of the Ritualist project (though without condemning it). Though ritual and aesthetics have to flow from a solid sacramental theology, the sacerdotal/sacramental essence of the Oxford Movement—rather than privileging ritual and/or aesthetics—is why, I’m convinced, building beautiful parishes in poor areas of London naturally—or super-naturally—followed, as did missionary activity, as did the writing of excellent music, as did the publication of spiritual classics, as did the revival of religious orders in the CofE, and so on.

    As I have written elsewhere, a focus on liturgy in the Anglican context necessarily includes a pastoral emphasis as well. It is for this reason that when preaching in the High Church tradition is done well and when the “fellowship” after liturgy is done well, they are integrally, symbiotically connected to liturgy.

    Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Indeed, your post restates several aspects of the liturgical reform of the Roman Rite enacted by the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the sacred constitution Sacrosanctum Concillium articulated

      (1) the importance of preaching the Word of God, such that scripture and homiletics should be major components of seminary formation,

      (2) the overt statement that proper celebration of the liturgy requires something more than mere conformity with the rubrics (“say the black, do the red”), in that the hearts of all participants — clergy and lay — must be attuned to the Holy Spirit, and

      (3) the importance of liturgical silence, which affords those present an opportunity to reflect upon and to assimilate the readings of scripture and the homily so that the Word of God can traverse the longest foot in the world — that from the head to the heart — effectively.

      Of course, the reality is that the proclamation of the Word of God rings hollow if those who proclaim it from the ambo fail to embody it in their lives.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Pope Paul VI is said to have commented that Newman was one of the influences on Vatican II. Newman was steeped in patristics, both the theology and the spirituality, which includes the characteristics you note, Norm, as having been desired by Vatican II. And of course, these characteristics are also those of monasticism. Newman opted for the Oratorian charism rather than the monastic. But there’s no indication that his Anglican/patristic/monastic bearings–insofar as they were consonant with the Catholic faith, of course–from early in life ever diminished in his later years.


      • It’s interesting that you mention Oratorians in this context. My only encounter with Oratorians came just 2 1/2 weeks ago, while visiting a recent graduate of my alma mater who is now a FOCUS Missionary at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). The Pittsburgh Oratory staffs the Catholic chaplaincies at both CMU and the abutting University of Pittsburgh, so he arranged a casual “meet and greet” with the current CMU Chaplain. There’s no doubt that what I learned about the Oratorians during this encounter barely scratches the surface of the Oratorian spirituality and lifestyle, but I found the similarity between an Abbey and an Oratory — especially the shared dedication to ora et labora, the commitment to stability within the house that one joins, and the collaborative approach to the ministries undertaken by the house — to be quite striking.

        That said, there’s no doubt of the influence of Benedictine monasticism on Anglican spirituality more broadly. It’s reflected, above all, in the fact that the divine office — especially Morning Prayer and Evensong — persist alongside the eucharist as a cornerstone of authentic Anglican spirituality.



      • One way of looking at distinctions b/n the various religious institutes is to put them all on a timeline. To generalize, for the first millennium in the West, the only option, if one discerned a vocation to the religious life, was monasticism. The Rule of St. Benedict therefore didn’t need to make distinctions that might have been more helpful by the time the canons regular shored up their organizational structures, the mendicants came into being, etc. But one distinction that the RB somehow foresaw when the Oratorians would come into being about 1000 years later is that of stability. I’m open to correction on this point, but I think that though Oratorians do indeed identify with their own house, they do not take final vows and are free to leave at any time. In theory, it’s otherwise for monks (Benedictine and Cistercian). My visit to the Birmingham Oratory years ago also revealed that they didn’t really have a communal understanding of, and support for, lectio divina. Since I didn’t stay in their house, I don’t know what role silence and solitude are expected to play in their day-to-day lives.
        Of course, many of the distinctions one can draw b/n various religious institutes often end up being on paper more than in lived experience. For example, I’ve known many de facto canons regular who are, by their vows, habits, and canonical status, de jure monks. Ste. Therese de Lisieux was a Carmelite, but lectio, I’m convinced, played an important role in her life b/c she had been educated by Benedictines. And I suspect Newman brought more of St. Benedict and the Benedictine influence in monasticism to the Oratorians than even he–great historian and thinker that he was–was aware of.


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