High Church low church—a primer

Br. John-Bede Pauley had an excellent response in the combox of yesterday’s post that I think warrants a post of its own.

In it, he helps us to better define our terms when we speak of low church and high church distinctions.  He writes:

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.

3 thoughts on “High Church low church—a primer

  1. Pingback: The priority of the Oxford Movement – Drafty Thoughts on the High and Lofty

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