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In defense of High Church

November 17, 2008

High Churchmanship is out of favor.

On the surface, however, it seems that quite the opposite must be true. All around are churches that use incense and where vestments are worn; and of course the Eucharist is now the order of the day. One can’t even FIND Morning or Evening Prayer said regularly in most parish churches. This should not suggest to us, however, that the High Churchman is in the driver’s seat.

At present, the Episcopal Church is dominated by a sort of unholy union between Anglo-Catholics and old-school Low Church evangelicals. On one hand, all eyes search for unity: the Anglo-Catholics have made looking to the early and pre-Reformation church the dominant ecclesiological mode and the Mass practically the sole form of worship, and the Low Churchmen have spread their disregard for the Prayer Book as a totally-conceived volume, giving us instead a taste for patchwork, free-form services. In this day, one is a closed-minded fool to argue with forms of worship that are “new” or “welcoming” and therefore more “vibrant” than stuffy old Cranmer. Additionally, one finds that many churches, thus lacking a foundation in regularized worship, become bound in their fate to the particular gifts of their rectors, thus surrendering their futures to the fickle winds of charisma. Ironically, as Dr. Perm pointed out, this is the Church at its most Evangelical and Protestant, although it nevertheless freely adopts those signs and symbols – the chasuble, the processions – of more formal, liturgical worship, which in former days would have been anathema to the Evangelical Anglican. A true Low Churchman rejects outward signs (i.e. sacraments), placing chief importance upon the Word as revealed in Holy Writ and as expounded from the pulpit.

It will be useful, then, before we continue, to define our terms, as we very often find them muddled, both in use and in our own minds. We must clearly understand what is meant by High ChurchRitualist, and Anglo-Catholic if we are to properly examine the current state of the worship of the Church, the roles of these factions and their relationships to the Low Churchman (as described above), and to plot a reasonable course ahead.

High Church. High Churchmanship antedates both Ritualism and today’s garden variety Anglo-Catholicism. It is different from them, and this must be distinctly understood. The High Church position is one that upholds the supremacy of the Church as a body politic and the fundamental and ontological difference between the religious and the profane. That is, the High Churchman makes strong distinctions between religious items, practices, institutions, and authority; and their secular counterparts. A High Church but not Anglo-Catholic use would thus be characterized by formal, “high” ceremonial while maintaining Protestant doctrine and traditional Prayer Book liturgy.

This is a actually a distinction best understood by those low Protestants: the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians, who, happening upon an Episcopal church in the Tidewater with no lights and no candles on the altar, would regard an adherence to the Prayer Book and the cassock and surplice as “High Church.” It is this, the adherence to forms and to doctrine, that is the primary indication of the High Church condition, regardless of whether it should overlap with incense-burning.

Anglo-Catholicism. This is both the cause and creation of the Oxford Movement. Anglo-Catholicism is chiefly concerned with the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and the movement has given rise to the notion that Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy are three branches of that one holy Church, a notion now taken for granted within the Anglican churches.

This was true generally for the Tractarians from 1833 until at least 1841. According to the 1906 Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline, “The conception that lay at [the Oxford Movement’s] base was that of the Holy Catholic Church as a visible body upon earth, bound together by a spiritual but absolute unity, though divided into national and other sections. This conception drew with it the sense of ecclesiastical continuity, of the intimate and unbroken connection between the primitive Church and the Church of England, and of the importance of the Fathers as guides and teachers. It also tended to emphasize points of communion between those different branches of the Church, which recognize the doctrine or fact of Apostolic Succession” (Report, p. 54).

The Movement experienced division after 1850, following Newman’s “Lectures on Anglican Difficulties,” in which he argued that the Tractarian position had ultimately as its direction eventual absorbtion of “the various English denominations and parties” into the Roman Church. Thus Newman and so many others like him (think of Bishop Ives) reverted to Roman Catholicism, seeing such a move as the only possible outcome of their doctrinal and ecclesiological development. Really, the movement could also be known as Anglo-catholicism (lowercase “c”), as the Tractarians’ fundamental concern was more theone Church than the Roman Catholic Church, even as many of them came to see the Roman Church as the truest exponent of those earliest Christians.

Ritualism. This term is now seldom heard and is becoming ever more antiquated, but it describes a particular intellectual and liturgical tradition. Those Anglicans who love vestments, incense, plainsong, and elaborate liturgics, these are the Ritualists. The overlap with Anglo-Catholics is not necessary or complete, although there are (in this day) few Anglo-Catholics who do not place a high value on the ritual and on vestments.

While it is often true that Ritualism overlaps with both Anglo-Catholicism and High Churchmanship generally, it must be understand that these positions are different and ecclesiologically distinct.

A consciousness of these distinctions is important for those who practice within the Church and wish to be able to relate the routines of a Sunday morning to the Scriptures, to spirituality and theology, and to the lives of the people. Very often, in this day, priests and congregations don’t understand fully why they do what they do, making decisions about worship based largely upon tastes and popular fashions in church life.

Under such conditions, worship becomes de-contextualized, like when one sees city people walking down the street in riding boots. Our liturgy – the way in which we form and order our chief business: worship – must be more than a “look,” more than a “style,” if it is to rise above faddishness and do what it is intended to do: to fix our attention upon the divine, to join our voices in proclaiming the greater glory of God.

Continued: “FYI, part II,” here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 21:37

    I’ve just discovered your blog here. You might enjoy reading through my blog: I consider myself an “old” High Churchman. I am completely Protestant in doctrine but I prefer a decent service with ceremonial (but not overly ritualistic).


  1. FYI, part II « Sed Angli.
  2. Ancient and meaningful traditions « Sed Angli.

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