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High church, low church and all that lies between

High church, low church and all that lies between

High church, low church, what do those descriptors mean and does it make any difference? The Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson of St. John’s Cathedral in Denver believes such labels are insufficient and confusing. He writes:

There seems to be a lot of confusion right now over the terms “high” church and “low” church – the terms seem to have lost their meaning in our contemporary church context. In part, this is because these are terms of past struggles with which people are less familiar. It is also due to the fact that the “high” church movement has won much, at least ceremonially, in the new Prayer Book. We have regularized Communion, Confession, Holy Week liturgies, and much more that would once have been unthinkable to include in our corporate, agreed upon common life. Moreover, things like candles on the Altar, vestments, and the like are a regular part of many, many congregations.

The deeper issue has to do with the heart of the forms and the externals. Even though vestments are regularly used, how many Episcopal priests would or could articulate that their vestments are sacrificial ones? Their use was opposed on the grounds that the Eucharist was not a sacrifice and thus such vestments were inappropriate in Anglican churches.

He goes on to say:

We are being challenged, as a Church, not so much to live into a predefined definition of who we think we are but to do the deeper work of offering praise and worship that comes from the deepest place of our being as a Body. This will not always be “high” or “low” or in any other way definable. I saw a catty comment about sung compline by candlelight referred to as “playing” church the other day on Facebook. More of us might need to “play” – to rediscover the joy and wonder of lovingly offered adoration of God in Christ.

The simplest thing I can offer about high and low is this – look to the Prayer Book. Learn it, live with it, wrestle with it. It protects the Church and the people from liturgical and theological malpractice. It is neither high nor low really – it provides the ground for rich exploration and we have really barely begun to delve into its riches adequately.

Read his post in full and share your thoughts.


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Paul Woodrum

When I was a newly minted priest and college chaplain, the Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Erie defined “high church” for me as anything different from what one is used to.

He came to this conclusion after spending some time at a parish in the Diocese of Fond du Lac where he tried to introduce Morning Prayer. He was soon informed by the vestry that they didn’t want any of that high church stuff. “Just give us the mass, Father, just give us the mass,” was their reaction to Morning Prayer.

In moving away from the Calvinism of the Reformation, the higher church emphasis of the ’79 BCP on the incarnation exposed how deeply many of us really like to revel in our miserable sinfulness and breast beating rather than dancing with joy for our liberation from the same. It has also tended to blur, if not totally erase, the 19th century distinctions of high, low, and broad. Our present confusion is part of the process of forging a new concensus tempered in the ever lengthening past as we rush to the future.

Jim Naughton

Do liturgy well. High, low, traditional, innovative. Whatever. If you do it well, people will respond, and if you don’t, they won’t. Know your strengths. More importantly, know your limitations.

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