Thursday, March 20, 2014

High, Low, or Broad. . .

Often you will hear someone refer to a church as ‘high’ or ‘low’church (or even ‘broad’ church) and  wondered what does that mean.  The terms come out of Anglicanism (specifically the Church of England) although they are used all over the place.  They date back to the 17th - 19th centuries and, although usually they are used liturgically, they also represented theological stances over the shape of the Church in England after Henry VIII.  They are about ecclesiology (the Church), the theology of the church (leaning Roman Catholic or Protestant), the authority, the role and necessity of the episcopacy, and, of course, the sacraments.

It does not take a history geek to know that from the time of Henry VIII the Church of England has had a somewhat split personality with respect to doctrine, structure, and worship.  On the one hand it has a definite Protestant side (here low church) and on the other it has always had a very catholic side (think Anglo-Catholic and high church).  From the late 17th century, the term ‘high church’ described those who emphasized the Church of England’s historical continuity as a branch of the catholic church and with ‘high’ views of the authority of the church, the authority of bishops, and the nature of sacraments as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.

"Low church’ dates from the early 18th century and was coined in contrast to ‘high church’. With the rise of a very Protestant and evangelical movement in the day, ‘low church’ folks tended to place a 'low' place to the claims of the episcopate, the priesthood, and the sacraments and generally stressed the more Protestant beliefs of the church.  Those in between became the 'broad' church folks -- the so-called center majority whose views tended to mix up things a bit and draw on elements of both sides.

While the above is not meant to be a definitive review of the terminology, it suffices to popularly explain where they came from.  How they were borrowed by Lutherans and became common among Lutherans is another matter.  Perhaps because of a lack of terminology from our own confessional vocabulary or the ever present desire to use short-hand terms for more complex truths, Lutherans began using these Anglican terms.  Some complained and still do.  Other Lutherans use them without hesitation.  What all Lutherans should recognize is that these terms distort the role and place of liturgy and ceremony within Lutheranism.

Unlike the Anglicans, Lutherans have been specific, clear, and bold with regard to the liturgical practice that reflects our Confessional identity.  We have gone so far as to compete with the Roman Catholic party as to which group keeps the Mass more faithfully.  We have insisted that outwardly (ceremonially) the Lutheran Mass is no different than the Roman Mass.  We have refused to make ceremonial laws binding upon the conscience for salvation but have insisted that these are not unimportant matters.  Doctrine is reflected in practice and practice displays doctrine, we confess. Adiaphora does not mean unimportant but rather those things about which the conscience cannot be bound.  Adiaphora does not mean everyone is free to do as he or she pleases and that every parish is free to shape Sunday morning as it wills.  Among Missouri Synod Lutherans this is even more narrowed by the common consent that all agendas (books of liturgical and sacramental rites), liturgies, and hymns must be doctrinally pure.  We publish our own liturgical books and hymnals to satisfy that definition.

I have an acquaintance who defines himself like this:  Once, off the top of my head, when asked to describe my liturgical position, I labeled myself as on the higher end of mid-church.  When folks come to my parish, they often label me as 'high church' because we chant, genuflect, bow, use Eucharistic vestments, have weekly Communion, etc...  Part of me bristles at this because none of these practices that today would be labelled 'high' are anything but usual and normal for a church of the Augsburg Confession from the time of Luther and well into the 19th century.  In some places, it has never been any different (Sweden).  Yet here and now we are quick to label.

Any cursory reading of the Lutheran Confessions would see that there is no 'low' church envisioned for Lutherans.  There may be a 'broad' church presumed by the use of a hymn mass like the Deutsche Messe but not in doctrine and even then ceremony is not a thing indifferent according to Luther who put it together.  Though our own Lutheran history of the last several centuries would contradict it, the Confessions know only a 'high' church practice.  Some of us as Lutherans might not like that or even refuse to admit it, but I find it impossible to read the Lutheran Confessions and end up with the idea that what you do on Sunday morning does not matter and a Sunday morning that does not look like the Mass is okay with those who wrote those Confessions, those who agreed to those Confessions, and their expectation of those who follow them who ascribe to those Confessions.

Read the Confessions.  What you find there is 'high' church without rigid rules requiring every ceremony, bow, hymn, etc... being exactly the same in every place.  Historically, any diversity within Lutheranism was NOT from parish to parish but from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Oddly enough, 'high church' within Lutheranism should refer to those places where a liturgical choir leads the liturgy versus the 'low church' where no choir is present.  Read Joseph Herl's Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict.  Read Bodo Nischan Prince, People, and Confession:  The Second Reformation in Brandenburg.  Read Walter Zeedon  Faith and Act - The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation.

If we have to resort to using Anglican terminology to describe Lutherans as 'high' or 'low' church, we have forgotten not only our history but our Confession.


Anonymous said...

"It does not take a history geek to know that from the time of Henry VIII the Church of England has had a somewhat split personality with respect to doctrine, structure, and worship."

I believe the Pastor Peters is a bit wide of the mark in this statement. Henry VIII was a very orthodox catholic churchman– strictly what would be called high church. The title "Defender of the Faith" was given to Henry by the Pope in recognition of Henry's writings against Luther.

The "split personality" of Anglicanism dates from the time of Elizabeth I. In her time, the Protestant Reformation was spreading rapidly in England. There was a great sense of division between those of a Catholic orientation and those of a Protestant orientation within the country. It seems that Elizabeth herself leaned slightly in the Catholic direction, but her biggest concern was national unity. She directed her counselors to work out whatever compromises were necessary to unify the nation. This compromise – the "split personality" of the Church of England, is known as the Elizabethan Compromise.

Anglican Priest

Joe Herl said...

Ugh! You linked to the hardcover edition of my book, which is expensive. Your readers might like to try the paperback edition instead, which is considerably cheaper.