High Church or Low Church?

Thurible with incense

Q: What are “high church” and “low church,” and why does it matter? Why are people so irritable about which one is used?  Are Episcopalians high church or low church? —Anon E. Moose

A: Dear Anon E. Moose,

Your first name, Anon, has a rather middle English ring to it. Though of course, the emergence of middle English occurred centuries after I was born, so how I, Ambrose, know this fact is a mystery.

Anyway, people get irritated about “high church” and “low church” because, well, people get attached to their practices, whatever they are, and then find their security in those practices, building their sense of identity on their difference from others, rather than in the God to whom those practices turn our attention. But that, perhaps, is another and more complicated topic.

“High church” and “low church” used to mean this: that a high church liturgical community considered the Eucharist (primarily called “communion” then, though high church folks occasionally followed the Roman practice and called it “mass”) to be the proper service of worship for the Lord’s Day (and perhaps other days, too!); and a low church community was content to hold the service of Morning Prayer, with communion occasionally—sometimes every Sunday at the early service and once a month at a later service; sometimes once a month, or every other Sunday; or some similar arrangement.

NOW, however, since the Episcopal Church has come to the conviction that the Eucharist, the liturgy of Word and Sacrament —both the reading of Scripture and sharing of the consecrated bread and wine together—as the liturgy appropriate to the Lord’s Day, what these terms refer to, more often than not, is how ceremonially elaborate a liturgy is. A Eucharist with incense, resplendent vestments, multiple vested ministers, elaborate procession and movement, and so on, will be called a “high” liturgy; a simple Eucharist with a minimum of vestments, a simple style of celebration, and the tendency to view any use of incense as a sneak attack by ritualistic infiltrators, will be viewed as “low.” There’s a little more to it than that: high church Episcopalians will tend to have a very strong sense of the power of the Sacrament to sustain Christian practice, and a reverence for the Eucharistic elements; low church Episcopalians will have a “high” view (you see what I did there) of the hearing and preaching of Scripture as the practice that sustains discipleship. Still, right-minded high church Episcopalians revere the power of the living Word of God as we encounter him in Scripture; and right minded low church Episcopalians respect and are nourished by the practice of communion with the Lord and their brothers and sisters, at the table.

So is the Episcopal Church “high” or “low,” you ask? That’s a bit of a tricky question. If you are using the terms the old way, then the Episcopal Church has become “high,” in that we returned to the older practice by Christians of both hearing the Word and celebrating at the Table on Sunday. As the 1979 Book of Common Prayer puts it, the Holy Eucharist, Word and Sacrament, is the “principal act of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day and other Major Feasts.”

If you mean by “high” and “low” to distinguish more elaborate or less elaborate liturgies of the Eucharist, then the Episcopal Church is both “high” and “low.” Local parishes will have local histories and ceremonial traditions and the prayer book allows for both. And we all might learn to appreciate what each of these traditions has to offer: a very simple Eucharist does much to deepen our sense of the power of the Word to illuminate our lives, and helps us not to confuse human ritual with the gospel of God’s grace; and a beautifully and elegant Eucharist, full of mystery and reverent ritual, helps awaken all the senses to the majestic transcendence and gracious mystery of the presence and power of the God, on whose very Life we feed.