Terminology note: High Church and Low Church

As much as we are apt to resist labels, the need to distinguish between two strains of Catholic thought and attitude that are predominant in America today has led me to rely, here and elsewhere, on the prevailing terminology of “liberal” and “conservative.” See, e.g., 1 MPA, at 57, 62, 116. But those terms—freighted as they are with political connotations—are frequently misleading and unhelpful; two friends will furnish an example of the problem: Politically, one is quite liberal and the other is quite conservative, but the political conservative is a fairly liberal Catholic and the political liberal is a fairly conservative Catholic. (I have sometimes tried to express this in my own case by called myself a “three-C Catholic”: A “conservative Catholic conservative.”)

This state of affairs is unsatisfactory. To the extent that we must use labels, it would be preferable to have labels that convey attitudes towards purely Church-related issues—ecclesiology, theology, liturgy, etc.—without inflammatory, presumptuous, and often incorrect implications about worldly politics.

In discussions about the Anglican church over the last year, I have been impressed by the utility of the labels “high church” and “low church” Anglicanism. Alan L. Hayes has a useful and brief introduction:

When those terms came into use toward the end of the seventeenth century, high-church Anglicans … believed that authority flowed from the top down, and low-church Anglicans … were inclined to trace authority from the bottom up. Accordingly, high-church Anglicans thought that Christ had given his authority to his apostles, who in turn had given it to their successors the bishops, who exercised it on Christ’s behalf over the church. Low-church Anglicans thought that Christ had given his authority to the Chruch [which they understood] as the “blessed company of all faithful people. High-church Anglicans stressed the authority of the clergy; low-church Anglicans stressed the priesthood of all believers, which meant that every Christian could and did meet the living God without priestly mediation. … High-church Anglicans thought that the orders of the bishop, presbyter (or priest), and deacon, a tradition of worship, and other foundations of Church life had originated with Christ and should be honored by all obedient Christians. Low-church Anglicans thought God had given the Church freedom to provide from time to time for its own organization, according to its specific historical situation. From these two positions grew different understandings of worship, sacraments, mission, ecumenism, and the Christian life.

Hayes, Anglicans in Canada 114-15 (2004); see also David Holmes, A Brief History of the Episcopal Church 16 ff. (1993); cf. Jean-Pierre Paulin Martin, Anglican Ritualism as seen by a Catholic and Foreigner (1881). In other words, in the rough-and-tumble world of the via media, high-church Anglicans emphasized the Catholic aspects of Anglicanism while low-church Anglicans emphasized its reformed parts. I am struck by how congruent those terms—and the attitudes which they denote—appear to be with the Catholic Church in America today, and how closely they respectively approach the groups that we might otherwise call “conservative” and “liberal” in their ecclesial senses. Moreover, the adaptation of such terms to Catholic purposes is hardly unprecedented; a Google Books search finds such labels in use as early as 1831.

To be sure, adopting the high-church/low-church taxonomy would not solve every problem. It is certainly possible, for example, to have a very orthodox ecclesiology (high church) while preferring the most extremely modernist ars celebrandi with which one can get away under the rubrics (low church). But that is no real objection, first because it is a theoretical possibility rather than a common occurrence, and second because it is equally true whether one uses the high-church/low-church taxonomy or the conservative/liberal taxonomy. While ambiguity and exception would remain, that is an inherent defect of general labels, and so—stipulating that we need such general labels, as it cannot be gainsaid that we frequently do—the question is not whether the shift would solve every problem but rather whether it would solve any problems without imposing disproportionate costs.

A more serious objection, typified by this post, is that in a church that confesses itself as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, the terminology is problematic insofar as it implies a house divided against itself. As one looks at the decreasingly coherent Anglican communion, the point seems well-taken; as the quote above from Hayes observes, in different soils grow different flowers. The objection, however, is against division. One need not disagree that such division is bad to recognize that when such divisions exist, we need a terminology to describe and discuss them. In anticipation of the objection that labels can actually entrench and polarize divisions that were previously more amorphous and thus less explosive—or that more precise labels will bring divisions into sharper focus—I can only say that it would appear to me that the divisions are already entrenched, sharply-defined, and explosive.

I conclude that a high-church/low-church taxonomy borrowed from Anglicanism supplies us with significantly more useful labels than the conservative/liberal taxonomy that we have hitherto borrowed from political affairs. I have been unable to envision any serious complications that would arise from importing them to refer to different groups of Catholics. The adoption increases the precision of our lexicon while introducing few or no drawbacks. After some reflection, I now therefore adopt that terminology for Motu Proprio and elsewhere.