Terminology note: High/low church revisited

Last year, I adopted the Anglican taxonomy of “low church / high church” as an improvement on the prevailing “liberal / conservative” taxonomy. 1 I conceded, however, that doing so

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. 2

I yield to the lessons of experience, which has shown that the acknowledged imprecision in the taxonomy—does it refer to substantive doctrine, ecclesiology, or liturgy?—is more acute than I had anticipated. For example, in terms of the old conservative/liberal lexicon, Pope Francis appears to be doctrinally conservative, but ecclesiologically moderate and liturgically liberal. I have, moreover, encountered with increasing frequency people who are ecclesiologically conservative but liturgically liberal. Some refinement is therefore needed.

In its original Anglican setting, the taxonomy’s focus is primarily ecclesiological, and is liturgical only in a secondary and subsidiary manner. 3 High churchmen

see the Anglican Communion as a branch of the apostolic catholic church, believing their priests share apostolic succession with Roman Catholic priests. They also share an elevated sense of the Eucharist, “the real presence” of Christ in the elements and a liturgical focus on the Eucharist. High Church liturgy respects the liturgical solemnity of Catholic worship. … [Low churchmen] are the descendents of the Puritans, who are decidedly Protestant in their doctrine. These are the evangelicals, who are apt to be more informal and even “contemporary” in their worship, and place an emphasis upon personal faith. This is the tradition of folk like John Newton, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. 4

Historically, then, the high church party was preserving and the low church party protestantizing. Today, and practically-speaking, “[t]hese labels reflect, rather inadequately, the difference between those whose faith is centered first on the church with its liturgy and sacraments and those whose faith centers primarily on the Bible and the preaching of the Word.” 5 Liturgy is an integral part of this complex, but only a part. And it is subsidiary insofar as, for example, the low church party could hardly insist on the comparative unimportance of the church and the sacraments and yet retain a church-centered sacramental liturgy: An ecclesiological commitment to a flat church focused on preaching obliges the marginalization of ritual forms. So long as liturgical and ecclesiological views remain integrated together in a single parcel, the taxonomy can afford some ambiguity—or rather, in the Anglican context, it is not actually ambiguous, insofar as it refers to the parcel of attitudes as a whole rather than any of its component attitudes especially. But as soon as those attitudes diverge—I might even go further and say, when the context allows the possibility for those attitudes to diverge—the taxonomy begins to creak and crack under the strain.

Nor, I think, ex vi terminorum, may we appropriate the words and confine them to denominating liturgical attitudes. The “high church” party emphasized the Catholic aspects of Anglican identity, placing a “high” value on tradition, ritual, the church hierarchy, and sacraments, and the “low church” party emphasized the Protestant aspects of it, placing a “low” value on those things just mentioned and instead emphasizing preaching, evangelism, individualism, and the common priesthood of the faithful. 6 What is meant by the adjectives “high” and “low” is the value placed upon, among other things, liturgy. It was fair to say that the low churchmen placed low value on liturgy; it is not fair to say that those who have restless and modernizing attitudes toward liturgy don’t value on liturgy (although it is fair to say that they place a low value on ritual), they just have a different view on how it ought to be done. Indeed, the very insistence with which they defend the postconciliar framework implies that they, too, place high value on the liturgy. It is one thing to use old words in a new context, even to use them more restrictively than they were once used; quite another to use them in ways that are inconsistent with the etymology of the words!

This is not to say that the high/low church taxonomy cannot be used in the Catholic Church. Rather, it should be used to refer, mutatis mutandis, to that which they have always referred: The package of ecclesiology, liturgy, and doctrine, not just one part of it. And this restriction must be observed even though it makes them much less useful in a Catholic setting than they might be in an Anglican setting! I can define myself as a “high church Catholic” because I place a high emphasis on those things upon which the high churchmen of Anglicanism placed high emphasis, but against whom? The distinction will not often come into play, it seems to me, because there are relatively few “low church Catholics” within the organic meaning of the term. (Or are there? One immediately thinks of Hans Kung, Gary Wills, and other self-described catholics who, if we were to accept their self-identification, would undoubtedly be low church catholics. But what of the young? Polls and anecdotal evidence seem to suggest that there is a not insignificant de facto low church Catholic party which is faithful and yet which does not place significant value on the sacraments or the liturgy—they may say otherwise in the abstract, but revealed preference says otherwise—and which sets the magisterium at some remove from their lives.) But it is a risky business to uproot words simply to increase their utility.

For these reasons, I will henceforth confine the high/low church taxonomy to uses consonant with its original meaning. More thought will have to go into framing a taxonomy for liturgical questions, and I reserve that question for another day.


  1. See Terminology note, 2 MPA 22 (2012).
  2. Id., at 25.
  3. See, e.g., id., at 23-24; Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties, and Schools of Religious Thought 195 ff., 257 ff. (Blunt, ed., 2003); 2 Encyclopædic Dictionary of Religion 1666, 2171 (Meagher et al., eds., 1976); Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 636, 824 (Cross, ed., 1958).
  4. Dana Huntley, Whither the Church of England, 34 British Heritage no. 2 (May 2013), pp.22-23.
  5. Christopher Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An introduction to its history, faith, and worship 72 (1999) (parentheticals deleted).
  6. See, e.g., An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church 241, 312 (Armentrout et al., eds., 2000).