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"High Church" is a term that may now be used in speaking of viewpoints within a number of denominations of Protestant Christianity in general, but it is one which has traditionally been employed in Churches associated with the Anglican tradition in particular.
It is often employed in describing those Anglican parishes or congregations that employ many ritual practices associated in the popular mind with the Roman Catholic Mass. Supporters of the "High Church" position emphasise that these practices have to do with holiness, sanctity, and respect for God, Jesus, and the Church itself as the Body of Christ. As such they espouse a position that the Church as an organisation and the congregation at worship is "catholic" primarily in the sense that it is joined through its ritual to the Church "universal", and so they employ the terms "High Church" and "Anglo-Catholic" not as a reflexion of any desire to ally the Anglican Church with Rome, or in an attempt to reject the reformed Catholic position asserted by Anglicanism.
Due to its history, the term "High Church" can also be used to refer to aspects of Anglicanism quite distinct from the Oxford Movement or Anglo-Catholicism. There remain parishes which are "High Church" and yet adhere closely to the quintessentially Anglican usages and liturgical practices of the Book of Common Prayer. These congregations are what is termed "Prayer Book" in liturgy, but "High Church" in churchmanship and ecclesiastical outlook.
Elastic in meaning, the term "High Church" has spread to those Protestant denominations which have undergone ritualistic 'revivals' or realignments in their liturgical practices, for example, "High Church" Lutheranism or "High Church" Presbyterianism. European Lutheranism's answer to Anglo-Catholicism is Neo-Lutheranism.
Evolution of the term "High Church"
The nineteenth century Oxford Movement within the Church of England began as a "High Church" movement, following a call to action to save the Church, whose position, with Catholic Emancipation and other changes in the English body politic, was perceived as being in danger. High Churchmen strove against the erosion of the Church of England's traditionally-privileged and legally-entrenched role in English society; however, over time a significant number of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement converted to Roman Catholicism, following the path of their spiritual precursor, John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the fathers of the Oxford Movement, and, for a time, a High Churchman himself. A lifelong High Churchman, the Reverend Edward Bouverie Pusey remained the spiritual father of the Oxford Movement, and in Holy Orders of the Church of England.
Today, the primary source of continuing separation between "High Church" Anglo-Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church itself is the liberal attitude taken by many in the Anglican Communion regarding doctrinal and disciplinary issues which to the Roman Catholic Church are still officially anathema, such as the ordination of women, and, increasingly, the calls for the acceptance and ordination of homosexuals. It is the disagreement over these issues more than over the minutiae of liturgical practices, or worship styles, that continues to keep "High Church" Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism from reaching an overall consensus.
It is also often such doctrinal and disciplinary differences that have led to the many schisms of "High Church" Anglo-Catholics from within the Churches of the Anglican Communion in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.
In the 17th century, the term "High Church" was used to describe those divines and laity who placed a "high" emphasis on complete adherence to the Established Church position, including some elements that involved ritual or liturgical practice inherited from the Early Church or Undivided Church. In the early days of Anglicanism's existence as a Church entirely independent of the Roman Catholic Church, this position was unremarkable, but as the Puritans began demanding that the English Church abandon its traditional liturgical emphases, episcopal structures, parish ornaments, and the like, the "High Church" position came to be distinguished increasingly from that of the Latitudinarians, who sought to minimise the differences of Anglicans from other believers in Reformed Christianity, and to make the Church as inclusive as possible by opening its doors as wide as possible to admit believers of all Christian viewpoints, except Roman Catholics.
The reign of King James I saw some attempts to diminish the growth of party feeling within the Church of England, and indeed sought to reconcile to the Church moderate Puritans who did not already conform to the Established Church or who had left the Church in recent years. The project to create the Authorized Version of the Bible saw one such attempt reach fruition. The continued use of what has also been termed the King James version of the Bible by Anglicans and Protestants alike in the English-speaking world is a reflexion of the success of this endeavour at cooperation.
During the reign of King Charles I, however, as the divisions between Puritan and Anglican elements within the Church of England became more bitter, and Protestant Nonconformity outside the Church grew stronger in numbers and more vociferous, the "High Church" position became associated with the revanchist leadership of the "High Church" Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, (see Laudianism), and government policy to curtail the growth of Protestant Dissent in England, and the other possessions of the Crown. See, for example, the attempt to re-impose episcopacy on the Church of Scotland.
To a lesser extent, looking back from the 19th century, it also came to be associated with the beliefs of the Caroline divines, and with the pietistic emphases of the period, practised by the Anglican community at Little Gidding, such as fasting and lengthy preparations before receiving the Eucharist.
After the Restoration, the term "High Church" became associated with those who took the view that the Church of England forever ought to be specially protected against all other Christian beliefs, which it termed sectarian.
In the wake of the disestablishment of Anglicanism and the persecution of Anglican beliefs and practices under the Commonwealth, the return of the Anglican party to power in the Cavalier Parliament saw a strong revival of the "High Church" position in the English body politic. Victorious after a generation of struggle, the Anglican gentry felt the need to re-entrench the re-Anglicanised Church of England as one of the most important elements of the Restoration Settlement through a renewed and strengthened alliance between Throne and Altar, or Church and State. Reverence for martyrdom of the Stuart king Charles I as an upholder of his Coronation Oath to protect the Church of England became a hallmark of "High Church" orthodoxy. At the same time, the Stuart dynasty was expected to maintain its adherence to Anglicanism. This became an important issue for the High Church party and it was to disturb the Restoration Settlement under Charles II's brother, King James II, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and lead to setbacks for the "High Church" party. These events culminated in the Glorious Revolution and the exclusion of the Catholic Stuarts from the British Throne. The subsequent split over the matter office-holders' oaths of allegiance to the Crown and the Royal Succession which led to the exclusion of the Non-Juror bishops who refused to recognise the 1688 de facto abdication of the King, and the accession of King William III and Queen Mary II, and did much to damage the unity of "High Church" party.
Later events surrounding the attempts of the Jacobites, the adherents of the excluded dynasts, to regain the English and Scottish thrones, led to a sharpening of anti-Catholic rhetoric in Britain and a distancing of the High Church party from the more ritualistic aspects of Caroline High churchmanship. Eventually, under Queen Anne, the High Church party saw its fortunes revive with those of the Tory party, with which it was strongly associated.
However, under the early Hanoverians, High Church and Tory fortunes once again were out of favour. This led to an increasing marginalisation of High Church and Tory viewpoints, as much of the 18th century was given over to the rule of the Whig party and the great aristocratic families who were in large measure pragmatic latitudinarians in churchmanship. This was also the Age of Reason which marked a period of great spiritual somnolence and stultification in the Church of England.
Thus, by the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th, those liturgical practices which were prevalent even in High Church circles were not of the same tenor as those which were later to be found under the Catholic revival of the 19th century, and High Church clergy and laity were often termed, "high and dry", in reference to their traditional "high" attitude with regard to political position of the Church in England, and "dry" faith, which was accompanied by an austere but decorous mode of worship as reflective of their idea of an orderly and dignified churchmanship against the rantings of the Protestants their cavalier ancestors had defeated. Over time, their High Church position had become ossified among a remnant of bookish churchmen and country squires. A fine example of an early 19th century churchman of this tradition is Sir Robert Inglis MP.
Only with the success of the Oxford Movement and its increasing emphases on ritualistic revivals from the mid-19th century onward, did the term "High Church" begin to mean something approaching the later term "Anglo-Catholic". Even then, it was only employed co-terminously in contrast to the "Low" churchmanship of the Latitudinarians' position, which sought, once again, to lessen the separation of Anglicans, and the Established Church, from the majority of Protestant Nonconformists, who by this time included the Wesleyans and other Methodists, as well as adherents of older Protestant denominations known by the group term "Old Dissent".
From the mid-19th century onward, the term "High Church" came to refer increasingly to an avowedly Anglo-Catholic liturgical and exclusivist or even triumphalist position within the English Church, while the remaining Latitudinarians were referred to as being Broad Church, and the re-emergent Evangelical party was dubbed Low Church.
- Hein, David. "The High Church Origins of the American Boarding School." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42 (1991): 577-95.