"Low Church" and "High Church"
Evangelical Protestants sometimes become offended when they hear that they are from a "low church" tradition. Indeed, in some cases those from more liturgical traditions use that term in a pejorative way to mean "less sophisticated" or "uneducated." But then, Protestant Evangelicals are not beyond throwing around the term "high church" to mean "less spiritual than we." The fact is, neither term in itself carries any of those negative connotations.
"Low Church" is a neutral term that simply describes a type of worship that does not follow a prescribed order of service, that does not follow certain liturgical patterns, and does not make use of developed ritual, ceremony, or worship accouterments like vestments. From Webster's Dictionary: "Low Church (1710) tending esp. in Anglican worship to minimize emphasis on the priesthood, sacraments, and the ceremonial in worship and often to emphasize evangelical principles." By contrast: "High Church (1687) tending esp. in Anglican worship to stress the sacerdotal [priestly], liturgical, ceremonial, traditional, and Catholic elements in worship."
So the two terms simply describe attitudes, forms, or theologies of worship. Those traditions that follow more priestly models, ranging from Catholic to Anglican, or those that tend to follow a more liturgical form of worship in which the service is structured around a Theology of Word and Table, ranging from Lutheran to some Methodists, are considered "high church." Many of the American-born traditions or those that reacted to the formality of other traditions, such as the Quakers and Puritans, adopted a “low church” approach to worship in which spontaneity was emphasized in matters ranging from prayer to sermons.
The differences between these two approaches to worship emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Many commonly understand the Reformation to be a theological revival (from the Protestant perspective) or a schism within the church over theological differences (from the Catholic perspective). While that is certainly true on one level, those theological differences were interwoven with other issues, including the nature of worship. While the Protestant confessions that emerged from the Reformation dealt with the theological issues, they also attempted to define the church in distinction from Catholic practices of worship that were seen at best as improper and at worst as heretical.
This can be exemplified in the split between Luther and Zwingli over this very issue. Zwingli thought that Luther had not gone nearly far enough in breaking from Rome, while Luther genuinely wanted only to reform the Church, not totally remake it. This led to the two well known criteria for church practice. Luther held a maximalist view that whatever was not specifically forbidden in Scripture could be practiced by the Church in its worship. So he continued many of the long established practices of the Church. Zwingli took the minimalist view and held that only those things that were specifically allowed in Scripture could be practiced in the Church.
Of course there were those like Menno Simons who thought Zwingli had not gone far enough and so spawned the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Mennonites). Invariably, some like Jacob Amman thought Simons had sold out and moved still further (Amish). The same thing happened in England as Cranmer followed Luther, with more radical reactions from George Fox (Quakers) and the Puritans.
For example the language of the Westminster Confession of the Puritans is especially pointed in declaring that “the Popish sacrifice of the mass, as they call it, is most abominably injurious to Christ's one only sacrifice, the only propitiation for all the sins of the elect.” (Westminster Confession, Chapter 29.2. Of the Lord's Supper; note the Scots Confession Chapter 18 - The Notes by Which the True Kirk Is Discerned from The False, and Who Shall Be Judge of Doctrine). The Westminster Confession reflects not only theological differences but also the necessity of distinguishing emerging Protestantism from Catholicism in matters of practice. Especially relevant here is Zwingli's minimalist approach to worship or what some have called a regulative principle:
Chapter 21. Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath-day.
21.1. The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and does good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (The Westminster Confession)
In other words, this presents Zwingli's view of worship in which only those practices that are specifically commanded in Scripture or that have justification from Scripture in the practice of the early church are acceptable as legitimate means of worship. In the context of the Reformation, this was not only a working out of the principle of sola scruptura, “scripture alone” as the basis for doctrine, but also a direct attack on what was understood to be unbiblical practices in worship in Catholicism. This included such things as Catholic mass (as a reenactment of the death of Jesus), the multiplication of sacraments, and the more elaborate aspects of worship that had developed in the medieval period such as ornate vestments, incense, the proliferation of statues, the use of scepters, crucifixes, etc.. Along with this came criticism of opulent cathedrals and the call for more simplicity in worship.
This laid the groundwork for what would emerge as “low church” approaches to worship that attempted to return to a simplicity that was assumed to be biblically based. It should be noted however, that the return to a biblical basis for worship only went as far as the New Testament church. Ignored in this “back to the Bible” approach to worship were the very same elaborate rituals, priestly vestments, and magnificent places of worship that were characteristic of much of Old Testament worship, as well as that of first century Judaism. It also ignores the rather obvious fact that Jesus himself as a first century Jew participated in those rituals of worship in those places without much condemnation (Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers in the Temple was not an attack on the practices of worship conducted there or on the Temple itself).
This reveals that there were other forces at work in the Reformation than simply a recovery of the acceptable way of worshipping God “instituted by himself.” In the concern to reject the excesses of medieval Catholicism, this minimalist approach to worship tended to invoke a subtle supercessionist approach to Scripture, which assumed that only what was directly commanded in the New Testament as a means of worship was revealed by God and therefore valid. In any case, the rejection of any practice not specifically commanded in the New Testament or practiced by the early church with biblical justification solidly laid the groundwork for the development of “low church” traditions of worship.
In another direction, the Anglican tradition also rejected Catholicism, largely to reject the authority of the papacy over the Church of England. But there were also both theological and practical aspects.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith. (The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Article 19 - The Church)
However, while moving away from some aspects of Catholicism, the Anglican tradition took a more traditionalist approach to worship.
Article 34 - The Traditions of the Church
It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one or utterly alike; for at all times they have been diverse, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's word.
Whosoever through his private judgement willingly and purposely openly breaks the traditions and ceremonies of the Church which are not repugnant to the word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly that others may fear to do the like, as he that offends against common order of the Church, and hurts the authority of the magistrate, and wounds the conscience of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church has authority to ordain, change, and abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying. (The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion)
This might be described as a maximilist approach to worship, or what some have called a normative principle. That is, while the minimalist approach viewed as acceptable in worship only what Scripture directly commands, this approach tends to view as acceptable in worship what Scripture does not directly forbid.
That what the Scripture forbids not, it allows, and what it allows, is not unlawful, and what is not unlawful, may lawfully be done. (Attributed to Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1566, by Henry Danvers, Innocency and Truth Vindicated, 1675).
Some have termed this approach a via media, a middle way between Catholicism and the more radical tendencies of Protestantism toward individualism, innovation, and rejection of all church tradition. It is from this preservation of traditional practices of worship but within a decidedly Protestant context that “high-church” traditions of worship emerge.
While the Anglican tradition, along with Lutherans and other Protestant tradition, tended to gravitate to “high church” forms of worship, even within those traditions the influence of “low church” approaches came to be felt. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, was sometimes accused by his detractors of being "low church" because of his field preaching and training of lay-preachers outside the confines of normal church structure and structures. But he vigorously defended against the charge. He remained thoroughly Anglican and high church, while still continuing to emphasize evangelical principles.
The Methodist church, especially as it grew in the new United States, emerged as an interesting blend of low and high church practices. Modern Methodism still preserves both approaches in various congregations. Many American Presbyterians also managed to retain features of both types of worship. However, the American versions of both Methodists and Presbyterians that emerged in the American Holiness Movement, along with Pentecostals, and others like Quakers, Brethren, and Churches of Christ, intentionally chose to move to "low church."
While there were certainly limits as to what might be allowed in worship with the Anglican approach, such as practices “repugnant to the word of God,” there is a great deal of freedom allowed in worship both in accepting traditional practices and in adapting the practices of worship to varying circumstances. There is an interesting balance between practices accepted from church tradition and therefore seen as a source of unity in the church, and the disclaimer that such rules of practice are not decreed by God or Scripture.
. . . these orders and rules ensuing have been thought meet and convenient to be used and followed: not yet prescribing these rules as laws equivalent with the eternal word of God, and as of necessity to bind the consciences of her subjects in the nature of them considered in themselves; or as they should add any efficacy or more holiness to the virtue of public prayer, and to the sacraments, but as temporal orders mere ecclesiastical, without any vain superstition, and as rules in some part of discipline concerning decency, distinction, and order for the time. (Matthew Parker, The Advertisements, 1566)
It is perhaps in this balance between a recognition of the value of tradition in its role in unifying the church and fostering some degree of commonality between various communions of the Faith, and the allowance of adaptations of those traditions into different circumstances and contexts that strikes the via media between minimalist and maxamilist, between regulative and normative, approaches to worship.
Low Church attitudes, especially among American evangelicals, are often suspicious of structured worship, including emphasis on the sacraments and observance of rituals such as the Seasons of the Church Year. Services are usually marked by an informality in which the congregation participates in the service in various ways, especially in prayer and testimony, which is often spontaneous. Eucharist is generally celebrated infrequently and irregularly, sometimes only observed once or twice a year or not at all.
Yet, there is a renewed movement in many traditionally low church traditions to an emphasis on services of word and table, especially among heirs of the American Holiness tradition (see Word and Table: Reflections on a Theology of Worship and What Is Liturgy?). This seems to be an attempt to reintegrate the two dimensions of a concern with the sacramental and liturgical that is a part of Anglican and Wesleyan heritage with the evangelical emphasis that is also a crucial part of that identity.
Some criticize the modern Anglican/Episcopalian tradition for collapsing the via media back into Catholic forms of worship, and of being inflexible in allowing adaptation of worship into different contexts. Yet it may well be that the spirit of the Anglican tradition in trying to strike a balance between the value of tradition and liturgical worship on the one hand with the changing demands of a growing church and the dynamics of history on the other will provide the revitalization necessary to overcome the debates over worship in the modern church. Rather than a point of contention, the growing influence of some aspects of more traditional forms of worship may instead provide some sense of unity. It may well be that rather than high church or low church, the Wesleyan tradition as heirs of Anglicanism may provide Protestantism with a viable model of a via media for worship as well as for theology.
Robert Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church, Morehouse, 1985.
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Post-Modern World, Baker, 1999.