In Anglican circles today, the term “High Church” has become so thoroughly associated with Anglo-Catholicism that the two are assumed to be synonymous. Even in other Christian bodies, the phrases “High Church” and “Low Church” have come to be associated with the level of ritual at operation in the liturgy. This reality says a great deal, both about the ways in which Anglo-Catholicism succeeded and the ways in which earlier forms of High Churchmanship failed.
Holy High History, Batman
The terms “High Church” and “Low Church” were first used in England around the time of the “Glorious Revolution” in the 1680s, but they do not really come into more common use until the early part of the eighteenth century during the reign of Queen Anne. At that time, the terms were equal parts political and religious. The post Reformation Church of England, though on paper settled in doctrine, has never been settled in practice. There have always been those who have felt that the Reformation either went too far or did not go far enough. It is this tension which led to the English Civil War. But by the eighteenth century, those who wanted a more radical reform of the Church were tired of fighting from the inside. Now they simply wanted to be able to create their own churches. But given the ways in which Church and state are intertwined in England, this was easier said than done. As the role of Parliament in running the country became greater, a two party system emerged. Tories favored the Church of England and fought to maintain her rights and privileges as the sole legitimate ecclesial body in the realm. Whigs fought to give dissenters a voice and an equal place at the table. To be “High Church” was to be Tory. To be “Low Church” was to be Whig.
Eighteenth century High Churchmen held such strong political convictions for reasons that were both theological and personal. They were the inheritors of the wealth of theological riches that were produced by Anglicans in the previous century. Everyone from Jeremy Taylor all the way back to Lancelot Andrewes and even Richard Hooker could in some sense be seen as the forerunners to what became the High Church party. What distinguished High Churchmen, even before they had adopted the name, was a belief in not only the legitimacy of the Church of England but its divinely appointed place as the Catholic Church for the English people. As such, High Churchmen strongly upheld the principles of the Elizabethan Settlement. They were dedicated supporters of the prayer book, episcopacy, the monarchy, baptismal regeneration, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, they were not by any stretch “Romanizers,” though this was the regular accusation made against them by Puritans and other dissenters. One of Jeremy Taylor’s more interesting pieces of writing is his widely circulated “Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman Newly Seduced to the Church of Rome” in which he celebrates the Church of England as the only truly “Catholick” body in England. High Churchmen were happy to own the Reformation, even if they sometimes drew sharp distinctions between the Reformed Church of England and the Reformed Churches on the continent. And, despite a few colorful exceptions like George Bull, the majority held to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, though they had a far higher view of disciplines like fasting than did most solifidians.
The High Church movement continued to exist throughout the eighteenth century and even produced a couple of notable theologians like Joseph Butler and William Law, but as the political winds shifted, the party slowly became a shadow of its former self. Some resurgence occurred towards the end of the century, largely in reaction against the growing new Evangelical party and the great threat of “enthusiasm,” but the fire of the seventeenth century was never recaptured. By the time the Oxford Movement was underway, most of the High Churchmen who were left were of the “High and Dry” sort, maintaining their position largely as a way to continue their own lives of privilege. Their theology was window dressing for an almost knee-jerk toryism. High Churchmanship was dying under the weight of its own inertia.
Early Anglo-Catholics had a love/hate relationship with the old guard High Churchmen. On the one hand, they detested their lack of zeal. John Henry Newman and Hurrell Froude famously used to refer to them as “Zs.” On the other hand, Anglo-Catholics realized that they needed the support and partnership of High Churchmen if their movement was going to go anywhere. For all their faults, High Churchmen still controlled certain newspapers and had the money and prestige to create livings for clergy and to defend them in the event of prosecution. Besides, part of the Anglo-Catholic movement’s claim to legitimacy was the idea that they were simply recovering certain lost aspects of an earlier kind of High Churchmanship. Therefore, early Anglo-Catholics were often willing to hold their noses and do what it took to maintain good relationships with the “Zs,” though this became less and less true in the movement’s later generations.
But the older High Churchmen were sometimes even less fond of their Anglo-Catholic brethren. The generation of High Churchmen who lived in the 1830s and 1840s were still fighting the battles they had inherited with “enthusiasm” and therefore had little patience for what often seemed to them to be just an enthusiasm of a different kind. Many of the old High Churchmen detested ritualism and found practices like the lighting of candles on the altar and the wearing of eucharistic vestments to be every bit as questionable as the Evangelicals did. Nevertheless, they were clever enough to realize that their movement was dying and that it would not survive if there was not an influx of youthful idealism. Plus, as the Evangelical movement continued to gain momentum despite the best efforts of High Churchmen to stop it, they came to believe that any alliance which helped to keep the Evangelical threat at bay was a good one. They realized, however tentatively, that they needed the Anglo-Catholics every bit as much as the Anglo-Catholics needed them.
High Church Hybrid
Fast forward a generation and a distinct new class of High Churchmen can be seen emerging. By the 1870s, the old guard High Churchmen were all but gone. Anglo-Catholics still existed, of course, and there were many who were far more radical and less compromising than their Oxford heroes had been. But somewhere in the midst of this muddle, a new kind of High Churchmanship was rising from the ashes. The sociologist John Shelton Reed describes it this way in his book Glorious Battle:
These moderate High Churchmen–or simply “Anglicans,” as they sometimes called themselves–had been affected by the Church revival and by the early teachings of the Tractarians, but they represented an old tradition in the Church of England, and they knew it. They took their stand squarely on the Prayer Book and the seventeenth century Anglican divines, and in so doing revived an English tradition that had been largely dormant for a century and a half. (First edition, page 111)
These folks saw in their particular brand of Anglo-Catholicism the glory of an earlier time in the Church of England and they set about trying to reclaim it. A new kind of Anglican distinctiveness was rising to the surface again after a long submersion. Unlike in previous generations, these new High Churchmen were unafraid to say simply and plainly that what they believed, taught, and lived was nothing less than Anglicanism itself. Classical High Churchmanship is Anglicanism, according to these folks, precisely because classical High Churchmanship returns again and again to the primitive Church to ascertain its direction. Would that Prayer Book believing Anglicans today would be so bold in their proclamations.
Late nineteenth century High Churchmen never could have imagined what was to come, either in terms of further excesses in the Anglo-Catholic movement or in terms of the efforts at cooperation and peaceful coexistence that exist today between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals (however fraught with tension those efforts may be below the surface). But they believed that it was possible to accept many of the premises upon which Anglo-Catholicism rested without losing the Reformation. In fact, they saw how Anglo-Catholic teaching and practice, when properly cast through the lens of the earlier classic High Churchmanship of the seventeenth century, not only did not contradict the formularies but actually vindicated them.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
In the the twentieth century, classic High Churchmanship was all but submerged. As ritualism and liberalism began to intertwine, the earlier form of Anglicanism so dearly championed by the seventeenth century divines once again fell out of favor. It is only in the last two decades that this has started to change. A surge of interest in classical Anglicanism has begun to take place, particularly in North America. While the classical Anglican movement is still very much “fringe,” there is a growing sense that Anglicanism, if it is to be anything, it must find its moorings in a different time than now. In classical Anglican circles, it has become fashionable to point out the ways in which Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism have both distorted or ignored certain aspects of our formularies. I have participated in such criticism myself. In our era, it is a somewhat regrettable but necessary task.
Nevertheless, classical Anglican High Churchmen ought not forget that it was Anglo-Catholicism that made the revival of the theology of the divines possible. First and second generation Anglo-Catholics combed through the writings of the seventeenth century and republished many writers whose work had long since fallen out of print, usually without altering the opinions of those divines even when they ran vehemently contrary to their own. Anglo-Catholicism gave classical Anglican High Churchmanship a new framework and a new approach. Even ritualism can be said to be a gift to the revival of classical High Churchmanship in so much as it communicates and accentuates many classical Anglican doctrines that have become obscure. There would likely be no classical Anglicanism today if there had not been Anglo-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. For that alone, we owe the Tractarians a great debt of gratitude.