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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

TBT: High Church or No Church?


The following piece was published at the old Gottesblog site in 2006, adapted from an article put up (on the old GEnie network, perhaps) in 1994.        

  As the fissures widen in the bedrock that once was the stalwart contingent of conservatives in the Missouri Synod, interesting patterns in the breach have begun to emerge. Most prominent of these has to do with the marks of divergent worship practices, marks which designate various strains of loyalty to the perceived tradition. On one side are those for whom worship style or choice is largely a matter of adiaphora, while on the other are marked by their attempts at maintaining a catholicity in appearance as well as in substance.

            Borrowing terminology from the Anglicans, people have referred to the choices as “high church” or “low church.” Denizens on each side of this fence tend to use the term corresponding to the other side derogatorily. Those of the “low church” mentality consider “high church” to be a negative appellation. This was once largely due to remembrances of “high church” tendencies among the liberals of the seventies who sympathized with those who marched pompously out of the St. Louis Seminary. Those men were high church, they wore collars, they chanted, and they liked to think of themselves as catholic. But those men were also naughty, to couch the matter in this rather blunt term I heard from a faithful if rather cockney lay woman I encountered once on a recent trip to the British Isles: they were naughty Lutherans. That is, they rejected the authority of the Scriptures and were openly given to the excesses of historical criticism; hence “high church” came into use as one way to designate their naughtiness, by those on the low, conservative side of the fence.

            Today, however, on the “high” side of the fence, those naughty Lutherans are nowhere to be found. They have flown the coop. But meanwhile others have arisen who, it turns out, look very much like them: they wear collars, they chant, and they like to think of themselves as catholic. The difference is that they are not naughty; they never question the authority of the Scriptures, and they always place themselves humbly beneath that authority. They may dress like the notorious Seminex-arian John Tietjen did, but they are definitely not on the same team. These are men whose confessional subscription, unlike that of the Seminex crowd, is not quatenus but quia; that is, subscribe to the Lutheran confessions not insofar as, but because they believe them to be in agreement with the Sacred Scriptures. Because of that subscription, and because of their allegiance to the catholic tradition which Martin Luther espoused, they are liturgical in their approach, and they tend to view the Missouri elements on the other side of the fence as “low church,” in as derogatory a sense as the latter employ the former term against them.

            The designations are flawed on both sides. The “high church/low church” jargon is really borrowed from the Anglicans, and if “high church” is meant to designate “high mass,” then it really isn’t high until there is incense, bells, celebrant, deacon, subdeacon, and lots of chanting. “Low church” among the British calls to mind the Puritans with their their anticlericalism and their sacramentarian spite for the means of grace.

            Moreover, just as “high church” is weak due to its failure to distinguish the naughty from, as it were, the nice, so also “low church” is weak. There are some among those so designated who are simply following the tradition they have learned, than which they have known no other. But now there are others for whom “low” is employed with a vengeance, almost as a confessional statement against those who might suggest that worship style is something other than an adiaphoron. So much vengeance marks this new version of low, in fact, that one wonders just how low is possible.

            Beyond these weaknesses with the terms, there is a more serious weakness, which has to do with what worship is, and how worshipers actually worship. Simply put, I believe, it often has to do with whether one is paying attention or not. Low church, especially among those who employ its distinguishing marks with an adiaphorous passion, all too often means church in which the liturgy means little or nothing. Either portions of it are discarded, or, if employed, are waded through as if in thick mud on the hiking boots of would-be adventurous campers. “See,” they say, “we are out to prove that this is all adiaphora; we can take it or leave it. We may (or may not) put up with some of it, if only to make the hearers good and ready to hear the all-important sermon.”

            Such use of the liturgy sees it rather in the same vein as we view a catena of commercials before our favorite television program begins. Thus one may find people and pastors trudging through the liturgy with no particular attention to posture or position, providing subtle indications that they are not really listening or praying along. The sermon often has no connection whatever to the liturgy or even readings, and the pastor may even retire to the vestry during certain hymns or portions of the liturgy for which his presence as “worship leader” is not needed. Certainly there is no bodily indication in such cases of being in the presence of the Incarnate, Risen Christ when at worship.

            The widening of the liturgical rift between low and high is therefore making the distinctions more telling than they once were. The vengeance with which “low” worship is now being practiced, as well as the depths to which “low” has in some cases plummeted, leads us to the temptation to wonder how far in fact low now is from the bottom, that is, from the absence of worship at all. Have their efforts to distance themselves from the naughty Lutherans resulted in a reaction also against what is noble and good about traditional Lutheran worship? Put otherwise, perhaps we are drifting to a choice between high church and no church. A sad result, that, of attempts to fend off the naughty, who in fact are already long gone.

Burnell EckardtComment