Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What is High Church?

If you have hung around Lutherans for any length of time you no doubt have heard the term "high church." Like the term "liberal," it is not a label typically used for complimentary reasons, but rather to identify a group that is out of step with where they should be. In a church body such as the LCMS, where a declining and aging membership signals a need to change for the sake of survival, "high church" is a handy term to identify those who stand in the way of progress.

"High Church,"
actually, is a term borrowed from the Anglicans, and does not originate with Lutherans. Nevertheless, there now is an identified phenomenon known as "High Church Lutheranism." That having been said, however, the use of the term "high church," from my perspective at least, is overused and abused, especially as a way of pitting evangelism against ministry, and progress against stagnation.

"High Church," in common usage, now often refers to a church that uses the established hymnal as the normal source of liturgical material for Sunday worship, which prefers the singing of hymns in place of "praise songs," values the Lord's Supper as central to Christian worship, utilizes historic vestments on her clergy, maintains a decorum of respectful formality at the altar (as one who recognizes that they are standing in the presence of a Holy God handling 'holy things'), and whose pastors preach sermons that are driven by exegesis rather than felt needs. The term "high church" is now part of a grouping of words and phrases used to describe the great variety that characterizes Lutheranism today. Worship in one church could be described service-by-service as "blended," "traditional," and "contemporary," each being seen as normal Lutheran practice. The point here is to make sure the variety is excepted and even celebrated, or seen as a means to bringing a church fully over to "contemporary". But to insist that "traditional" forms are more faithful to Lutheran theology and practice is to earn the label "high church" immediately.

The unfortunate situation here is that what is now labeled as "high church" was once the expected Lutheran practice for all churches. Even in the late 60's when I was growing up as a child in the Lutheran church one did not see using the hymnal as being overly formal or unusual, but the norm of practice. Now a country church such as mine, where I lead worship from the current hymnal, yet without chanting (not that I'm against it, but you have to understand the situation here), wearing a cassock and surplice, celebrating the Lord's Supper on the first and third Sundays (which I would love to see celebrated each Sunday!), could be labeled as "high church." Yet compared to some Lutheran churches my practices would probably be seen as virtually "bronze age," not "high"; in other words, reflective not of the "smells and bells" ritualism one associates with a Tridentine Mass (a bit over stated, but you get the point), but rather with what many might remember from the old TLH days before the liturgical renewal hit full stride.

It is unfortunate that such differences have come to pass, and more unfortunate still that they are used to label people seen as standing in the way of evangelism. When did we lose faith that the Word really did accomplish that which God purposed, and instead came to believe it was up to us and our cleverly produced programs? As with politics, so with the church. Words will mean what those who use them determine then to mean for the sake of the argument of the moment. I only hope some will begin to see through the smog of rhetoric and see the realities as they truly are.

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