December 11, 2018

High-Church vs. Low-Church Sacramentalism

A Scottish Sacrament, Dobson

A Scottish Sacrament, Dobson

UPDATE: It occurred to me that I ought to clarify something. Below I call myself “unordained.” That is in terms of my denomination only. I am ordained, but not by the ELCA, and they do not recognize the form of my ordination as acceptable for rostered ministry within the denomination.

• • •

I have never really considered or given much thought to the distinctions between “high church” and “low church” sacramentalism. However I think I learned something about the subject and about myself after having thought about Peter Leithart’s article at First Things on what he calls “Puritan sacramentalism.” I don’t particularly care for that term, but I can appreciate the main point he is making.

Probably like many people, I have generally used the terms “high church” and “low church” to distinguish congregations and groups that use more or less formality, respectively, in their corporate worship. I’ve been among those he describes in these terms:

For some, high church means formality: elaborate liturgical vestments, dignified gestures and postures, repetitiveness. For some, it’s age: High liturgies use organs, old music, and archaic diction; low worship is guitars, CCM, and the New Living Translation. For some, high church happens when every word and gesture is pre-scripted by a prayer book or missal. I’ve heard of churches where the introduction of a weekly bulletin is an alarming sign of creeping high-churchism.

Most of my adult Christian life has been spent among those suspicious of a set order of worship (though they really only object to the order of the liturgy — their own orders have been equally “set”), written prayers, written or responsive congregational readings, robed ministers, the use of elements like incense, following the seasons of the Christian Year, venerating saints, etc. I have lived mostly in the revivalistic world, not the liturgical world. And those people tend to say one is low church, the other high church. It’s not a precise distinction.

Now, however, I worship in an ELCA Lutheran Church that is decidedly “low church,” even though many of my friends and former parishioners would bristle at what they would call its “formality.” Peter Leithart’s article helped me understand why it fits in the “low church” category. Now there are many in various Lutheran groups who aspire to “high church” status, and even my own denomination betrays some tendencies toward that. I’ll explain as we go along here. However, I think it’s fair to say that, though I believe that the traditional liturgy of the Western Church has stood the test of time as a salutary way for God’s people to come before the Lord in worship, I am also persuaded that a “low church” way of doing the liturgy is most comfortable for me, theologically.

Here is the “tentative alternative hypothesis” Leithart suggests for distinguishing low vs. high:

The issue is not formality or ornamentation or age, but preparation. High liturgies include preparatory rites, sometimes complicated and numerous; low liturgies do not. Orthodox priests perform the prothesis before the Divine Liturgy begins. In a high Anglican liturgy, Scripture readings are preceded by gestures and processions. In a low liturgy, the minster announces a text and reads it. In a high Eucharist, the minister or priest is vested, his hands washed, the elements blessed before the Eucharistic ordo itself. In a low Eucharist, the minister takes bread and wine, gives thanks, and distributes.

He makes his case by referring to Luther, who was one of the most traditional of the Reformers. As one Catholic teacher puts it, “Luther attempted to minimize out-and-out abolitions. He directed his efforts to retaining as many of the ancient ceremonies as possible, seeking rather to orient their significance toward the spirit of his Reforms.” The focus of Luther’s “evangelical” mass was to turn attention away from an emphasis on preparatory rites which give primary attention to the officiants and the rites themselves, and to turn toward the people of God, inviting them to participate more fully in the actions of worship.

Thus for a time the Mass retained in large measure its external appearances. The churches retained the same decor and the same rites, with modifications but directed towards the faithful, for henceforth much more attention was to be paid to the faithful than formerly, in order that they, might be conscious of a more active role in the Liturgy: thus, they were to participate in the singing and in the prayers of the Mass. And, gradually, Latin gave way definitively to the German vernacular.

If this priest and Leithart are correct, then the heart of the distinction between “low church” and “high church” is whether attention is primarily directed toward the priest’s correct performance of the rites or toward the active participation of the congregants.

This makes Peter Leithart’s next point all the more important.

It’s often thought that “high liturgy” and “high sacramentality” go together. . . . From where I stand, though, they appear to be opposed.

First Lutheran service in Brandenburg 1539

First Lutheran service in Brandenburg 1539

How so?

The Reformers held that the power of the sacraments come from God’s designated element combined with God’s Word alone, not from elaborate preparatory rites that guarantee a proper sacrament. In their view “high church” rites undercut both the efficacy of the natural elements of creation and the power of God’s Word alone to sanctify them to bless God’s people. The water, wine, bread, or oil is not “sacramental” enough in and of itself until it is transformed through priestly rites. In “low church” worship, on the other hand, the elements are good simply because they are taken from God’s good creation and combined with God’s word of promise.

Leithart thinks this makes the “low church” approach more deeply sacramental than the “high church” way.

I tend to agree, and I guess that makes me a “low church” liturgical Christian.

Let me mention one situation in my own denomination with which I have disagreed, and I think Leithart’s distinction lies at the root of it. In the ELCA, we promote Word and Sacrament worship and most churches follow some form of the traditional liturgy. In our churches I, an unordained person, am allowed to preach. The pulpit is relatively open. However, I am not permitted to preside at the Table and officiate communion. On a practical level, this seems to me to be perfectly backwards. In my opinion, a person can do a lot more damage by wrongly interpreting the scriptures and teaching falsehood from the pulpit than he or she can by reciting the set rubrics of the Table service and distributing the elements.

Why this distinction? Because there is a residual “high church” sense that the Sacrament must be handled by clergy with due care and cannot be trusted in the hands of the laity. But since the proclamation of the gospel is clearly given in Scripture to all Christians, we do not bar anyone from preaching. I don’t think that distinction holds up and I would love to see our tribe be more theologically consistent.

So, I’m a Protestant after all, and a low church Protestant at that. A sacramental, liturgical, low church Protestant Lutheran.

Peter Leithart goes too far, I think, in calling this a “Puritan” instinct. But it’s low church nonetheless.


  1. One of the interesting aspects in the American variety of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition is the relative historic dearth of what was known in England as the ‘Old High Churchmen’ or the ‘Prayerbook Catholic’ that were strict in subscription to the Formularies but more formal in their ritual and ceremony. Rather, the historic High Churchmen in the States tended to borrow a lot of ceremony, ritual, and even some theology from Rome. The former certainly valued the Church Fathers, Councils, etc. but saw them through the lens of the Reformation and the Solas. The latter often wanted to brush aside the Reformation in an effort to have a greater identification with ancient catholicity.

    While these are, of course, some broad strokes, the main lesson I got from studying the issue was that the terms ‘high church’ and ‘low church’ have had some pretty fluid definitions over the generations! Heck, there was a time in England when they were more about one’s support for the monarchy and the bishops’ role in politics than ritual or theology!

    • Yes, exactly. As in Anglo-Catholic circles. I have seen less extreme versions of this in some ELCA churches, though not many.

      To me, “high church” = liturgical, with an empasis on communion. I honestly don’t see preparatory rites, et. al., as being relevant to the kind of Lutheran church I’ve attended in years past. I think the main distiction is that they are very important in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and in Anglo-Catholic circles. I don’t see “high church” in your definition, if only because there are reasons for the preparatory rites in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy re. the eucharist that are intimately related to their theology of the eucharist. Lutheran churches don’t see the eucharist in the same way, so… no need for those parts of the service.

      • I meant to say that i don’t really see the high church/low church definition that CM gives as being about actual high church vs. low church belief and practice.

        Goodness knows, there are plenty of low church Anglicans!

      • Numo, I have come to appreciate your thoughtful and deliberate comments on some troubling issues [ ssen on other blogs recently.]
        High church vs low church isn’t troubling, at least to me, but it does deserve careful consideration and I appreciate your commentary.

  2. Faulty O-Ring says:

    The distinction is originally Anglican, “high” church being Anglo-Catholic (esp, with respect to Communion). In the US context, I suspect it refers primarily to the socio-economic status of the congregation.

  3. Interesting read, and I would generally agree with the broad-brush definitions and distinctions of high/low church. As others have pointed out, it can be more nuanced. I’m an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and have a ‘middling’ church. We follow the liturgical year. I’m robed. Our services tend to follow a pattern. Sometimes I have responsive prayers. Our music is accompanied by the organ, and tends to be fairly traditional. Within that though, conduct of the service is fairly relaxed, with laity-led readings and other contributions. Indeed, if I’m away, then the entire service is often laity-led. Except when it comes to the sacraments (communion and baptism for us), and then it has to be me, or another ordained minister, who leads.
    And this is where I have the same sticking point. Interestingly (I think) I hold a ‘high’ view of the sacraments – they are something God does through the rite. In this I am with Calvin. I know many in my denomination who don’t hold that view and tend towards the Zwinglian approach, where what we do is to remind us of what God has done. Again, it is a lot more nuanced.
    That ‘high’ view of the sacrament helps, I think, to allow the potential for it to be laity-led. Surely, if it is a work of God, then if we don’t quite get the ritual right, or get the words a bit muddled, or don’t use the right sort of bread or wine, none of that matters. If, however, the ‘memorial’ acts have to be correct so we don’t miss out something important, or misrepresent what we are remembering, then, at the very least, it has to be done by a trained person who understands the significance of the actions and words.
    My own denomination is very keen on promoting what is known as “Fresh Expressions” of church. I did a research Masters degree a few years ago and the core of it was that we can never fully enable these ‘Fresh Expressions’ unless they are ‘allowed’ to celebrate the sacraments with non-ordained members.

  4. Agree with your objection to the ELCA policy of excluding laity from presiding over the celebration of Holy Communion. In addition to the reason you give, there is the ingrained religious reflex to control the sacramental channels of grace, since such control gives real power to religious authorities. The rarer something valuable is, the more powerful are those who open and close the spigots that allow it to flow.

    • ” The rarer something valuable is, the more powerful are those who open and close the spigots that allow it to flow.”

      Or you want to protect it from being co-opted for other than the intended purpose/practice. Which is the functional definition of “sacred”.

      • I understand this impulse, Finn, and to some extent respect it. However, I lean more toward the value of freedom rather than restriction. Those who seek to “fence the Table” or protect the Holy from contamination are subject to the temptations of abuse of power, which is far too little recognized among many churches and Christians. It is fear-based logic, and it is easily taken too far.

        • And I respect the disagreement.

          I was in the Freedom camp for most of my life, I can make a solid argument for that position. But after witnessing and experiencing the unproductive disorder and lack-of-recourse in the face of systemic problems I will choose the stodgy limiting bureaucratic scheme.

          Ultimately one could argue both positions are motivated by fear; one by fear of the Everyman, and one by fear of The Man.

          Institutions, of all types, spend resources on training, mentoring, and certification for good reason. I have a doctor, and an accountant, and a lawyer, and mechanic, and when I want/need a priest I want a priest.

          • I think we’re closer than you realize. But if I want/need a priest to be a priest, then I want it to be because I recognize his or her position freely and knowledgeably, rather than because someone tells me that’s just how it is. In many ways, the burden is on the laity to take more responsibility for their faith and practice. For their part, the clergy must always make sure they are exercising whatever privilege and authority they have in humble love and servanthood.

          • Not only do I understand the distinction between the sacred and profane, I deeply appreciate it in a Christian world that often fails to understand it. However, I do have to wonder about communion, specifically. If it is a means of God’s grace to us, then shouldn’t all communion be “open” communion? It seems logical to me. My own denomination practices “close” communion, where any denominational member can partake.

          • Dr Fundystan, does your denomination believe that all can be saved if they wish?

            I’m wondering how much open/closed depends on other theologies to justify it.

          • Dr. Fundystan – I have never understood the LCMS position on who can take communion and who can’t. My synod has open communion, and I am far more comfortable with that than I could ever be with close/closed communion.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I have feelings on both sides of this debate. So, as I find myself doing in many things, I walk down the middle, ready to tip over on either side. Nice to be a Protestant with so many choices.

      My problem with using laity in the celebration of Holy Communion is mainly one of improper knowledge and training. However this happens also with poorly trained (do not particularly like the word “trained” in ref to this) part-time pastors. I’ve observed this recently, and my first reaction is to stay away from that church. Probably not a good attitude. However this is a poorly handled portion of the service.

      On the other hand, the man can be a fairly good preacher, and seems to be above average carrying out pastoral duties with the sick, bereaved, etc.

      Having been a pastor in another life, I know I’m being judgmental toward other pastors in this regard. I do pray about this.

      Denominations with episcopal, or similar, leadership seem to be better at educating laity who want to serve.

      • Yes.

        Let me be clear that I am not advocating a free for all or a slipshod treatment of communion. I generally respect clergy/laity distinctions and want both Word and Table to be treated with the utmost respect and decorum.

        As usual I find myself personally in “no man’s land” with regard to my vocation vis a vis the church. Ordained but not ordained, chaplain but not clergy with regard to the church in which I worship. I may feel the issue raised in today’s post more keenly than the average bear.

        • David Cornwell says:

          I understand some of your feelings. When I left the Methodist ministry, I also lost my ordination, because our ordination rests in the Conference, or the regional Church as a body. If I had stayed on a few more years and officially retired, I would still be ordained and eligible to do all things that go with it.

          However I am still asked to preach on occasions. With Methodists, this isn’t a problem. However About three years ago I filled in for pastor for a couple of months, preaching and conducting the service. Except for the Sacraments. I was asked to conduct community Good Friday service, but had to decline because of this limitation. Needless to say, this is frustrating. However I believe in the contentedness of the Church and the authority it thus exercises. Even if it gets it wrong at times.

          • I appreciate how Robert Capon deals with sacraments in the intro. of The Romance of the Word. First off, a sacrament is NOT a transaction, but rather a sign of a reality that is always present. He then in a side-bar speaks of the “priesthood of all Believers” and the priest as a sacrament;

            The “priesthood of all believers” was one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation. But as Susan Sontag once pointed out, it got lost in the shuffle of Protestant history because the Reformers effectively abolished the ordained, sacramental priesthood. They took away the mirror and then forgot what they looked like: the priesthood of believers, as an operative truth in the lives of most Protestants, simply went begging. In their zeal to hold that priesthood was everybody’s business, the Reformers tripped over the hard fact that what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s unless you have somebody standing up in front of you actually doing the business — unless, in short, you have a real, sacramental presence to help you hang on to what you have.

            THAT makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. I guess the notion that this stuff still depends on our (clergy’s) “proper performance” is alive and well.

    Many are just in love with ‘religion’ and all it’s trappings.

    Thanks be to God that the Living God comes to us in our brokenness, but because of our proper performance…but in spite of it.

    • “Many are just in love with ‘religion”

      Yes, this, and without shame or apology.

      • Ha! I also love religion. In fact, I am on record saying that I am “religious, but not spiritual”.

        • “religious, but not spiritual”

          You stole my line! I am pro-religion and anti-spirituality [whatever that is (aside from just condescending)].

        • There’s lot of ‘religion’ in the world.

          We say that God hates religion. ‘Religion’ being that which we do to make ourselves more acceptable to Him.

          Plenty of that stuff in the world.

          But faith (in the finished work of Christ on the Cross for the ungodly)…that’s something different altogether.

          • “We say that God hates religion. ‘Religion’ being that which we do to make ourselves more acceptable to him.”

            That’s because you have redefined the word ‘religion’ in a particular way. Certainly ‘religion’ CAN be any number of things – even religions other than Christian. But the word itself describes a good thing – James uses it in a positive way, something of which God approves (Jas. 1:26-27). I should hope that I would be considered ‘religious’, at least by God (and that includes some ‘duties’, even ‘works’ of which God approves, and expects – again see Jas. 1:26-27). This ‘religion’ also no doubt includes proper worship of God, including baptism and communion.

          • “We say that God hates religion.”

            We? Not I. Mostly that kind of rhetoric comes from people trying to depict other people as Pharisees of some sort, which is a very Pharisaical thing to do [it is about claiming status and rank].

            “‘Religion’ being that which we do to make ourselves more acceptable to Him.”


            A religion is a construct of beliefs and the rituals, practices, and customs relating to that construct.


            If a pastor is claiming this is The Definition of religion he needs to be sent back to school. Or he is being dishonest. Or both.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Anyone remember the Jesus Juke tag line “YOU have a (sneer) RELIGION; I have a (smug) RELATIONSHIP!”?

            I heard it all the time when I was in-country, usually Counting Coup on someone from a mainstream or liturgical church background.

          • “religions other than Christian” are an utter waste of time and effort and are damaging to the effect that the practitioners of those religions are not in Christ.

            God is not an abstraction. He has revealed Himself and made Himself known in Christ Jesus. Faith in Christ Jesus …that’s where authentic life resides.

          • Faulty O-Ring says:

            That’s just another religious belief.

          • Steve Martin: “God is not an abstraction.”

            Nobody hear said he was.

          • HUG: “Anyone remember the Jesus Juke tag line “YOU have a (sneer) RELIGION; I have a (smug) RELATIONSHIP!”? ”

            Yep, all the bloody time. Like a nonstop mantra. Even far from the perimeter of The Bubble I can easily find it my just hitting Seek on the radio a few times.

            Best response; “Wow, so have you and Jesus seen RANDOM_MOVIE_TITLE? What did he think of that?”

    • It is a very good thing that God’s love is not based upon our holiness and righteousness, but upon HIS.

    • Many are just in love with ‘religion’ and all it’s trappings.

      As I get older, I’m starting to realize just how great all that stuff is. In, done, out. It beats the alternatives at least, any combination of evangelical circus or pietism or pentecostalism or whatever.

      Rituals with meanings are great and comforting, and no one can convince me God isn’t working in them, through them, and blessing them.

      Are they necessary? Maybe in general. Definitely to some.

      • I romanticize the idea of the old country church, England/Wales/Ireland, where you go once a week for mass/service, get it done, and then live the rest of your life free from wretched oppression of daily Christianity as I’ve experienced it in fundygelical circles…yet still maintaining Christ like attributes and fruit.

      • David Cornwell says:

        “Rituals with meanings are great and comforting, and no one can convince me God isn’t working in them, through them, and blessing them.”


      • “Necessary” is a tough word. Yes and no. A specific rite is not necessary, but whatever we do to celebrate the sacrament becomes our rite. So you might say that having some ritual at all is necessary, there is freedom and flexibility in which rite is to be used, but I believe we should take the utmost care in crafting them and lean on heavily on the tradition handed down to us, so far as it is good, right, and salutary.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “(clergy’s) “proper performance” is alive and well.”

      So, should we just permit them to do as they please?

  6. Like John Orr above, I would describe the little ELCA Lutheran Church I attend as middlin’, and that is where I am most comfortable. Pastor is not yet ordained but studying and authorized. He was a Catholic altar boy and retains much of the historical knowledge behind the ritual. He “elevates” the bread and wine, and in my mind I toll the bell to mark the point of whatever it is that happens then. In my view, this is one thing that Luther really did get just right, this “middlin” understanding of the Eucharist between Catholic and Reformed, tho he might bristle at our Open Communion.

    To me what is important in the ritual of the liturgy is mindfulness, both of ministers and congregation. When I am lighting candles or proclaiming scripture or prayers, I am invoking God’s Spirit. I know the pastor does this in the Eucharist and believe it makes a difference. I believe an ordinary believer is capable of handling the Eucharist, but would much prefer not to have someone just unmindfully reading the words out of the book, whether ordained or not. All things considered, I believe mindfulness is more likely to happen with ordained, but Spirit blows wherever she wants. I do believe a mindful congregant can overcome an unmindful officiant in efficacy of the Word & Sacrament, but better both be mindful and centered, high, low, or middle of the road with me.

    • Please elaborate on “Spirit blows wherever she wants” — I do not meant the blowing part, but the she part. You have lost me, a mere Methodist, completely (well, almost completely).

      • The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, and is a feminine noun. In Greek, it is pneuma, which is gender-neutral. In neither case is the Spirit ‘he’.

        • I have a lot of years of language study behind me. The grammatical gender of a word has nothing to do with its meaning. In German, a knife is neutral, a fork is feminine and a spoon is masculine, gender-wise; there is nothing about their form or function to indicate any connection between grammatical gender and innate being/meaning. Language doesn’t work that way. Our problem in English is that we have no pronoun to indicate that something is a personal being and at the same time neither male or female. God is beyond gender. We use masculine pronouns for the Holy Spirit as convention, in keeping with the other Persons of the Godhead. We use masculine pronouns for the Son because Jesus was a male human being, as well as being God the Son. We use masculine pronouns for the Father because Father/Son is the relationship that Jesus described as being between himself and the First Person.

          God does not “contain/mirror both masculine and feminine” – those are human analogies that ultimately come to a place within languages where they fail to have meaning with regard to the Godhead. God is beyond gender. Being “made in the image of God” has nothing to do with the genderedness of human beings. We actually limit God when we think in these terms.

          Yes, I have no doubt that this convention has been misused in order to justify seeing women as “second-class humans.” The limitations of language and hatred and mistreatment of women are not good enough reasons to abandon the theological language of relations between the Persons of the Godhead, because that’s actually the best we can do with our theological language without emptying those relations of meaning and significance altogether. Wise people in the past have always understood that language is limited because our thoughts about God must always by nature be analogous. That’s why they spent so much time on figuring out the best language to apply to our understanding of the Godhead. It wasn’t being nit-picky about terms just for the sake of being nit-picky; there were huge issues at stake – like who exactly is Jesus, and what does it mean for God to have “saved” us, and others of that gravity. Read some Church history – especially why the rest of the first 8 councils were called (after Jerusalem in the book of Acts) – if you dare.


          • Correct, ‘sin’ (hamartia) is feminine in Greek, but I know some men who sin as well. ‘Sinner’ (hamartolos) is masculine, but I also know some women who sin. In many languages grammatical gender often does not correspond to natural gender.

          • Faulty O-Ring says:

            Those councils were purely the result of power politics, and cannot be considered fair or collegial (let alone binding) discussions. There is no reason (other than sheer inertia) why anyone today should endorse their conclusions. Jesus would surely vomit to hear the conciliar beliefs attributed to him, and the actions performed supposedly on his behalf.

          • Dana,
            Thank you for that explanation. Just shows why it is never a good thing simply to repeat trite answers gleaned from other conversations and sources.
            I’m not a linguist – systematics is my ‘thing’ – so I appreciate being kept right by those who know.
            Would you agree though, that it is the gendered Hebrew which gives rise to the ‘she-ing’ of the Spirit? Or is it from some other point of justification?

        • this is partly because there is no “neuter” gender in Hebrew. It does not mean that the Holy Spirit is female; it is about grammar and usage. (As Dana points out.)

      • “Please elaborate on “Spirit blows wherever she wants” — I do not meant the blowing part, but the she part.”

        What John sez.

        That our translations often speak of Spirit as “he” is just an indication of the masculine dominance of the last multiple millennia. No gurlz allowed, but if necessary an “it”. If using “she” gets a rise out of someone, that’s just gravy. I’m not a feminist, but I do believe there is a major shift afoot whereby we are returning to humanity mirroring God’s containing male AND female, as in the beginning. Perhaps not this afternoon, but closer.

        • There is no “neuter” gender in Hebrew (unlike, say, German), so all nouns are either masculine or feminine by default. That does not equal “the Holy Spirit is ‘female.”

          • For what it’s worth, I fall into the “Dana Ames and numo” camp, not the “Charles Fines and John Orr” camp, even though ruach is a feminine noun. The Hebrew word for wisdom is also feminine, yet God founded the earth through wisdom (Proverbs treats wisdom as feminine) even though without Christ was not anything made that was made (John 1). And Paul ties it all together when he says that Christ is made unto us wisdom (I Cor 1).

          • been there – I think it’s clearer if you’ve [plural] studied a foreign language that uses exclusively masc./fem. gendered nouns, or one that uses masc./fem/neuter. It is, imo, about language and how languages develop, not about actual physical sex or gender per se. (Are foreign languages not being taught much in the US anymore? I ask only because I’m older than some of you, and what is old hat to me from HS might not be for others – but I don’t know for sure.)

          • One more thing (kinda nitpicky, but): Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs. Not the same thing as the gender of a noun by a long shot!

    • Charles, I like the idea of mindfulness, and would endorse what you have said about it.
      I don’t think we should go through rituals unthinkingly. There may be times when we approach them on automatic pilot, but I have known of some, whose faith has been under pressure, who have found comfort in a familiar ritual until they are back in a place where greater engagement with the ritual can happen (in and of itself an indication, I’d suggest, of God at work through the ritual). But generally speaking, I think it is important that we try and grasp what is going on in our rituals, and why we do them. Not so that we can do them ‘properly’, but so that our faith-life is enriched by our activities.
      Mindfulness is an excellent way of describing this.

  7. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I don’t get Leithart’s criticism of preparatory rites before the sacraments. Isn’t preparation good? Shouldn’t everyone, clergy and laity alike, prepare themselves to distribute or receive the sacraments?

    • I read that last section’s criticism as being criticism of believing there is a need to spiritually prepare the elements and other physical manifestations of the sacraments. I don’t think he is discussing preparing our hearts and heads to receive the sacraments.

      I think most low churches still do preparation. We just call it prayer or teaching, and think it is different from what the high church folks do. How many times have those of us attending a low church seen or heard the staff pray before the service, the worship team pray together, someone at the front pray for the offering, teach on communion every time before it happens, and the minister pray before starting the real part of the sermon? All of that is preparation.

      • Low churches also prepare the elements themselves. I grew up a Southern Baptist, and the deacons placed little wafers on the plate, and poured grape juice into little cups before the service. It was done casually and with little reverence. I don’t see how the fact that “high churches” accompany their act of preparing of the elements with reverent prayer and ritual means that they have a low view of the sacraments, while the Baptists have a high view. I just don’t follow the logic.

        • Faulty O-Ring says:

          Because otherwise people might begin to think there’s something magical about it, and start thinking of the words or rituals as possessing special power in themselves.

          • Why pray at all? People might start thinking prayer is magic, or that the words we say possess special power in themselves.

  8. It seems like Leithart’s distinction may be a good talking point, but doesn’t necessarily bear out very consistently in the real world. In our congregation, we are the perfect 50/50 mix of both worlds he describes. In some services, that mixture comes out more like 90/10, and others, 10/90.

    I think Leithart betrays his underlying Reformed presuppositions by the manner in which he analyses the practices of sacramental ritual. He focuses on how we celebrate, what we do or don’t do, rather than what is actually happening through the means of grace, and what the implications of that are for our practice. Nonetheless, “Puritan sacramentalism” is a good idea, if you are Reformed. It is much more in line with ancient practice and historic solidarity for those of the Presbyterian persuasion. Doug Wilson did it first though, but he called it “High-church Puritanism.” As wacky as that guy can be at times, his “Primer on worship and reformation” is well worth the read.

    Leithart also perpetuates a rather popular misunderstanding of Luther’s liturgical reforms. Luther was not trying to get the attention back to the congregation’s participation: He was trying to attain congregational participation to focus them on the work of God in their midst through Word and Sacrament. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers restored a healthy balance between clergy and laity as we came to understand the gifts given in the means of grace are the birthright of the entire church, with the clergy given the responsibility of public leadership in the rite, and the laity given the responsibility of full, active, and regular participation. Luther also retained much more high-church trappings than many of the low-church persuasion like to believe. He advocated the elevation of the host at the Sanctus, though he wasn’t dogmatic about it or bent on enforcing anything. Luther often spoke out of both sides of his mouth, like the Apostle Paul. One moment he was dogmatizing the tradition of the Mass (minus the things he edited out in his reforms), and the next second he would admit that the only thing necessary to make eucharist were bread, wine, and the words of institution (specifically, “this is my body, given for you” is enough). For those puzzled at the wide doxological diversity in the wacky world of Lutheranism, it boils down to this: Some lean more on that first approach, some lean rather heavily (and disingenuously if you ask me) towards the latter.

    • Just to clarify, the quotes about returning attention to the laity were from another article written by a Catholic priest. I used his points because I thought it clarified and filled out the points Leithart was making.

  9. “If this priest and Leithart are correct, then the heart of the distinction between “low church” and “high church” is whether attention is primarily directed toward the priest’s correct performance of the rites or toward the active participation of the congregants.”

    This quote indicates that this is a discussion that is pertinent only to Western Christians. Even though Leithart uses the prothesis as an example, he indicates little to no understanding of how the Eastern Church views its Liturgy and the participants therein. Yes, as the Liturgy developed it became more formalized: there were reasons for this. My understanding is that the last noticeable change in the Orthodox Liturgy happened in the 1300s, and it wasn’t anything that altered the meaning of what the first Christians gave us. Like so many do, Leithart generalizes without paying attention to things are different in the East.

    -The priest may not even celebrate a Eucharist without a congregation present, even a congregation of 1 other person. Priest and people together constitute the one people of God who are offering the gifts and receiving the Mysteries.

    -The people are encouraged to participate to the fullness of their ability in terms of, first of all, bringing our whole selves “mindfully” (to include our whole inner self) to participation, and with the body (singing, crossing, bowing, etc.) facilitating that.

    -The priest (or deacon) formulates the words of the prayers – and with the “Lord, have mercy” or “Amen” the congregation indicates unanimity, asking God to act according to his hesed/love/faithfulness/care in the matter. This is seen as being one voice.

    -The “words of institution” are not the point in the Liturgy where the change in the elements takes place. The change does not depend on the words the priest says. We have an epiclesis – the priest prays that the Holy Spirit will himself come down upon the gifts and make the change, and the people respond, “Amen, Amen, Amen.” It’s one prayer, affirmed by all. One of our priests is in his ’80s. He occasionally bungles the exact wording of some prayers. We believe God is not hindered by this.

    -The first thing Orthodox missionaries did after going into new territory was to learn the language of the people there in order to translate the services and scripture into the vernacular.

    -The preparatory acts are not seen to be disconnected from the Liturgy, even if they take place beforehand. They don’t have any meaning on their own.

    -The iconostasis has nothing to do with any “division” between those who serve in the altar during the Liturgy and the rest of the people, in terms of their innate humanity or worth. It is a theological statement that some things about God are hidden, and some things he opens and reveals to us. An iconostasis should not go all the way from floor to ceiling (and was a much lower rail originally), because God is always operating in the visible portion of reality, as well as the invisible portion.

    Just because there are some surface/structural similarities between Catholic and Orthodox practice does not mean things are viewed as or understood to mean the same things in the East.


    • I don’t think Roman Catholics hold to the meaning that Leithart infers from the preparatory rites either. It seems to me that this boils down to a philosophical difference – a difference in the understanding of the possibility and place of human participation in God’s work.

    • I think he realizes he is talking within the parameters of the Western Church. He’s a reformed Protestant writing for a Catholic site.

      • CM – I found his piece confusing, as if he is unfamiliar with the reasons behind the way many “high church” denominations conduct the Eucharist/communion, as well as the meaning of high church vs. low church. If I had been editing his piece, I think I’d have made some suggestions along those lines and asked him to do a bit of a rewrite, but that’s just me.

  10. What I find fascinating in this discussion is the way Leithart “turns the tables.”

    I do think one distinctive that low church and high church liturgical churches share is the belief that God in Christ comes to us in multiple ways — through the preaching of the Word, the Eucharist, Jesus Christ, and baptism.

    In nonliturgical low churches, the Bible alone is seen as the (only) main vehicle. That causes problems.

  11. I think there is a poverty in Western Christianity that stems from a rejection of high liturgical “forms”, by associating them with errant practises in Christian worship. All forms of Christian worship can descend into error…. The earlier liturgies seemed to embrace beauty & iconography once the Church became official under Constantine. Trinitarian theology was being “fleshed out” in the corporate gatherings of Christians, by using the liturgy. Thus clergy, symbolism, the communion of All Saints (heaven & earth), the Eucharist, came together to form an experience of God’s presence in the “here & now”. A communion recognising His sustenance of the “New Creation”. Of course to “see” it this way, one has to be “enlightened” through fellowship with the Church.

    Spending a lot of time in “non-liturgical” circles, I had no contact with writings from the Church Fathers & no understanding of their “world view”. Reading the theology behind “high liturgy” brings me a humility & a desire to integrate with God & with His people. My senses get overwhelmed when I meditate within a high liturgical setting. The Eucharist is the cornerstone of course…

    By ripping out various “forms” from the liturgy, we end up with an impoverished experience/understanding of God. Why not look at history & accept what was pretty much accepted in the 1st 400 years of the Church ? That would mean too much of a re-alignment of course !

    Dom Gregory Dix, who wrote a great book (The Shape of the Liturgy), had this to say:

    Let us be quite clear what this last development really means. The old corporate worship of the Eucharist is declining into a mere focus for subjective devotion of each separate worshiper in the isolation of his own mind. And it is the latter which is beginning to seem to him more important than the corporate act. The part of the individual layman in the corporate action had long been reduced from „doing? to „seeing? and „hearing?. Now it is retreating within himself to „thinking? and „feeling?. He is even beginning to think that over-much „seeing? (ceremonial) and „hearing? (music) are detrimental to proper „thinking? and „feeling? …