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The term "High Church" refers to understandings of ecclesiology, liturgy and theology. Although used in connection with various Christian traditions, the term has traditionally been principally associated with the Anglican tradition.

The term is often used to describe Anglican churches using a number of ritual practices associated in the popular mind with Roman Catholicism. Supporters of "High Church" positions emphasize that these practices have to do with holiness, sanctity and respect for God, Jesus and the church as the Body of Christ. As such they espouse a position that the church as an organisation and the congregation at worship is "catholic" primarily in the sense that it is joined through its ritual to the church "universal" and so they use the terms "High Church" and "Anglo-Catholic".


Due to its history, the term "High Church" can also be used to refer to aspects of Anglicanism quite distinct from the Oxford Movement or Anglo-Catholicism. There remain parishes which are "High Church" and yet adhere closely to the quintessentially Anglican usages and liturgical practices of the Book of Common Prayer.

The term "High Church" has also spread to those Protestant traditions which have undergone ritualistic revivals or realignments in their liturgical practices, for example, "High Church Presbyterianism" or "High Church Methodism". Within Lutheranism there is also a historic "High Church" and "Low Church" distinction that is comparable with Anglicanism (see Neo-Lutheranism and Pietism).

In contemporary Roman Catholicism, the term "high church" is sometimes used principally for liturgical distinctions. The phrase "reform of the reform" more usually denotes Roman Catholics who favour the use of Latin, Gregorian chant and practices such as eastward celebration and the use of incense in the Mass of Paul VI, without demanding use of the Tridentine Mass, as Traditionalist Catholics do.

Evolution of the term

Until the early 19th century High Churchmen were those wishing to maintain the link between church and state and the liturgy of the 1662 Prayer Book. The 19th century Oxford Movement within the Church of England began as a High Church movement, following a call to action to save the Church of England, whose position, with emancipation of Roman Catholics and other changes in the English body politic, was perceived as being in danger . High Churchmen strove against the erosion of the Church of England's traditionally privileged and legally entrenched role in English society . Over time a significant number of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement became Roman Catholics, following the path of John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the fathers of the Oxford Movement and, for a time, a High Churchman himself. A lifelong High Churchman, the Reverend Edward Bouverie Pusey remained the spiritual father of the Oxford Movement and in holy orders of the Church of England.

Today, a source of continuing division between the High Church party and some Anglo-Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church itself is the attitude taken by some liberals in the Anglican Communion regarding practices which to official Roman Catholic teaching are strictly anathema, such as the ordination of women and, increasingly, acceptance and ordination of openly homosexual people .

In the 17th century, the term "High Church" was used to describe those divines and laity who placed a "high" emphasis on complete adherence to the Established Church position, including some elements that involved ritual or liturgical practice inherited from the Early Church or the Undivided Church. In the early days of Anglicanism's existence as a church entirely independent of the Roman Catholic Church, this position was unremarkable, but as the Puritans began demanding that the English Church abandon its traditional liturgical emphases, episcopal structures, parish ornaments and the like, the "High Church" position came to be distinguished increasingly from that of the Latitudinarians, who sought to minimise the differences of Anglicans from Reformed Christianity and to make the church as inclusive as possible by opening its doors as widely as possible to admit other Christian viewpoints.

Before 1833

During the reign of King James I, there were attempts to diminish the growth of party feeling within the Church of England, and indeed to reconcile to the Church moderate Puritans who did not already conform to the Established Church or who had left the Church in recent years. The project to create the Authorized Version of the Bible saw one such attempt reach fruition. The continued use of what has also been termed the King James version of the Bible by Anglicans and Protestants alike in the English-speaking world is a reflection of the success of this endeavour at cooperation.

During the reign of King Charles I, however, as divisions between Puritan and traditional Catholic elements within the Church of England became more bitter, and Protestant Nonconformity outside the Church grew stronger in numbers and more vociferous, the "High Church" position became associated with the leadership of the "High Church" Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, (see Laudianism), and government policy to curtail the growth of Protestant Dissent in England and the other possessions of the Crown. See, for example, the attempt to reimpose episcopacy on the Church of Scotlandmarker, a policy that was 'successful' until the reign of William and Mary, when the office of bishop was discontinued except among the small minority of Scots who belonged to the Scottish Episcopal Church.

To a lesser extent, looking back from the 19th century, the term "High Church" also came to be associated with the beliefs of the Caroline divines and with the pietistic emphases of the period, practised by the Anglican community at Little Giddingmarker, such as fasting and lengthy preparations before receiving the Eucharist.

After the Restoration, the term "High Church" became associated with those who took the view that the Church of England forever ought to be specially protected against all other Christian beliefs, which it termed sectarian .

In the wake of the disestablishment of Anglicanism and the persecution of Anglican beliefs and practices under the Commonwealth, the return of the Anglican party to power in the Cavalier Parliament saw a strong revival of the "High Church" position in the English body politic. Victorious after a generation of struggle, the Anglican gentry felt the need to re-entrench the re-Anglicanised Church of England as one of the most important elements of the Restoration Settlement through a renewed and strengthened alliance between Throne and Altar, or Church and State. Reverence for martyrdom of the Stuart king Charles I as an upholder of his Coronation Oath to protect the Church of England became a hallmark of "High Church" orthodoxy. At the same time, the Stuart dynasty was expected to maintain its adherence to Anglicanism. This became an important issue for the High Church party and it was to disturb the Restoration Settlement under Charles II's brother, King James II, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and lead to setbacks for the "High Church" party. These events culminated in the Glorious Revolution and the exclusion of the Catholic Stuarts from the British throne. The subsequent split over the matter office-holders' oaths of allegiance to the Crown and the Royal Succession which led to the exclusion of the Non-Juror bishops who refused to recognise the 1688 de facto abdication of the King, and the accession of King William III and Queen Mary II, and did much to damage the unity of "High Church" party.

Later events surrounding the attempts of the Jacobites, the adherents of the excluded dynasts, to regain the English and Scottish thrones, led to a sharpening of anti-Catholic rhetoric in Britain and a distancing of the High Church party from the more ritualistic aspects of Caroline High churchmanship, which were often associated with the schismatic Non-Jurors. Eventually, under Queen Anne, the High Church party saw its fortunes revive with those of the Tory party, with which it was then strongly associated.

However, under the early Hanoverians, the fortunes of both the High Church and Tory parties were once again out of favour. This led to an increasing marginalisation of High Church and Tory viewpoints, as much of the 18th century was given over to the rule of the Whig party and the aristocratic families who were in large measure pragmatic latitudinarians in churchmanship. This was also the Age of Reason, which marked a period of great spiritual somnolence and stultification in the Church of England.

Thus, by the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, those liturgical practices which were prevalent even in High Church circles were not of the same tenor as those which were later to be found under the Catholic revival of the 19th century. High Church clergy and laity were often termed "high and dry", in reference to their traditional "high" attitude with regard to political position of the Church in England, and "dry" faith, which was accompanied by an austere but decorous mode of worship, as reflective of their idea of an orderly and dignified churchmanship against the rantings of the low churchmen that their Cavalier ancestors had defeated. Over time, their High Church position had become ossified among a remnant of bookish churchmen and country squires. An example of an early 19th century churchman of this tradition is Sir Robert Inglis MP.

From 1833

Only with the success of the Oxford Movement and its increasing emphases on ritualistic revivals from the mid-19th century onward, did the term "High Church" begin to mean something approaching the later term "Anglo-Catholic." Even then, it was only employed co-terminously in contrast to the "Low" churchmanship of the Evangelical and Pietist position. This sought, once again, to lessen the separation of Anglicans (the Established Church) from the majority of Protestant Nonconformists, who by this time included the Wesleyans and other Methodists, as well as adherents of older Protestant denominations known by the group term "Old Dissent". In contrast to earlier alliances with the Tories, Anglo-Catholicism became increasingly associated with socialism, the Labour Party, and greater decision-making liberty for the Church's Convocations. Anglo-Catholics, particularly in London, came to be called "sacramental socialists" .

From the mid-19th century onward, the term "High Church" generally became associated with a more avowedly Anglo-Catholic liturgical or even triumphalist position within the English Church, while the remaining Latitudinarians were referred to as being Broad Church and the re-emergent Evangelical party was dubbed Low Church. However, "high church" can still refer to Anglicans who hold a "high" view of the sacraments, church tradition and the threefold ministry but do not specifically consider themselves Anglo-Catholics.

Reference in popular culture

  • In the Graham Greene novel The Quiet American, the main character Thomas Fowler states that he may not divorce or annul his marriage to his estranged wife, because her family is "high church".

See also

References and notes


  • Addleshaw, G. W. O. (1941) The High Church Tradition: a study in the liturgical thought of the seventeenth century. London: Faber
  • Cross, F. L. (ed.) (1957) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford U. P.; High Churchmen, p. 636
  • Hein, David (1991) "The High Church Origins of the American Boarding School" in: Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42 (1991): 577-95.
  • Hylson-Smith, Kenneth (1993) High Churchmanship in the Church of England, from the sixteenth century to the late twentieth century. Edinburgh: T & T Clark

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