“High” and “Low” Church

The terms “High” and “Low” are rarely used nowadays but refer to different “parties” or schools of churchmanship within the Church of England/Anglican Communion.  “High” Church is the older of the two terms historically and was first applied, in the late seventeenth century, to those individuals who were opposed to the Puritan wing of the Church of England.

Later, and more famously, in the nineteenth century, it was applied to the Anglo-Catholic or Tractarian movement in England from 1833 onwards.  The best known members of the High Church/Anglo-Catholic Movement were John Henry Newman, who converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and John Keble, who remained in the Church of England.  High Churchmen placed great emphasis on liturgy and the sacraments, especially the weekly or daily celebration of the Eucharist.  Their use of vestments and incense, along with their frequent devotion to Mary and high regard for the Roman Catholic Church, were often regarded with concern and even hostility.  High Churchmen also placed great emphasis on the three orders of ministry (deacon, priest and bishop) and the importance of apostolic succession and the historical continuity of Anglican bishops with the early church.

The “Low Church” movement can trace its roots back to the early eighteenth century but is primarily associated with opposition to the “High Church” or Anglo-Catholic Movement of the later nineteenth century.  The “Low” Church or Evangelical party placed great emphasis on preaching, personal piety and the authority of scripture.  Evangelicals also gave much less importance to the orders of priesthood and episcopacy.

Today the terms are used infrequently and are often considered to have a negative or pejorative flavour.  Nevertheless, the terms do reflect the theology and practice of two large parties/points of view within Anglicanism.  In England, these points of view are now usually described as “Anglo Catholic” and “Evangelical”, and can be seen to a greater or lesser extent in many parishes.  They are also represented by societies such as Affirming Catholicism, and the National Evangelical Anglican Congress.