of "high church" presbyterians
I see that Daryl Hart has a book coming out soon entitled, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist
Nevin is probably best known for his involvement in what came to be called the "Mercersburg theology," a kind of catholic and liturgical renewal within the German Reformed Church in reaction to the growing revivalism and individualistic pietism that had begun to pervade even orthodox Reformed communions. Thus Hart designates Nevin a "high church Calvinist" (see also Hart's essay, "Rediscovering Mother Kirk: Is High-Church Presbyterianism an Oxymoron?
" that appeared in the Decemeber 2000 issue of Touchstone
We can also note that A.A. Hodge once described himself as "a good Presbyterian, a High Church Presbyterian--because we have a High Church as well as a Low Church." Despite Hodge and Hart's use of this sort of terminology, the idea of a "high church Calvinist" today likely sounds a bit peculiar, especially given the history of the term of "high church," which has its origins in Anglicanism, and remained largely alien to the wider Reformed tradition.
Nevertheless, on several occasions I've heard myself described by others as a "high church Presbyterian" or even, on a couple of occasions, as a "Scoto-Catholic."
Now, I suppose such a designation can be intended in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion--or perhaps as a shorthand, somewhat caricatured gesture that suggests my general theological proclivities: a robustly Calvinian sacramental theology, coupled with an affection for the historic liturgical patterns of the Reformed churches. But apart from such caricature and shorthand, I would want to reject the "high church" label.
After all, the "high church" label carries some significant baggage with it.
Prior to the 19th century the terminology of "high church" referred primarily to a particular party within the Church of England, including figures such as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Herbert Thorndike, Jeremy Taylor, and William Beveridge.
That list of divines suggests that the "high church" designation has more to do with questions of liturgy, ceremony, and a broad catholicity than it does with, for instance, any commitment to a particular soteriological viewpoint. Divines such as Hooker, John Bramhall, John Whitgift, or George Morley were all orthodox Calvinists while at the same maintainng high church viewpoints of various stripes (I say "of various stripes" given that a figure such as Whitgift had more extreme views and was more willing to impose them by force, if necessary, than a more moderate figure such as Hooker). Other divines such as Andrewes or Taylor, however, moved to varying degrees towards a more thoroughgoing Arminianism.
We should also be clear that, within the 17th and 18th centuries, the "high church" designation did not necessarily entail the kinds of aggressive policy of forced uniformity associated with William Laud, along with his extreme Erastianism and his over-fondness for ceremonials that could only strike many of his more Reformed contemporaries as Romanizing. Prior to the 19th century, much of "high churchmanship" would not have struck modern observers as especially "Anglo-Catholic."
Despite differences and diversity, the "high church" party, however, did share a number of common commitments: historic episcopacy (though not necessarily jure divino
in every instance), the liturgy of the Prayer Book, a broad catholicity, a strong sacramental piety, and at least a moderate use of ceremony (e.g. reverencing the altar).
Given the basic contours of the Anglican "high church" party, it should be evident that the Reformed churches of the Continent and Scotland, even at their most liturgical, were not marked by "high churchmanship," except perhaps by a loose analogy and in contrast with Brownism (as Independency was often called), certain forms of Puritanism, and the new "free church" traditions that were just beginning to emerge. Even so, none of these contrasts would stamp the other Reformed churches as having a genuinely "high church" temperament.
The Reformed Church of Scotland, for instance, never adopted a book of "common prayer" in the Anglican sense, but rather endorsed Knox's Book of Common Order
, which remained its official order until 1645. While Common Order
did introduce a fairly set order of worship into the Scottish Church, the content of that order was not uniformly prescribed.
Instead, the book offered multiple prayers for the various parts of the service from which a minister might choose or which might serve as models for his own studied prayers. In this way, the Scottish kirk maintained a somewhat consistent liturgy across Scotland, but with significant room for freedom and adaptation. Even the Westminster Directory
, which came to take the official place of Common Order
, prescribed an order and gave models for prayer that could be easily adapted for actual use (prescribed prayers were omitted from the Directory
mostly in order to appease the Independents).
With regard to gestures, customs, and ceremony, the Reformed churches did not eschew all
ceremony, traditional rituals, and other customs that were, in themselves, indifferent, so long as they were conformable to the Word of God, not liable to perpetuate superstition or error, and had historical precedent and time-honored use.
For instance, Reformed churches (Geneva, France, Scotland) retained the custom of having godparents at the baptism of infants. Likewise, the Reformed churches of France and Geneva retained the communion wafer, rather than moving towards common bread as was the case in Scotland and the Netherlands (though I myself find common bread preferable). All Reformed congregations retained kneeling as the expected posture for prayer, at least until the end of the 17th century and often well into the 18th.
Likewise, throughout Reformed churches--other than those of some English Independents--the congregation continued to come foward to the Table in order to receive communion, either seated around the Table (as in Scotland, the Netherlands, and Westphalia) or standing around the Table (as in France and Geneva). In Scotland the practice was for communicants to distribute the elements among themselves before the minister dismissed them from the Table with the words, "Go in peace from the Table of the Lord and may the God of love and peace go with you."
Many Reformed churches continued to confess the Creed, to follow Psalms with a version of the Gloria Patri, and to maintain other customary texts, even when not explicitly specified by the written liturgy (e.g., the use of the epiclesis
in Scotland, even though Common Order
didn't prescribe it). Some Reformed congregations even kept the "lavabo
" (the minister rinsing his hands prior to administering communion) or the mixed chalice. One could enumerate many other similar customs retained by Reformed churches.
So, for example, the 17th century Scots divine Robert Baillie--hardly a high churchman--took a stand against the influence of the English Independents whose ideas were leading some in Scotland to object to these practices. He wrote the following regarding some parishoners who had begun to refuse to sing the Gloria Patri,
As you would loathe to give up your prayers, sacraments, and preaching, as you would not forsake wholly our church, and your sworn covenant, and drink down all the errors of Brownism, take heed to the spirit which you find so ready to learn the first lessons of those seducers...As for the putting of that matter at the end of a psalm, the church which hath power to order the parts of God's worship hath good reason for it, for Christ in that pattern of all prayers and praises teaches us to conclude "for thine is the glory for ever." (Letters volume I, 362)
Likewise, with the growing influence of the English Independents, the Church of Scotland itself, in the General Assembly of 1643, passed an act that forbade "all condemning one another in such lawful things as have been universally received, and by perpetual custom practiced by the most faithful ministers of the gospel and opposers of corruptions of this kirk, since the beginning of the Reformation to these times" (Records of the Kirk
349). This seems to be directed particularly at those who were beginning to object to the use of recited prayers (such as the Lord's Prayer), the use of the Gloria Patri at the end of Psalms, and the custom of the minister kneeling in the pulpit before preaching.
Nevertheless, none of these practices would really qualify the Reformed churches as "high church," even in the 17th century Anglican sense of that term. Despite their customs, Reformed churches did not mandate a prayerbook, they did not reverence the altar, they were often architecturally spare and restrained, they set aside gestures and customs that appeared to get in the way of or over-complicate or obscure the pure ministry of word and sacrament (e.g., they didn't reserve the eucharist or continue post-baptismal anointing), and they did not enforce prayers and rubrics where liberty was appropriate.
If the Reformed churches were not "high church" in the 17th century Anglican sense of the term, then the traditional worship of the Reformed churches came to appear even less "high church" in light of what that term came to mean within 19th century Anglicanism in connection with Tractarianism (or the "Oxford Movement").
A new kind of high churchmanship emerged from the Tractarians that, in tandem with the Ecclesiological and Gothic Revival movements, produced what we think of today as "Anglo-Catholicism." Unlike the high churchmen of the 17th and 18th centuries, a certain sort of medievalism and romanticism characterized Anglo-Catholicism, by which it reinterpreted and applied the Book of Common Prayer
in keeping with Roman ceremony. This was typically coupled with an embrace of transubstantiation, an exaltation of tradition, and jure divino
episcopacy and succession as of the esse
of the church.
And when people speak today, in popular parlance, of the "high church" they intende just this sort of Anglo-Catholicism. But such Anglo-Catholcism is, in almost every respect, significantly removed from the historic teaching and practice of Reformed churches or the kinds of liturgical renewal we are witnessing in some contemporary Reformed circles. This is a large part of the reason why I would balk at applying the term "high church" to my own views on ecclesiology, sacraments, and worship, though, at the same time, I am probably just as far away from the "low churchmanship" of most American "free church" evangelicalism.
I should also mention that, in the late 19th century, a movement emerged within the Scottish church often called "Scoto-Catholicism" and typically associated with John Macleod of Govan and an organization called the Scottish Church Society. Macleod founded the Society in 1892 "to defend and advance catholic doctrine as set forth in the ancient creeds and embodied in the standards of the Church of Scotland."
While in some respects this goal was laudable, the difficulty in practice was the manner in which the Society implemented its mission. As with Anglo-Catholicism, the Scoto-Catholics tended towards a romanticized idealism about an earlier era, an almost archaeological retrieval of the liturgical past, and a penchant for over-stressing the continuities of the Reformed Scottish Kirk with pre-Reformational practices.
Despite what I termed my "robustly Calvinian sacramental theology" and "affection for the historic liturgical patterns of the Reformed churches," I would reject any kind of over-idealization of the past or archaeological project, and thus any suggestion of "Scoto-Catholicism."
I do very much believe that we must continue to embrace what is best in our Reformed heritage--including our liturgical and sacramental heritage--but we must do so in a manner by which we can fulfill our Gospel calling to the present generation and with an eye to the future. This requires flexibility and a willingness to adapt historic forms in light of biblical-theological reflection that engages our present time and culture, in order that the church can maintain its missional focus, a generous catholicity, and its own integrity as a counter-culture in itself.
In light of all these considerations, I do reject the "high church" label as too liable to misunderstanding and misconstrual, as well as potentially undermining the sort of vision that I share with many others for the future of our calling as Reformed and Presbyterian believers and worshippers.