Churchmanship in the ACC

From a Fresco of St. Wenceslas Perceptions of medieval worship are often behind churchmanship debates.

High and Low Church

'High and crazy, Low and lazy, Broad and hazy.'  So were the old Church parties in the Anglican world lampooned in a form that balanced evenly the distribution of insult.  The day when churchmen quarreled over vestments and music and interpolations in the Prayer Book, rather than over the divinity of Christ, atheist bishops, and sexual morality, now seems centuries distant and rather quaint.  Still, the older debates sometimes bubble beneath the surface and rise to the top when the most dangerous modern deviations are out of the picture.

One way to think about ‘High’ and ‘Low’ in liturgical matters is to remember that the divide that Anglicans often chose to fight about existed quietly and harmoniously within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.  The matter might be put this way. 

John prefers a sung liturgy, with involved ceremonial, processions, grand music, incense, holy water, vested acolytes and servers, and all the paraphernalia of worship which came into the Church from the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, from the medieval monasteries and cathedrals, the Renaissance prince-bishops, the Baroque Counter Reformation, and the Anglican Gothic Revival:  ‘smells, bells, and yells’.   Jim prefers a ‘simple said service’ with minimal ceremonial, less music, and no ‘smells, bells, and yells’.  Perhaps Jim would like some good familiar hymns, but in general for him less is better than more.

John and Jim both probably have some misconceptions about the historical origins of their preferences.  Jim thinks the High stuff savors too much of Roman Catholicism, which negates the benefits of the Reformation, while John thinks his preferences are generically Catholic and that that is good.  Both men are both right and wrong.

Unexpected Origins

In the average Roman Catholic parish from the late Middle Ages until the radical liturgical changes that followed Vatican II in the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of Masses were more like Jim’s preference than John’s, apart from the use of Latin.  That is, there was no music, there was no incense, there were no processions, there was a single acolyte, and the liturgy was quiet and simple.  People who liked something relatively simple and quick went to this ‘Low Mass’.  People who liked all the outward splendor and show went to the elaborate late morning High or Solemn High Mass on Sundays and on occasional major feasts. 

Within the same parish people might in effect be ‘Low’ and ‘High’ in their liturgical preferences, but they did not really think of themselves that way.  The difference was not a matter of Church parties, but merely a matter of taste, time, and personal preference.  The average Mass was Low, but the other was regularly available for those who preferred it.

Historically speaking the Low service, which Anglicans think of as ‘less Catholic’ or ‘more Protestant, was a product, not of the English Reformation or the simplicity of the ancient Church, but rather of the monastic-driven practice of the medieval, Western Church.  In the ancient Church the norm was the gathering of the full community around their bishop or priest for a solemn liturgy.  This is still the standard in the Eastern Churches. In the Middle Ages in the West, however, as religious communities proliferated, with many priests in the same place and with each priest feeling an obligation to say Mass himself daily, this norm became impossible to meet.  Choirs and people could not attend a dozen 90 minute liturgies each Sunday, much less each day. 

So while the ideal or norm might still be a Solemn High Mass, a brief Low Mass became in fact the typical service.  This was the situation when the Reformation occurred, and the late medieval, monastic-influenced practice was simply assumed by the reforming Church of England.  Many English cathedrals and the chapels royal continued to use grand music, vestments, and incense, but a lower ceremonial prevailed in the typical parish.

Churchmanship in the ACC

The ACC does not believe in disparaging medieval things or in rejecting well-established traditions.  The development of Low Mass is a fact of Western Church life.  One reason many Episcopalians did not join one of the Eastern Churches when ECUSA moved away from traditional Anglicanism in the 1970s is the absence in them of the daily Eucharist.  Daily communion is so much a part of the lives of millions of Western Christians, that it is difficult to conceive of life with the Eucharist only on Sundays and a few other days. 

Nevertheless, the historic origins of the High and Low dichotomy remind us that there is plenty of room in the capacious household of the Church for all such preferences.  In our Father’s house are many mansions.  Some are grand, some are simple, but there is a place for all who wish to enter; so too the parishes of the ACC.