It is no secret that the language of liturgy can be very complicated. Roman Catholics have their Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form, various Rites and orders, and a complicated calendar system with classifications of saints days. The Eastern Orthodox Church has long and complex liturgies full of things that are named in Greek which they seem stubbornly to refuse to label in English. Anglicans, although possessing a simpler liturgy since the Reformation, has different ‘parties’ or forms of ‘churchmanship’ that bring expression to Prayer Book worship in different (and sometimes conflicting) ways.
I’ve been asked about the terminology I use in this blog, and it seems only fair to clarify some of it.
During the English Reformation there were essentially two “parties” in the Church of England: Reformers and Traditionalists. Reformers wanted to see the doctrine and worship of the Church amended, Traditionalists wanted to hold on to the medieval forms and beliefs. Of course, this was also a sliding scale: there were those who wanted some reform and some tradition retained, all the way to radical reformers who wanted to throw away everything that even vaguely looked like Papism.
By the 1600’s, these two parties found a different definition: the traditionalists became known as ‘high church’ and the reformers (or Puritans) as ‘low church.’ Both parties were committed to the Prayer Book and the Articles of Religion (except for a few extremes, mainly of radical puritans, or separatists, in that century), so the difference between them was a matter of emphasis. The terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ church reflected primarily a difference in the view of the authority of the traditions of the Church. Highchurchmen valued continuity with previous tradition, Lowchurchmen did not. Highchurchmen advocated for retaining clerical vestments and adorning church buildings; lowchurchmen preferred simplicity of externals in order to focus on “spiritual things” like preaching.
The 1700’s saw a revival of evangelicalism, the 1800’s saw a revival of traditionalism. Both pushed the boundaries of Anglican practice in different ways: the former revolutionized the art of preaching and the latter brought back a number of pre-reformation traditions such as vestments, altar candles, and incense. For the most part, both of these movements stayed within the bounds of the Prayer Book and Articles of Religion, usually bumping up against canon law. From these movements we now have Anglo-Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, and although a newfound tolerance of both parties was accomplished in the 20th century, the gap between the two has continued to grow.
In the middle stood the “broad-church” or “latitudinarian” position, which was a sort of precursor to Anglican liberalism. This attitude can be found among many Anglicans today: happy to dress in chasubles like high-church Anglo-Catholics and preach heartfelt sermons like Anglo-Evangelicals, yet not being fully committed to all of the specific distinctions of either party. The popular “Three Streams” fad is very much an expression of the “broad-church” tradition, attempting to draw lines of connection across different views.
As far as how all this impacts the liturgy, the Prayer Book used to stand aloof to all this; the 1662 was happily used by both sides for most of English history. But once Prayer Book revision began, especially in the 20th century, the battles between low and high began. The highchurchmen sought a return to the material of the more traditionalist 1549 Prayer Book, the lowchurchmen sought to return to the material of the more reformed 1552 Prayer Book. For much of the 20th century, the high church tradition has held the upper hand on paper (most notably the 1928 Prayer Book and several features of the 1979 and 2019), though not in actual numbers of committed Anglo-Catholic practitioners.
It also should be noted that there is not quite a 1:1 ratio of Anglo-Catholicism and high-church liturgical preferences, or Anglo-Evangelicalism and low-church liturgical preferences. That’s how it usually divides, but there is a spectrum stretching between them, and individual persons and parishes are not always neatly lined up in just one of two boxes. Especially with the fracturing of the Anglican scene in the latter half of the 20th century, the various levels of churchmanship have become further divided from one another. The ACNA has gathered up many broad-church-but-not-quite-liberal Anglicans, many of the few remaining classical low-church evangelicals, and a handful of high-church Anglo-Catholics, but probably most of the American Anglo-Catholics today are in other jurisdictions of the “Anglican Continuum.”
The Saint Aelfric Customary exists to help people use the 2019 Prayer Book with an eye on the long-standing tradition of Anglican practice. That makes this project inherently conservative, but not explicitly high or low church. In general, however, it is a highchurch mentality to pay closer attention to liturgical precedent and detail, so the deeper one digs into the formal liturgical options, a greater portion of high church material will be found than low church. By nature, a lowchurchman is typically going to spend more time fussing about the sermon than about the liturgy. Nevertheless, it is not the intention of this project to be “Anglo-Catholic,” as such, nor to promulgate Anglo-Catholic doctrine and practice. A number of such options will be offered, explained, and presented, but it is my aim to make this Customary a resource useful to all users of the 2019 Prayer Book.