“High church” and “low church” mean different things to different people

high church, low church

Here are some typical distinctions . . .


  • _ “Catholic looking”
  • * Institutional church IS important
  • * Confessional view of Christian identity
  • _ Distinction between clergy and laity
  • _ Sacralization of time, space, objects
  • _ Emphasis on order and ritual


  • * “Protestant looking”
  • _ Institutional church is NOT important
  • _ “Conversional” view of Christian identity
  • * NO distinction between clergy and laity
  • * NO sacralization of time, space, objects
  • * Emphasis on spontaneity

On a continuum, churches of Christ (CofCs) occupy an intermediate position between evangelicalism and Catholicism. See “*” above. Historically, Cofcs have held a confessional versus conversional understanding of Christian identity; but more recently, they are increasingly reflecting an evangelical, privatized, personalized view, with conversion stories being prerequisites to baptism and the need for rebaptism being determined by individuals rather than church leaders.

High-church versus low-church partisanships trace back to a conflict within 19th century Anglicanism over the relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. High-church Anglicans insisted on strong continuity of the Anglican Church (AC) with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), particularly regarding their ministers, ministry, traditions, worship, ceremonies, and sacraments. Low-church Anglicans saw things differently.

Since then, the phrases “high church” and “low church” serve as a way of characterizing faith communities according to their emphases on the preceding aspects of religious life. In simpler terms, “high church” is manifested in sacred time (e.g., a religious calendar of practices, events, and seasons), sacred space (e.g., sites and sanctuaries), sacred people (e.g., clergy versus laity), and sacred things (e.g., altars, vestments, sacraments). “Low church” groups deny or depreciate all or most of those things.

Evangelical Protestants are low-church. CofCs are also low-church, but less so than Evangelicals, differing specifically in the CofC’s high-view of the church’s role in salvation its acts of worship, its order of salvation, and especially its largely sacramental view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s important to note though the authority behind all those things among CofCs derives from the Bible as understood through the CofC’s interpretive lens, not religious offices, persons, or historical institutions.

The terms “high church” and “low church” originated under particular historical circumstances, but the terms themselves are still useful today in locating various religious groups along a continuum that reflects how each group manifests the complex interplay of hermeneutics with Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Locating one’s own group along that continuum can create a self-awareness that promotes more-informed and more-charitable interactions with other religious groups, especially if the specifics of high-church versus low-church beliefs and practices are not treated as matters of common faith, but rather as belonging to the arenas of congregational, corporate, and community faiths.

Related subjects include hermeneutics, patternism, positive law, private vs. public salvation, history of salvation vs. order of salvation, confessionalism vs. conversionism, views of the kingdom, arenas of faith, and memorialism vs. sacramentalism.

— historeo.com

historeo.comhistoreo 2

Updated from 30 July 2011.7

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