The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

A church I know that made the transition from ‘High Church’ to ‘Low Church’ removed the statue of its patronal saint from the sanctuary into the vestry. This move was made on the grounds that, ‘This an evangelical church, not an Anglo-Catholic Church.’ The same minister, who had worn a cope in the past, refused to wear one on a later occasion on the grounds that you don’t wear High Church Vestments in an evangelical church.

The following has been floating around in my head for a while, but I feel it is appropriate to write now, since I was at the Duomo in Milan for Morning Prayer this morning. (I didn’t stick around for Eucharist because I felt uncomfortable with the guards staring down anyone who didn’t speak Italian.)

By evangelical, I mean Gospelly. Gospel-focused. Something or someone focussed on the Incarnation of God as a man and His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory for the salvation of the human race, with a strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning death. Someone evangelical has a very high regard for Scripture as the revelation of God and our way of learning about Jesus and his life on earth. Evangelicals believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, available to those who believe.

By what follows, I don’t wish to minimise the differences between High and Low Churchmanship. Nor do I wish to downplay the worthiness of Low Church worship — I grew up Low Church, worshipped at my dad’s Low Church parish just recently, and worship with the Free Church of Scotland.

I hope, rather, to help Low Church Evangelicals to be more comfortable with their High Church siblings, and for High Church worshippers to realise the levels of Truth and Gospel witness found in their rituals — these rituals ought not to be dead, for in them is contained a witness to the glorious Truth of God made Man for our salvation.

Genuflection & the Sign of the Cross When you join your High Church friends on a Sunday morning, you may notice that many of them genuflect before entering the pew, and that many also make the sign of the cross. This is not mere superstitious nonsense, a hangover from those dark days of Roman Christianity.

Look to the front of the church. What stands on the Holy Table or hangs from the ceiling or is mounted on the back wall (or all three)? A cross or a crucifix. Why genuflect to a cross made of brass or wood? Is not the Lord Jesus risen and ascended to heaven? Yes, He is. And, ascended to glory, He is now everywhere, for heaven has not a fixed location (despite silliness from J S Spong). Yet you cannot worship Christ who died for you everywhere unless you worship Him somewhere.

In kneeling briefly before being seated in the pew, the worshipper acknowledges his or her debt to the One who died on the historical cross on a hill far away. He or she worships in his or her spirit, using the body and the physical space to honour the invisible God. It is a spiritual act of worship.

The same, needless to say, goes for making the sign of the cross, an act I am much in favour of (see this post and this post).

Regular, old kneeling If a person of particular outward piety, your High Church friend will probably proceed to kneel and pray for a bit. It used to be the case that most, if not all, western Christians knelt to pray. Most have a tendency to sit these days. Kneeling is a physical act of submission and humility. No matter how intimate we get with God — and He does call us friends and we are called his Bride — He is still God; still holy; still other; still wholly other; still almighty; still King.

We are to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. It is His will to lift us up. When we present our prayers and petitions unto the Most High, is there any posture more fitting than that of kneeling?

Standing There is always standing, of course. This is the first ritual act the whole congregation performs. As the clergy, assistants, and choir enter, everyone stands up. The cross, that great symbol of our salvation and the very reason we are present at church, goes before them. Out of honour to this cross, we stand. Out of respect for the clergy who have a duty and role to teach us and instruct us in the Faith and to lead us in worship and to draw us near to God through the sacraments, we stand — we stand even though so many, high and low alike, fail at most or all of the above often or sometimes.

And so they process in, the choir singing something, hopefully in English. Preferably, in my opinion, a congregational hymn. But maybe not. Maybe in Latin, even.

Things are just beginning. Stay tuned for more …

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2 thoughts on “The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

  1. Our church was recently “deemed” to be evangelical episcopal by someone who said they were “high” church. I am trying to understand what he meant as he was unable to explain (or unwilling) what he meant by the difference. Our priests wear vestments, we kneel to pray, many genuflect and make the sign of the cross, The entire service as I hear it including the bible reading all reflect on God and Jesus, especially the eucharist. Help me here. I just don’t understand what the real difference is.
    .

    • Perhaps the real difference is all in people’s minds. There ought not to be a dichotomy between the two, yet in the minds of many who self-identify as ‘evangelical’ and many who self-identify as ‘high church’ there is. But, truly, the truths of the evangelical Gospel as preached by the likes of Wesley and Whitfield are enacted with great splendour in ‘high’ liturgies.

      Did this person mean it as a compliment? That both typically ‘episcopal’ and ‘evangelical’ things were going on at the same time?

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