Let Us Praise Famous Low Episcopal Churches: Christ Church Alexandria, Virginia

Article excerpt

It is an honor to be in the pulpit of this historic church. I am grateful to the rector and to your parish historian for the invitation to speak. It is an historic church, with an exceptional choir, located in a remarkable and historic town.

I want to talk this morning about low churches. Americans know and esteem Christ Church, Alexandria, as an historic church-one that evokes the atmosphere and values of the early republic.

But to Episcopal historians, Christ Church stands out for an additional reason-it stands out because it is an historically /OT/; Episcopal church. Low Episcopal churches often receive little recognition-perhaps because they seem to lack pizzazz. And so this morning I want to praise low churches and, specifically, to praise this historic Episcopal congregation for remaining faithful to its heritage.

A preliminary comment: In church talk today, the terms high and low are seldom used. A twentieth-century movement called "the liturgical movement" has influenced Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and other Christian traditions. By using information gained from early Christian liturgies and materials, the liturgical movement seeks to reestablish the spirit and forms of early Christian worship. And the movement's discoveries about early Christian worship have tended to make the low churches of Christianity higher and the high churches lower. Thus most Episcopalians are now in some ways centrists. These days the tensions in the Episcopal Church revolve not around high church-low church conflicts hut rallier around such matters as sexuality. But the two terms high and low are very much a part of church history and of the history of this parish. And so let us look at those terms. What in Christianity is high? And what is low?

Well, the word high means important; the word law means unimportant. The two words are especially applied to such things as ritual, solemnity, the status and powers of clergy, and the claims a church makes about itself. Any church with ritualistic, solemn, sacramental worship, any church that asserts that its sacraments and clergy are crucial to human salvation, is to that extent high. Conversely, the lmu churches of Christianity tend to be less ritualistic, less formal, and less clerically-oriented. Ultimately, in fact, to be low church is to be less confident that a formal organization of Christians can teach without error the truth that was in Christ Jesus. Low churches make high claims, but they generally make those claims not about the church and its officials but rather about scripture.

And so in the Judeo-Christian tradition the word mass is high, but the term lord's supper is low. And the word allar is high, while the word table is low. Folded hands when going forward to receive the bread and the wine are high; hands at the sides while walking forward are low. Genuflecting and making the sign of the cross are high; making no such gestures is low. Using incense in a service is high; experiencing arrhythmia of the heart in the presence of incense is low. Wearing elaborate clerical vestments is high; wearing black academic robes is low-and wearing civvies is even lower.

If we were to continue the comparisons, we would say that the Jerusalem Temple is high, while synagogues are low. Church buildings viewed by the faithful as houses where God especially resides are high; church buildings viewed by the faithful as houses where the people of God meet but where God is no more present than elsewhere on earth are low. Services that intend to inspire awe through ritual are high; services that intend to inspire conversion and Christian lifestyle through preaching are low. And an unshaven fellow in a t-shirt sitting in the back pew with his sleeves rolled up and a cigarette tucked in his ear is... high, because the higher one goes on the Christian spectrum, the less the attire of laity during worship seems to matter. On the other hand, the lower one goes on the same spectrum (with the exception of some charismatic or non-denominational churches), the more the laity tend to dress up for church-perhaps because of their belief in the priesthood of all believers. …