Today is the lesser feast of William Laud, who served as Charles I's Archbishop of Canterbury in the years heading toward the middle of the seventeenth century. Along with the King, he lost his head to Cromwell's marauding Puritan hordes when they set up shop in 1645. Many Anglicans consider him a martyr.
Archbishop Laud believed in the divine right of kings. That's pretty much how he kept his job...and how he lost his life. But his principal legacy is as an exemplar of what came to be known as the High Church position within the Anglican theological spectrum.
High Church is a widely misunderstood term. Nashotah House, my seminary alma mater, has (or at least had when I was there) a "fight song," pulled out once a year on the occasion of the annual football contest with Seabury Western, known affectionately as the Lavabo Bowl. (For non-liturgy geeks, a real lavabo bowl is what is used when the celebrant's hands are washed at the time the altar is prepared for the Eucharist.) The song goes like this (sung to the tune of "On Wisconsin"):
On Nashotah, down with all those lib'ral Protestants!
Our position on tradition is our best defense. (Hail Ma-ry)
On Nashotah, sacerdotal Cath'lic liturgy,
High churchmanship leads us to victory!
The last line is a stretch, because we were soundly trounced all three years I was there. (I understand fortunes have reversed in more recent years.) The whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek caricature of Nashotah's reputation as an Anglo-Catholic institution, and I sing it with gusto with only the slightest provocation, and no alcohol is necessary.
Unfortunately, it perpetuates the misconception of what High Churchmanship is about. Most people think it refers to liturgical accoutrements such as candles, vestments, incense, bells, chanting, and the like. These are all wonderful things, and I heartily indulge in them. But they have little or nothing to do with being High Church.
High Churchmanship has...well...a high view of the nature and significance of the Church. It sees the Church as the sacrament of Christ, even as Christ is the sacrament of God--a sacrament being an outward and visible sign. High Churchmanship is reluctant to make too sharp a distinction between the mystical Body of Christ and the institutional Body of Christ. At the fringes, they are distinguishable, but between those fringes, there is a great deal of overlap where they cannot be effectively picked apart. To touch the institution is to touch the Mystical Body, and there is no contact with the Mystical Body except through some institutional expression. (I tell adults whom I baptize that they are simultaneously becoming a Christian, an Episcopalian, and a member of St John's; the three dimensions cannot be separated.) The "being" of the Church is prior to the "being" of her individual members.
A Low Church view, by contrast, sees the experience of the individual members as logically prior to the reality of the whole. A person meets Jesus, and therefore wants to hang out with others who have met Jesus, for all sorts of good reasons, but the main thing is that 'I' have met Jesus. The institutional dimension is just a matter of expediency.
Americans are, I fear, hard-wired toward a Low Church position. Voluntarism is a core value in our national DNA. Membership in the Church, speaking institutionally, is not qualitatively different from membership in a bowling league or a service club or a fraternal organization or a political party. We join when it suits our purposes and we leave when it no longer does so.
Of course, Anglicans of a Catholic bent are pre-disposed toward High Church theological views, and Evangelical Anglicans are given to Low Churchmanship. It has been thus for going on five centuries. Just ask William Laud and Oliver Cromwell. But in the present ecclesiastical wars, I seem to notice that even some self-styled Anglo-Catholics tend to forget to think like Catholics, and have become de facto Low Churchmen. Among Episcopalians who contend for a traditional understanding of authority and sexual morality, there is a divide between those who are eager to separate institutionally from the Church-of-General-Convention and those who are alarmed at the very prospect. I think the former are thinking Low Church, and the latter are thinking High Church.
This is a theme worth developing.
Blessed William Laud, pray for us.