In a recent American Conservative piece, Gracy Olmstead observes that “the millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide.” She reports on three Evangelicals whose journeys reflect a “sacramental yearning” and an “ache for sacramentality” that cannot be satisfied in traditional Evangelicalism. As Jesse Cone puts it, “kids are going high church.”

But what is “high church” worship? The answer can be pretty obvious. On Christmas Eve, I attended midnight Eucharist at the Episcopal cathedral in Savannah, Georgia. Moving as one through air sweet with incense, a trio of clergymen performed the liturgy, accompanied by the cathedral’s magnificent organ and choir. That was high church. The lessons and carols service we attended earlier in the evening, which included a Neil Young song and a breathy jazz rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”—that was not high church.

Usually, though, a lot depends on who’s answering the question. For some, high church means formality: elaborate liturgical vestments, dignified gestures and postures, repetitiveness. For some, it’s age: High liturgies use organs, old music, and archaic diction; low worship is guitars, CCM, and the New Living Translation. For some, high church happens when every word and gesture is pre-scripted by a prayer book or missal. I’ve heard of churches where the introduction of a weekly bulletin is an alarming sign of creeping high-churchism.

Thinking about that midnight Eucharist, I formed a tentative alternative hypothesis: The issue is not formality or ornamentation or age, but preparation. High liturgies include preparatory rites, sometimes complicated and numerous; low liturgies do not. Orthodox priests perform the prothesis before the Divine Liturgy begins. In a high Anglican liturgy, Scripture readings are preceded by gestures and processions. In a low liturgy, the minster announces a text and reads it. In a high Eucharist, the minister or priest is vested, his hands washed, the elements blessed before the Eucharistic ordo itself. In a low Eucharist, the minister takes bread and wine, gives thanks, and distributes.

By this measure, Protestantism has always had a strong “low church,” even Puritan, strain. Even the more liturgical Protestant traditions stripped away rites that the Reformers considered ancillary and unnecessary, if not distracting. In his baptismal liturgy, Luther eliminated several exorcisms, some traditional prayers, the exsufflation, and all uses of spittle, oil, and tapers. And as liturgists go, Luther was among the most traditional of the Reformers.

In some branches of Protestantism, liturgical reform reflected a preference for simplicity per se. But something else was going on, and this brings me to my second hypothesis, equally tentative and a good deal more controversial: It’s often thought that “high liturgy” and “high sacramentality” go together. The men profiled in Olmstead’s article assume there’s a connection. From where I stand, though, they appear to be opposed.

I mean this in two senses. The low-church Reformers (all of them, by my definition) stripped away preparatory rites because they believed that the power of sacraments rests on God’s word, and that alone. If a minister is ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament, why does he need to go through what looks like re-ordination every time he leads the Eucharist? He doesn’t need to wash his hands, because Jesus has already set him apart by the laying on of hands; he was vested at ordination. If Jesus promises to wash us at the font, we don’t need to bless the water. We only have to believe him. Jesus promises to give himself to us at his table. We should trust him, take, and eat. To the Reformers, the Latin Mass didn’t take God at his word. Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments.

“High” liturgy raises doubts about the sacramentality of creation too. Sacraments are sacraments because God designates them to be such, but he doesn’t override the features of things when he designates them to be used as rites in the church. Water is a suitable vehicle for baptism because of the way God made water. As creatures, bread and wine are designed for a Eucharistic feast. The rites of preparation in high liturgies suggest that the materials of the liturgy aren’t sacramental enough just by being the materials they are. They have to be elevated from nature to super-nature before they become liturgically useful. For low-church Protestantism, the world is sufficiently charged with the grandeur of God to begin with. They were chosen for holy use because of their common use.

Low liturgy can manifest a “higher” view of sacraments than high liturgy. Protestant Puritanism doesn’t undermine sacraments. Perhaps only Puritans can give sacraments their due.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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