Saturday, April 20, 2013

What Does This "High Church" Mean?

Owning the "High Church" label, for a little while, without quibbling over its semantic baggage:

A high view of the Church, as I have said before, goes hand-in-hand with a high view of Christ.  A "High Church" attitude and approach to the Liturgy and worship derives from a particular view of life before God, which finds its central focus and clarity in the Reconciliation of Christ Jesus, the Atonement of His Cross, and the Justification of His Resurrection from the dead.  It is with profound gratitude to God for this Gospel, for this grace in which we stand, that we draw near — through the flesh and blood of Jesus, by His Word and Holy Spirit — and, in reverent awe, that we approach the receiving and the handing over of His good gifts.

"High Church" is typically characterized by, and is usually identified with, a certain quantity and quality of formal ceremonial (admittedly ambiguous in its contours, but everyone evidently knows it when they see it).  Despite that common stereotype, however, outward ceremonies are not the chief or definitive concern; they are not the heart of the matter, nor are they decisive; leastwise not for a "High Church" Lutheran.

A high view of the Church, deriving from a high view of Christ, our Savior, approaches the Divine Liturgy and Christian worship with confidence and conviction concerning the following eight axioms (I'm calling them axioms, because I'm not sure what else to call them, but "axiom" has the right sort of orthodox ambiance):

1. The sufficiency, power, and authority of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, for repentance and faith, forgiveness, and life everlasting in Christ.

2. The centrality of the Holy Sacraments for the faith and life of the Church: Holy Baptism as foundational; Holy Absolution as a continuing exercise of the significance of Holy Baptism; and the Holy Communion as the heart and center of the Body.

3. The goodness of Creation, and of the body, especially in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the first creation and the Firstfruits of the New Creation.

4. The catechetical character and liturgical purpose of Preaching, which is always proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name, in order to bring disciples to and from the Font, to and from the Altar, in the worthiness of repentant faith.

5. The evangelical definition of the Office of the Holy Ministry, which in all things (including the exercise of Church discipline) aims at the forgiveness of sinners with the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

6. The "meet, right, and salutary" appropriateness of thanksgiving and praise, of worship and adoration, with "hearts and hands and voices," with body and soul together, and with lips that are opened by the Word and Spirit of Christ to confess and call upon His Holy Name, to the Glory of His God and Father.

7. The gracious Word and work of Christ Jesus, our merciful and great High Priest, who ever lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father, and who also serves His Church on earth with His Divine Liturgy of the Gospel.

8. The unity, holiness, and catholicity of the Church in Christ Jesus, who is with her in each time and place, not only with His Spirit and Divinity, but also with His Body and true Manhood, wherever He calls and gathers His disciples together "in His Name," in the preaching and administration of His Holy Gospel.


  1. [O]utward ceremonies are not the chief or definitive concern; they are not the heart of the matter, nor are they decisive; leastwise not for a "High Church" Lutheran. -- Rev. Fr. Stuckwisch

    Ceremonies indeed are not "the heart of the matter," and should not be thought of as "decisive," but they can disclose the human heart's true attitude towards Christ our Definitive Concern. Here our body language can be quite telling. Dr. Freud recognized the deep and revealing character of mannerisms; and who is to say that Isaiah, millennia earlier, did not beat the infidel to the punch: "This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoreth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (as quoted by St. Matthew, intoning some 17th century English).

    Ceremonial commandments originating with men should not be taught as doctrine (Isaiah noted this as well), but then there is the Lutheran catechetical reminder to the people that "we should fear and love God." To fear is to revere. To revere is to engage in behavior, be the behavior a form of thought, word or action. The physical heart perfuses and sustains more than the mouth and the lips. All of the housing of the Holy Spirit should get involved, not just the windows. The poor sinners approaching the Lord Christ, presenting to their eyes in the blessed flesh, are often portrayed by the Evangelists as bending the knee or falling on their faces. Etiquette matters to the God who is Present, otherwise why would the finger of God, the Holy Ghost, bother with informing us explicitly as to posture? And the once crucified God who is truly Present, also stoops down to come to the Lutheran community in the Mass, and in the Word. This is no time to have spiritually spondylitic vertebrae, further stiffened with indifference or ignorance.

    Etiquette and ceremony matter. They do, throughout the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, God was fussy about His Ark of Presence being handled, and by whom. In the New, the risen Lord forbade Mary of Magdala from handling His body; in sharp contrast, He encourages His Apostles to do so, with all their hearts. The ceremony matters. It's not the principle thing, again, but the behaviors discouraged or encouraged do speak directly, I believe, to His Office given the task of preaching the laity towards the Body and Blood on the Altar. In other words, the behaviors about which we read happened on the very first Easter Sunday and Quasimodo Geniti, lend solid support to Axiom 5.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor

    1. You'll get no disagreement, but only a hearty "Amen" from me on these points, Herr Doktor Anderson. Indeed, I have tried to lay a careful foundation, and to make a theological case, for the very concerns that you here identify, in my presentation to the ACELC this past week. I maintain, as you do, that ceremonies do mean something, and convey something, and that they belong to our confession of the Word, and of Christ our Savior. Nevertheless, the ceremonies follow upon that which is central and definitive, and they are not, in themselves, necessary or decisive. Many pastors and congregations who share our "High Church" convictions may, for various reasons, not be in a position to make use of the same ceremonies. Whatever any of us do, in administering and receiving the Sacred Mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ, ought to be done in reverence before Him, and that certainly does involve our bodies, as well as our hearts and minds and voices.

      It is necessary to offer careful caveats, and to make careful distinctions between that which is necessary and that which is free, (a.) because there is much misunderstanding about what it is that "we" in the "Gottesdienst Crowd" believe, teach, and confess, and (b.) because the sinful heart of fallen man is always prone to make false gods and idols out of its own works, not least of all in the use of reverent ceremony. It has been and remains my goal to clarify a right way of thinking about such matters, and also to point out that the dangers and temptations of idolatry, legalism, and works righteousness are also at hand where the ceremonies of austerity, informality, and simplicity are in use. The question is not, nor can it be, whether or not to have ceremonies, but of which ceremonies will be used, and why, and how.

      With thanks for your eloquent and insightful comments.


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