Low Church, High Church

by: hawkgrrrl

May 27, 2014

High church (left) vs. low church (right)

Mormons don’t wear crosses or display them in our churches, and yet we are Christian.  Mormons don’t have paid clergy who wear special robes to officiate at an altar, and yet in our temples, there are special clothes and rites.  The differences between these forms of worship relates to being a “low church” versus a “high church.”

A couple from the ward I grew up in was recently interviewed for an article in the local paper about how Mormons celebrate Easter. Bro. Ellsworth’s explanation refers to the difference between a low church and a high church.  Mormons frequently lament our lack of pomp at Easter, and this answer explains why we don’t celebrate Easter that way:

“You could call us a low church,” Mr. Ellsworth says, chuckling again. “We have no paid ministry. No one answers the phone here. There’s no mail delivered here. No collection is taken. You can pick up an envelope and quietly hand it to the bishop or mail it to his home.”

Part of being a “low church” is spontaneity of worship, or allowing members to define their methods and forms of worship.

“There’s a lot of latitude to what we do on Easter,” says Mr. Ellsworth, a retired Elizabethtown College psychology professor. “Some will be hiding Easter eggs. Some will be eating hot-cross buns left over from Good Friday.”

Hallmarks of high church: formal clergy, vestments, rituals, a focus on the church as the source of the spiritual life.

Since reading this article, I’ve given a lot more thought to this idea of low church vs. high church.  It seems to me that Mormonism is very much a low church in our weekly worship, but a high church in our temple worship, something that often throws people for a loop the first time they attend the temple.  In fact, in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, this explains Pres. McKay’s unfavorable reaction when he first attended the temple.  Our weekly attitude is very plain and simple with no ritual, almost business-like, but the temple is very ritualized with special clothing, symbols, and so forth.

Here’s a more comprehensive comparison between a “high church” and a “low church” for those who are interested in learning more. It refers to “high” and “low” being an attitude toward worship. “Low” worshipers like spontaneity, egalitarianism (lay clergy) and plain worship. “High” worshipers prefer tradition, formal worship and grand symbols. Mennonites and Amish are a “low church” according to these definitions, so I imagine the article featuring my friend’s parents was an attempt to emphasize common ground.

“Low Church” is a neutral term that simply describes a type of worship that does not follow a prescribed order of service, that does not follow certain liturgical patterns, and does not make use of developed ritual, ceremony, or worship accouterments  like vestments.

What is the origin of these attitudes?  Originally, all Christians were Catholics until the split caused by the Reformation.  At that time, these two attitudes emerged and various religions took positions along a spectrum.

Luther held a maximalist view that whatever was not specifically forbidden in Scripture could be practiced by the Church in its worship.  So he continued many of the long established practices of the Church. Zwingli took the minimalist view and held that only those things that were specifically allowed in Scripture could be practiced in the Church.

Hallmarks of a low church: informal preaching, lay clergy, minimal icons or symbols, a focus on home as the source of spiritual life.

Mormons are not the lowest of the low churches.  On the contrary, where I grew up (Amish country), the three prevalent religions:  Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren are all lower churches than Mormonism, as evidenced by their being called “Plain People.”

Of course there were those like Menno Simons who thought Zwingli had not gone far enough and so spawned the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Mennonites).  Invariably, some like Jacob Amman thought Simons had sold out and moved still further (Amish).  The same thing happened in England as Cranmer followed Luther, with more radical reactions from George Fox (Quakers) and the Puritans.

Since Mormonism was a restoration, not exactly part of the Reformation, where did we get our low church approach?  Was the original Christian church a low church?  If so, how did it spawn such a high church as Catholicism?  I have three different theories about our current status as a mixed “low” and “high” church.

  • Reaction to and protest of “high church” attitudes bred “low church” approaches.  American Evangelical religious movements were all low church in attitude, and early Mormonism was no exception, with even more spontaneity than it has now.  Similar to the protestant churches, some of our arguments against high church practices (e.g. not wearing crosses or using religion icons) sound exactly like those of Protestant churches:

“In the context of the Reformation, this was not only a working out of the principle of sola scruptura, “scripture alone” as the basis for doctrine, but also a direct attack on what was understood to be unbiblical practices in worship in Catholicism.  This included such things as Catholic mass (as a reenactment of the death of Jesus), the multiplication of sacraments, and the more elaborate aspects of worship that had developed in the medieval period such as ornate vestments, incense, the proliferation of statues, the use of scepters, crucifixes, etc. Along with this came criticism of opulent cathedrals and the call for more simplicity in worship.”

  • Size, money, and centralized leadership breed a “high church” approach.  As the church has grown, it has become more “high church” over time, even in crystallizing our “low church” traditions (e.g. white shirts for passing the sacrament rather than priestly vestments, but using essentially the same argument to justify them).  Evangelical movements without centralized leadership retain a more spontaneous low church approach than we do, with more variety of worship forms and more consumer-based worship. [1]  While our chosen form of worship is low church in flavor, it has become more and more formal and structured over time, without becoming opulent or ritualized (with the exception of temple worship which is very high church and often off-putting to initiates steeped in our low church attitude).  It’s a high church attitude that drives the McChurch experience; it’s why attending a Mormon church in Cambodia feels very similar to attending a Mormon church in Michigan.
  • Different leaders have different preferences.  Some of our church leaders focus on low church attitudes that align with inclusion, flexibility, and multi-culturalism, while others want more ritual and form, having high church attitudes that align with consistency, tradition, and central authority over local preference.
  • Religions are a time capsule.  Religions seem to have a heyday or zenith, a period in time in which they flourished or considered themselves to be at their pinnacle.  They revere the forms of worship from that time, and seek to remain there or to return to that time.  Catholic cathedrals were built during the middle ages.  The Amish literally decided to stop time in terms of technology, still driving a horse and buggy, but because the Amish are a low church they allow local communities to make their own decisions about which technologies to adopt.
  • The original Christian church may have been both.  While our weekly worship is very “low,” our temple worship is “high.”  The original church came out of the high church approach of Judaism in which form and structure were very important and set.  Thanks to the diaspora, many early church members were people of low status (women, slaves, and the poor) who didn’t have the means to create or maintain high church traditions; also Judaism had some very low church roots as the Israelites wandered the desert, using a portable tabernacle in place of a permanent temple.  Many new religious movements started out as low churches, an easier way to enter the church market.

Do you prefer a low church or a high church?  Which do you think Mormonism is?  High or low?  Why?  What evidence do you see in the church to back your belief that we are a high or low church?  What’s your personal preference?


[1] Saddleback Church, run by Pastor Rick Warren, is an excellent example of this approach.  On Sundays, over 20,000 worshipers come to the complex of tents and can choose from the style of music, dress, and refreshments they want.  But the true focus for worshipers is small communities of 10-15 people that are formed to meet weekly to discuss their personal issues and pray for one another.  The groups are created based on common interests.  This is a very “low” approach, allowing for lots of personal meaning and interpretation with little to no central oversight.

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12 Responses to Low Church, High Church

  1. Hedgehog on May 27, 2014 at 4:51 AM

    A few observations:
    A lot of the early converts from Britain came from the numerous Brethren congregations, which would have been low church. Some of these congregations appear to have converted en masse, or so we’ve been taught in lessons on church history in Britain.

    The church owned intellectual property in Britain includes registered trademarks described as being for ecclesiastical vestments etc. (“authorized pattern” – if I recall correctly). I never did check if they’d registered the design…

    What I’d prefer – I’d like celebration of Easter, Christmas themselves to be written into the calender at least, even if the specific format the service takes is down to local decision. If we’re saying we’re a Christian church, I think that is an expected minimum. Even if it means shifting General Conference every few years to accommodate Easter.
    I’d like to lose the high church attitude in respect of white shirts, etc.

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  2. New Iconoclast on May 27, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    As in so many things, we’re off the spectrum. We don’t observe a liturgical calendar, which is a principal mark of high-church worship, but we have a fairly rigid formulaic worship format. I mean, it may only be custom, but when was the last time you saw anything significantly different from the normal agenda for Sacrament Meeting – announcements, hymn, prayer, business, sacrament, two talks, rest hymn/musical number, main talk, hymn, prayer?

    I think as we’ve tried to make a consistent church experience across the world, we’ve correlated ourselves into a somewhat more McChurch format, and our insistence on the trappings – white shirts and so on – only add to that.

    As a recovering Catholic, I have a hard time thinking of any of this as “high church,” you understand. Everything we do looks like a parish council meeting to me, except without the coffee and cigarettes. :)

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  3. Hedgehog on May 27, 2014 at 5:59 AM

    NI, One thing I did manage as music person was to have the musical item before the first speaker (once a month) and retain the intermediate hymn, arguing that singing is an important way for the congregation to participate. So a slight change, but otherwise the same format.

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  4. Kullervo on May 27, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    NI, I suspect that most other “low churches” also follow a de facto formulaic worship format.

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  5. Nate on May 27, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    “Part of being a “low church” is spontaneity of worship, or allowing members to define their methods and forms of worship.”

    I wish this could be said of the Mormon church.

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  6. IDIAT on May 27, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    What I prefer is to worship the way Christ would have me worship. Trying to divide it into high or low has no meaning for me.

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  7. Mike S on May 27, 2014 at 5:14 PM

    We exist in an uncomfortable hybrid. While we have many aspects of “low church” as you correctly point out, the centralized and bureaucratic hierarchy / handbook eliminates much of the “spontaneity” that truly characterizes the “low church”. We have correlated manuals which we are encouraged to follow, using only approved sources. Doing this has the potential to feel “forced”.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on May 27, 2014 at 6:21 PM

    I really have wondered what creates the hybrid we are in. I suspect it’s different personalities among the top church leaders. Before correlation we really did seem more like a low church than we do now. In essence we’ve codified a version of low church worship, but codifying it is a high church attitude.

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  9. Stephen R. Marsh on May 28, 2014 at 5:42 AM

    “Originally, all Christians were Catholics until the split caused by the Reformation. At that time, these two attitudes emerged and various religions took positions along a spectrum.”

    Actually, originally all Christians were Orthodox until the Bishop at Rome split away. …

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  10. Kristine A on May 28, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    I don’t know the source of what we have now, but I’ve found great spiritual meaning from celebrating lent and the liturgical calendar this year. I have found as I seek to develop my worship that much good is found in the high church, much beauty and holiness.

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  11. Jeff Spector on May 28, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    I would maintain that these concepts are dated and no longer apply except in rare occasions. In our Church, in spite of not having a specifically proscribed liturgy, we have a very structured format for our meetings and they are pretty much programmed, down to the subject of the talks. We’ve often remarked at how formulaic even our Testimony meetings are.

    In evangelical churches, they have become quite ritualized with bands, singers, performances, etc as well as some guy who gets up and yells at you for a time.

    Spirituality comes from the heart, not from the form of worship….

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  12. Kullervo on May 28, 2014 at 10:43 AM

    I would maintain that these concepts are dated and no longer apply except in rare occasions.

    High church and low church are definitely still meaningful concepts that are alive and kicking outside of Mormonism. The OP and the OP’s citations just use idiosyncratic definitions that are not the same as how the terms are used in their historical and religious context. It’s not really about spontenaeity.

    Mormonism is definitely a low-church tradition, even if there is a prescribed format for worship.

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