Any study of denominationalism or church history is sure to lead, sooner or later, to the terms High Church and Low Church. Originally, these terms defined movements within the Anglican Church, but the meanings have broadened to apply to non-Anglican churches, as well.
The terms have to do with worship procedures, specifically, the use of ritual, liturgy, and accoutrements in worship. Leaders of a High Church congregation place a “high” emphasis on ceremony, vestments, and sacraments. Leaders of a Low Church congregation place a “low” emphasis on such things and follow a freer worship style.
Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Orthodox, most Methodist and Lutheran, and some Presbyterian churches are considered High Church. Their worship services are characterized by liturgical readings and rituals, their clergy wear special clothing, and they follow a calendar of annual religious observances.
Baptist, Independent, Pentecostal, Quaker, Amish, some Methodist and Lutheran, and many Presbyterian churches are considered Low Church. Their worship services are characterized by congregational involvement, a relatively unstructured program, and an evangelical approach.
The distinction between High Church and Low Church did not appear until after the Reformation, of course. Then, the question arose: as the Protestant Church rejected Roman Catholic doctrine, how much Catholic procedure should be retained? Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took opposing views. Luther considered that, as long as a rite was not specifically forbidden in the Bible, it was permissible for the church to practice. Zwingli’s view was that, if a rite was not specifically commanded in the New Testament, then it should not be practiced in the church.
Luther’s position led to what is now known as High Church practice. Zwingli’s view, which led to the Low Church movement, is expressed in the Westminster Confession: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (21.1). In other words, unless a practice is explicitly prescribed in Scripture, then the church should avoid it.
John Wesley, an Anglican, was sometimes accused of being Low Church because of his open-air evangelism and his training of clergy outside of standard church channels. Wesley himself denied such charges, always emphasizing his commitment to the rituals of his church. To this day, the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions are an interesting mixture of High Church liturgy and Low Church evangelicalism.
Low Church members often accuse the High Church of being “too Catholic.” High Church members sometimes look down their noses at the Low Church for being “unsophisticated.” Both sides should guard against spiritual pride (James 4:6). In truth, neither being High Church nor Low Church guarantees the proper worship of God. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).