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Low Church

Low Church

The name given to one of the three parties or doctrinal tendencies that prevail in the Established Church of England and its daughter Churches, the correlatives being High Church and Broad Church. The last of these names is not a century old, but the other two came into use simultaneously at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Their invention was due to the controversies stirred up by William III's endeavour to undo the Act of Uniformity of 1662 and concede to the Dissenters all that they had demanded in the Savoy Conference. Quite a war of pamphlets was carried on at the time in which the terms High Church and Low Church were bandied to and fro. To cite one witness out of many, Bishop Burnet, in his "History of his own Time" (VII, 347), writes: "From these disputes in Convocation divisions ran through the whole body of the clergy, and to fix them new names were found out. They were distinguished by the names of High and Low Church. All that treated the Dissenters with temper and moderation, and were for residing constantly at their cures…were represented as secret favourers of presbytery, and as disaffected to the Church, and were called Low Churchmen. It was said that they were in the Church only while the law and preferments were on its side, but that they were ready to give it up as soon as they saw a proper time for declaring themselves."

Naturally the Low Churchmen resented an appellation with which this suggestion of unworthy motives was associated. Still the term has passed into general usage, nor, if we forget, as the world has forgotten, an implication which is by no means essential to it, can it be denied that it and its correlative indicate fairly well a root-difference which throughout their various stages has characterized the two parties. What is the nature of the visible Church? Is it a society whose organization with its threefold ministry has been preordained by Jesus Christ, and is therefore essential, or is it one in which this organization, though of Apostolic precedent, can be departed from without forfeiture of church status? The High Churchmen have always stood for the former of these alternatives, the Low Churchmen for the latter. Moreover, round these central positions more or less consequential convictions have gathered. The High Churchmen, in theory at least, emphasize the principle of church authority as the final court of doctrinal appeal; whilst the Low Churchmen appeal rather to the Bible, privately interpreted, as the decisive judge. The High Churchmen exalt ecclesiastical tradition as the voice of church authority, regard the Holy Eucharist as in some sense a sacrifice and the sacraments as efficacious channels of grace, and they insist on rites and ceremonies as the appropriate expression of external worship. whilst the Low Churchmen are distrustful of what they call human traditions, regard the Holy Eucharist as a symbolic meal only, hold firmly that the grace of justification and sanctification is imparted to the soul independently of visible channels, and dislike all rites and ceremonies, save those of the simplest kind, as tending to substitute an external formalism for true inward devotion. In short, the one party attaches a higher, the other a lower degree of importance to the visible Church and its ordinances; and this may suffice to justify the retention of the names -- though it must always be borne in mind that they state extremes between which many intermediate grades of thought and feeling have always subsisted in the Anglican Church.

Of the pre-Revolution period, although the two names were not as yet coined, it may be said that Low Church ideas were in the ascendant all through the reign of Elizabeth, but that under James I religious opinion began to grow high, until, mainly through the action of Archbishop Laud, it obtained a firm footing in the national Church; and, the lapse of the Rebellion notwithstanding, retained it throughout the Caroline period, and even through the reigns of William and Anne -- although William filled the episcopal sees with Low Church prelates. With the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty a deep spiritual lethargy settled down on the country. The bishoprics were now openly given as rewards for political service, the lesser benefices were mostly filled by pluralists of good family. The chief solicitude of the clergy was to lead comfortable lives, their highest spiritual effort, if such it could be called, taking the form of sermons on the reasonableness of Christianity directed against the Deists, or vapid laudations of moral virtue. Then, in the forties of the eighteenth century, there broke on this season of torpor an intense revival of religious fervour which stirred the country to its foundations, and gave a new and much improved complexion to the belief and spirit of the Low Church party. Now as before the appelation was resented, the adherents of the transformed party claiming to be called, as their descendants do still, Evangelicals. The name, however, has attached to them, and is applicable in so far as they share the doctrine about the Church which has been described.

The Evangelicals of the eighteenth century insisted that they were not introducing any new doctrines into their Church but only calling on people to take its doctrines to heart and apply them seriously to their lives. Still there were points of doctrine to which they gave a construction of their own, and on which they laid special stress. It is by these that their party is characterized. They insisted on the total depravity of human nature in God's eyes as the consequence of the Fall; on the vicarious sacrifice of Christ as the substitute for fallen man; on the imputed righteousness of Christ as the sole formal cause of justification; on the necessity of a conscious conversion to God which must be preceeded by conviction of sin (not of sins only), and which involves a species of faith whereby the hand is, as it were, stretched out with firm assurance to appropriate the justification offered, the witness of the Spirit whereby the soul is interiorly certified that it is in a state of salvation, and the commencement of a process of interior sanctification wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit. This doctrine, which in its earliest form is traceable to Luther, is in reality due to a false analysis of some fundamental Catholic truths, and it is this intermixture of truth with error which renders intelligible the rich harvest of edifying conversions and holy lives, chequered, however, by not infrequent instances of regrettable extravagances, which marked the beginnings of the new spiritual movement. The foremost name among its leaders was that of John Wesley, who, it must be remembered, if somewhat restive to its discipline, never himself forsook the Anglican communion, though the main body of his followers did shortly after his death.

But side by side with the Wesleys and Whitefield, the Anglican Church of that time had other leaders in whom the same species of spiritual impulse was active, but in whom it was kept freer from emotional excesses and manifested no tendency to stray off into separatism. It is these who must be recognized as the true Fathers of the modern Low Church or Evangelical party. William Romaine may be regarded as their forefunner, but he was soon followed by Henry Venn of Huddersfield, John Newton of Olney, William Cowper, the poet, with their younger colleagues, Thomas Scott, the commentator, Joseph Milner, their historian, and Isaac Milner his brother, also Richard Cecil, their intellectual chief. These were the leaders in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century Bishop Handley Moule, their most distinguished representative at the present day, assigns three periods of Evangelical history. Of these the first lasted till about the middle of the century. He names it the period of Simeon and Wilberforce, after the cleric and the layman whose influence contributed the most of all to its progress and development. At the commencement of this period one remarkable feature was the gathering round Lord Teignmouth, Henry Thornton, and John Venn of the so­called "Clapham Sect". To this little group belonged also Zachary Macaulay, Josiah Pratt, James Stephen, and Sir Fowell Buxton. Though thus few in number, the effect of their intimate association with one another was seen in the important works to which their zeal gave birth. They founded the "Christian Observer" (for three-quarters of a century, the organ of their party), of which Josiah Pratt and Zachary Macaulay were the first editors. They were mainly instrumental in founding the Church Missionary Society in 1799, had much to do with the founding of the Bible Society in 1804, and collaborated actively, to their eternal credit, with Wilberforce and Henry Thornton in their successful crusade against the slave trade.

His second period Bishop Moule names the Shaftesbury period, after the truly venerable nobleman who devoted his life to the protection and elevation of the poorer classes. He was a fervent Evangelical, and as a great layman bore to the party something of the relation which William Wilberforce had borne to it in the earlier part of the century, its members in their turn co­operating with him energetically in his many charitable undertakings. Through his influence with Lord Palmerston he obtained the promotion of several conspicuous Evangelicals to posts of responsibility. Thus Villiers, Baring, Waldegrave, Wigram, and Pelham were promoted to bishoprics, and Close to the deanery of Carlisle. Other names of note during this period were John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Bickersteth, John Charles Ryle, Hugh McNeile, Hugh Stowell. This too was the flourishing period of the May meetings held annually at Exeter Hall, and it was in 1876 that the Keswick conventions, which have since become annual events, were first commenced. His third period, to which he assigns the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Bishop Moule calls the Church Missionary Society period, in view of the immense advances which that pet child of the party had made during recent years. As did Evangelicalism to the old Low Church ideas, so has Tractarianism, which rose up in the middle of the nineteenth century, given a new interpretation to the old High Church views, which since then have been carried in the direction of Catholic doctrine far beyond what the old Caroline divines ever dreamt of. This movement has also struck root in the country, and has so extended itself that of late years people have begun to ask if the Evangelical party is not dying out. There are, indeed, appearances which may seem to point that way, but as an evidence to the contrary the Evangelicals may reasonably point to their Church Missionary Society, which is supported entirely by their contributions. Its annual income of late has fallen little short of £400,000, which is more than double that of the society that comes next to it. Surely it is a fair inference from this impressive fact that Evangelicalism is still a living force of great power; and it must be added that, though this is not by any means its exclusive privilege, it can still as of old point to numberless bright examples of holy living among those who take its teaching to heart.

      Historical. -- The principles of Low-Church-Men fairly represented and defended. By a layman constantly conforming to the Church of England as by law established (London, 1714); Probst, Annals of the Low Church Party down to the death of Archbishop Tait (London, 1888); Overton, The Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century (1886) in Creighton, Epochs of Engllish Church History; Hunt, Religious Thought in England to the end of the last (18th) century (London, 1881); Tulloch, Movements of Religious Thought in England during the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1885); Handley Moule, The Evangelical School in the Church of England. Its men and work in the dNineteenth Century (London, 1901); Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (London, 1849); Stock, History of the Church Missionary Society (London, 1899); Heath, The Waning of Evangelicalism in Contemporary Review, LXXIII (1898); Guiness Rogers, Is Evangelicalism declining?, ibid.
      Doctrinal and Devotional. -- Venn, The Complete Duty of Men (1763, and many subsequent editions); Wilberforce, A Practical View of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity (1797, and many subsequent editions); Goode, Divine Rule of Faith and Practice (London, 1841); Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, on the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (London, 1883, 1892); Moule, Faith, its Nature and Work (London, New York, 1909).

Sydney F. Smith.

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