Why the low church values the sacraments more than the high church
Peter Leithart has an interesting essay asking whether “high liturgy” and a “high sacramentality” always go together. You can read it here. He’s responding to yet another essay that intones about the religious desire of, you guessed it, the millennial generation. In the American Conservative Gracy Olmstead argues that many millennials are experiencing, “a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.” In the end, many of them turn to some form of Christianity they believe to be connected with the ancient church and that evince both a high liturgy and a high view of the sacraments.
Most protestant churches, by contrast, tend to be low church. What does that really mean? After all, an informal liturgy is still a liturgy. And even those churches who are seen as low church may still be formal. As you can see, the distinctions make this an interesting conversation. And does having an low (or informal) liturgy mean that such a church doesn’t take the sacraments seriously?
So, what is the difference between high and low liturgy? Leithart observes that one of the things that differentiates high liturgy from low liturgy is the presence of preparatory rites:
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.
As a Presbyterian I most definitely have a dog in this fight, as does Leithart, who argues:
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.
The important element in this paragraph is the final sentence: “Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments.” Why the connection? For this reason: the sacraments are visible signs that point to the truth of God’s covenant promises.
Further, according to Leithart, high church liturgy also denigrates the creation. When I preside at the Lord’s Supper, I am not facilitating or causing the bread and wine to become something other than it was an hour ago, at least not ontologically. Rather, God is choosing to deliver his grace via the conduit of the bread and wine as bread and wine that enable communion with Christ. Any change in the bread and the wine is a change in purpose rather than in being just as when I was ordained as a Teaching Elder I was not changed ontologically but rather my role among the people of God was altered.
At the end of the day, I have no problem with ex non-denominational Christians choosing to become Anglicans, Catholics, or Orthodox. I do, however, get the sense that occasionally these Christians depart from their tradition to another without truly experiencing the former in its truest or most full sense. After all, in an age that doesn’t value dogma it’s convenient and easily accepted to claim “we do our theology in our liturgy” or “to pray is to do theology.” If I had to choose between dogma and prayer it’s a no-brainer: I’d choose prayer every time. However, in reality these aren’t mutually-exclusive things.
Leithart concludes–and I’d love him to unpack this sentence–“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.”