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High and Low Church Worship

“The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong — come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy  like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  This is the beginning of wisdom.”

–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Perennial, 1977), 59.


  1. Geoff wrote:

    I read this in church once when preaching on Ephesians 4. Then after the sermon an autistic guy named Ralphy plugged in a CD player that he brought to church on the back of his tricycle, he put in a quicenera album and proceeded to sing for a woman who tried to keep her 70th birthday a secret.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    This is a pretty dumb quote, only because her characterization of both “high” and “low” church worship are horribly inaccurate. As someone who has participated in both the highest of high church worship as well as something close to the lowest of low, I think I’m in a position to speak with some authority on the matter. Sounds like someone with an axe to grind.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  3. This line seems as much a caricature as the “liturgy = dead ritualism” line. But I like Dillard, so I’ll admit that there may be something to the “air of professionalism” comment. It seems to me, though, that high church worship faces the same hurdles as theology: in both cases we are being quite bold. And as with theology, so with high church worship: simplicity shouldn’t be confused with humility, as it is often an excuse for sloth.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Kevin D. wrote:

    It’s a great quote. It hardly comes across as “someone with an axe to grind,” but rather as some lighthearted exaggeration for comedic effect, with some pedagogical purpose about the fear of the Lord. This line was brilliant: I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I’m not prepared to adjudicate this issue, but as someone who has also participated in both the highest and the lowest, I think she at least has some inkling of what she’s talking about. And she’s a convert to Roman Catholicism, by the way.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    I agree with Kevin, the line you’ve quoted is actually brilliant, but it runs counter to the sentiments of the rest of the quote. The general problem with descriptions of “high church” and “low church” is that they tend to apply to denominations rather than concrete instances of liturgy. For instance: although most folks associate Catholicism with the concept of “high church,” the simple fact is that the liturgical celebration in a majority of Catholic parishes is hardly worthy of the name liturgy, much less something one would call “high church.” In 1977, if you are talking high church, then you are more than likely referring to an Episcopalian service, which comes with it’s own universe of distinct flavors and idiosyncracies. A proper understanding of the nature of ritual, especially Christian ritual as embodied in the liturgy of the Catholic church properly celebrated, reveals that is precisely this radical and real fear of God (in the best sense) that in fact motivates the entire project. Pickstock is very helpful on this score (skip the first section of the book). On the other hand, most denominations that one might describe as low church tend not to have anything one could even call a liturgy. They have, as the joke goes, a concert and a lecture. In fact, the rapidly growing, popular, modern instantiations of these types of gatherings involve far more sauntering and false professionalism (see youtube videos of Mark Driscoll). It should be noted that the ’70s were in some ways characterized by a profoundly “anti-liturgical” sentiment, which may have some relevance to the context of these remarks.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    Halden, I don’t mean to indict her totally as a person. I’m just pointing out that her comments stem from fairly common (although misguided) sentiments characteristic of the time in which she was writing. They constitute a failure to understand liturgy. That being said, I’m not denying the phenomena she is poorly describing, just pointing out that she is in fact describing it poorly, and ascribing something as intrinsic to a “high church” mode of worship that is in fact antithetical to it. But like I said, a proper “high” liturgy has been some what hard to find in America for some time, and from what I hear, particularly difficult in the ’70s. I question anyone’s capacity to comment on “high church” Roman Catholicism if their general experience falls within the mainstream of American Catholicism of the past 40 years.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    I should add to my last sentence, “question, but not rule out entirely.”

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Well, I agree that they may constitute a failure to understand liturgy, but I doubt that the blame is solely on her lack of understanding. In other words, her “misunderstanding” is almost certainly based on the fact that there is loads of bad liturgy in what could commonly be called “high churches”. We can’t just know that there is some sort of perfect true liturgy out there in the world of ideas, nor does the existence or sporadic instantiation of that idea mitigate criticism of bad liturgy.

    Certainly as you’ve already noted many services that would be considered low church have their own serious liturgical problems, and that is certainly vital. However, speaking as I do from a rather odd context and experience, I can say for certain that experiencing a form of worship that is on the one hand very liturgical (in the sense of ordered participation, central focuse on the preaching of the Word and the the total orientation of the gathered time being the sharing of the Eucharist) and highly decentralized, open to interruption, and often just plain awkward and tedious makes for the sort of gathering that I think is appropriate to the God who apocalyptically breaks into our lives in Jesus and the Spirit. Frankly, that is why I am so utterly uncomfortable most of the time when I am in gathered worship.

    The celebration of the Catholic Mass or the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy are things that I am deeply attracted to precisely because I am able to participate in them anonymously, with the knowledge that their prescribed pattern will, almost always be predictable. In other words, “high church” liturgy makes me very comfortable while gathered worship as I have experienced it for the last 6 years in my congregation makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. This may be more a statement about me than about “high church” liturgy, but I don’t think its entirely about me. While infantile criticisms of “dead liturgy” are certainly stupid, the notion that ordered liturgy is always the chanel through which God moves and that in our liturgical actions we can safely mediate Christ’s body to the congregation is at least a very serious potential problem. Ultimately I think this issue goes beyond high church-low church divisions, but if we don’t think that notions of ex opere operato at least have a dangerous tendency to make our human mediation of God’s presence and grace pretty safe and manageable, I don’t think we’re being honest.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I agree with you Halden, but that’s not really what she was saying. Also, I’m not saying that there aren’t other liturgies that are in fact quite liturgical in their own way. I think it would be a disservice to describe your worship community as “low church” and leave it at that, at least as far as I understand things. From my experience, you either believe in a thing called liturgy, or you don’t, and for the most part that marks out high and low church. I don’t think it has always been this way, but things tend to break down that way now. People are either very conscious of the inherently liturgical character of Christian worship (and very attached to it) or people are deathly afraid of it. I’m not so much referring to the specific content of Catholic, EO, Lutheran, etc. liturgies, but of a general idea about the worship of God. A significant chunk of Christianity suffers from a completely modern (and completely bankrupt) idea that “ritual” is somehow part of a “man-made” religion of superstition from which we have been freed now that we have a personal relationship with Jesus. This is, of course, utterly at odds with both the Bible and the history of the early Church.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    A significant chunk of Christianity suffers from a completely modern (and completely bankrupt) idea that “ritual” is somehow part of a “man-made” religion of superstition from which we have been freed now that we have a personal relationship with Jesus.

    Yes, this is true. I guess for me what is important (and why I found the quote worthy of post, regardless of whether or not I’m really “agreeing” with what she said or not, I’m not sure) is that we walk the precarious line between instiling liturgy with divine legitimacy on the one hand, as if it were in and of itself the word of God rather than our response to God’s word (which of course can become through the Spirit a comandeered instantiation of God’s word) and viewing it as something merely “man-made” as you rightly denigrate. My own thoughts leading into why I found this quote interesting have to do with how we should strive to understand the shape of our worship on the basis of the fact that the presence of God in Christ as portrayed in Scripture is not something that often fits within the bounds of what is established, conventionals, and comfortable to us. It seems to me that God is just as likely to be found shattering our liturgies as within them in Scripture and I think that tension must be preserved.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    Well said. I think that the great liturgies of the Church actually have something of what you describe built in to them, which is their true brilliance. If you haven’t read the second part of Pickstock’s book, it really is worth reading. She explains how the true liturgy is already acutely aware of its own impossibility, if you will, and performs a convincing close reading of the Roman canon to make her point. I think the insights of that book as well as Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy on the apophatic and ultimately mysterious character of God’s descent to meet us in worship are all too often overlooked, especially by self-styled “traditionalists.”

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Should read “…how true liturgy…” There is no “the true liturgy” other than the heavenly liturgy, in which all good liturgy participates.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

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