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ORIGINS OF HIGH CHURCH AND LOW CHURCH ANGLICANISM

Born out of the desire of King Henry VIII to provide for himself a dynastic heir, the

Church of England quickly followed the lead of her sovereign, abandoning its inherited liturgical

tradition in favor of the more liberal sermon-styled worship service encountered on the continent.

But this vacillation away from tradition would not endure for long, at least in one wing of what

would later become the Anglican Communion. The successive reigns of Henry VIII, Edward

VI, Mary, and finally Elizabeth I brought many liturgical reforms to the Church of England. The

implementation of these successive reforms, intended to be a unifying force for the Anglican

Church, served merely to form a dividing-line within the burgeoning church, cleaving the

Anglican Communion into the High Church and the Low Church.1 The reforms and edicts

enacted by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I have had perduring effects on the practice of liturgical

worship within the English Church, and are, in large part, responsible for modern High Church

Anglicanism. On the other hand, the reforms and acts of the Prelatures of Henry VIII, Edward

VI, and Elizabeth I are responsible for what is called today Low Church Anglicanism.

The Reforms of Henry VIII

The English Reformation began not with liturgical reform, but with canonical reform.

The issue at hand initially, in these changes, was the supremacy of the Sovereign of England as

Head of the Church and the autonomy of the Anglican Church from the Church of Rome. In the
1
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1972), 85-88. While the terms ‘High Church’ and ‘Low Church’ have their origins in later centuries, the actual
movements are instantiated in the 16th century with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

1
2

preface to the Henrician Canons, Henry as the king of England and France, defender of the faith

and lord of Ireland, and on earth supreme head under God of the Church of England, addresses

his people saying, “Seeing that you, most excellent citizens of mine and most dear to me, now

audibly and with one common accord acknowledge me to be the one and only prince of this

realm, on earth the sole summit after God of this Church of England, and its supreme head, in so

far as the nature of divine and human right, belongs to me and to my successors…” 2 He

establishes himself as supreme head of the Church of England by modifications to Canon Law.

In these modifications he solemnizes the declaration of separation from the bishop of Rome,

making the charge, “…for many centuries the unjust and intolerable power of the bishop of

Rome was hostile to the most holy name of God, how far it was opposed to the preaching of the

true doctrine of the Christian religion, how frequently it disturbed the peace and tranquility of

this commonwealth, and how, by undermining divinely established royal power, he dared to

transfer from the true and just rule of its prince to himself the due obedience of all citizens,

contrary to all divine and human right.”3

Having established the divine right of the king to be supreme head of the Church in his

own domain, the Henrician Canons then goes on to expound the truths of the catholic faith and to

point out the common heterodoxies.4 With the exception of his renunciation of papal authority

and the assumption of said authority upon himself, Henry gives a fair accounting of the catholic

faith, even renouncing the heterodox views of the Protestant reformers. Yet he makes certain

that the English Church’s separation from the Church of Rome is concretely stated.

2
Church of England Record Society, Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the
Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2000), 5.
3
Ibid., 7.
4
Ibid., 10 from footnote 21-22. It seems that Henry is not willing to account himself among the protestant
reformers, including in the Henrician Canon parts taken from Assertio septem sacramentorum, written by Henry
VIII against Martin Luther in 1521 and sections added to the Roman Code of Canon Law by Pope Pius I
condemning Martin Luther’s position on good works.
3

For example, in Canon 23 of the Henrician Canons, Henry modifies the word Romana to

Anglicana so that the canon now reads: “qui de sacramentis ecclesiae aliter sentire vel docere

praesumant, quam Sacra Scriptura et Ecclesia nostra Anglicana docet et affirmat.”5 Gerald

Bray claims that this exchange of Romana for Anglicana permits for the newly founded Church

of England to establish her own sacramental teachings. While such changes would not take place

during Henry’s lifetime, at least with any permanence, the stage for such changes had definitely

been set. Thus as Ahlstrom writes, “the English Reformation, at any rate, in its earlier stages,

was ‘a parliamentary transaction,’ or an ‘act of state.’”6

By the death of Henry in 1547, the English Church found itself in a unique position.

Within the span of a few short years, nine-hundred years of papal authority had been overthrown

and medieval monasticism torn to the ground. Yet, despite these massive changes and

intermediate vacillations, the doctrine and practice of the Church of England remained, by and

large, unchanged, resembling that of medieval Catholicism.7 However, this preservation of

Catholic practice would not last for long, as the Continental Reformation moved northward into

Britain; Anglicanism’s preservation of a Catholic tradition began to wane, as a thoroughly

Protestant mindset gripped the Anglican Prelature. First appearing at Cambridge, the writings of

Martin Luther stirred to action the young theologian, Thomas Cranmer and others, who would

soon find themselves appointed bishops by the king.8

Having been awarded, in 1521, the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X for his

anti-Lutheran polemic Assertio septem sacramentorum, the king remained, in the early years of

5
Ibid. 10. Divergent teachings on the sacraments did not take place under the reign of Henry, but under
Edward VI, in 1547 with the passing of the Sacrament Act.
6
Ahlstrom, 85.
7
Ibid., 86.
8
Ibid. According to Ahlstrom, it is these same men, headed by Thomas Cranmer, who counseled the king
regarding his marital problems, thus gaining his favor and their later appointment as bishops within the Anglican
Church.
4

the fledging church, opposed to the Protestant position. While many historians, including

Ahlstrom, Elton, and Taylor, claim that the Ten Articles of 1536 expressed strong Reformation

influences, including but not limited to vernacular translations of the Bible and certain liturgical

reforms instantiated by Cranmer,9 their assertions are completely false.10 Later, swayed by

pressure from the Anglican Prelature, Henry signed into law several acts which slowly began to

introduce Protestant practices into the English Church. Cranmer, who had been appointed

Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, strongly advocated for liturgical reforms, but, during Henry’s

reign, was only able to implement successfully an English translation of the Great Litany. 11

Under increased pressure from a political courtship with the German Princes, in 1538, Henry

came very close to signing the Wittenberg Articles, articles which would have aligned the

Anglican Church with the position of Martin Luther and his successive reform. However,

Henry, realizing that his fledgling church was quickly moving in a direction which he did not

approve of, signed into law the Six Articles of 1539 and the King’s Book of 1543. These two

documents preserved “the traditional faith and order of medieval Catholicism” at least until the

end of Henry’s reign in 1547. 12

9
Ibid., Geoffrey Rudolph Elton. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 2: The Reformation, 1520-
1559 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 275-276. Henry Osborn Taylor. Thought and Expression in
the Sixteenth Century (New York: The MacMillan Co, 1920), 87. Each of these historians comments in their
respective works about the Protestant slant of the Ten Articles of 1536, mentioning various effects of the articles,
such as the introduction of a vernacular translation of the Bible and liturgical changes which could not follow from
the content of the document itself. While these things may have taken place concurrently with or shortly after the
signing of the Ten Articles of 1536 into law, there is nothing in the articles themselves which gives authorization for
or mandates such changes.
10
Brewer, J.S. and Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain From the Birth of Jesus Christ Until the
Year M.DC.XLVIII Vol. 3, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1845), 145-159. The Ten Articles of 1536 touch on
two major themes: things necessary to salvation and things helpful towards that end, with five articles in each
section. The first five articles deal with issues of orthodoxy (concerning doctrine), whereas the second five deal
with matter of orthopraxy. While not one of the ten articles is contrary to the catholic faith in its verity, they issue
correctives to aberrations in catholic practice. These articles seem more intended to prevent the spread of Protestant
theology and sacramentology than a turn from catholic orthodoxy regarding the issues addressed.
11
Ahlstrom, 86
12
Ibid., The Act of Six Articles of 1539 is the beginning of a reaction against the infiltration of Protestant
doctrine into the Church of England. This act imposed severe penalties, including death, on those who did not
submit to its articles. The first article expressed the doctrine of transubstantiation. Those denying this were to be
burned at the stake. If the other five articles were transgressed, the penalties were, for the first offense, confiscation
5

The Reforms of Edward VI and His Protectorate

With the death of Henry in 1547, Edward VI, the nine year old son of Henry and Jane

Seymour, ascended to the throne. Henry’s decision to give his son a Protestant education played

a pivotal role in the protestantization of the Anglican Church. Edward was hailed by many to be

a new Josiah, who would cleanse the Temple of its idolatries.13

Because of his young age, Edward was not given direct rule; instead this responsibility

fell upon two successive regents. Edward Seymour, the king’s uncle, was Lord Protector from

1547-1549. Under his protectorate only moderate reforms were permitted. In the later years of

Edward’s reign, the religious radical, John Dudley, served as Lord Protector; he encouraged even

more severe policies, which lead the nation toward an embrace of Reformation practices and

theology. Ahlstrom holds that within these final four years of the reign of Edward VI is

encompassed the greatest turn of the Anglican Church away from Catholic practice and theology

toward a thoroughly Protestant mindset, setting the groundwork for the rise of English

Puritanism.14 Continuing on, Ahlstrom writes, “In the same spirit, action was taken to forbid

many traditional practices and ceremonies and to destroy ‘popish’ vestments, ornamentations,

and church furnishings.”15 The invectives found in the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer of

1552 suppressed sacrificial language, forbade sacerdotal vestments, and moved the Altar from a

position of dignity replacing it with a simple table. With these changes, Cranmer and his

supporters hoped “to dissociate the mind of the worshipper from all thoughts of oblation or

of property, for the second, execution as a felon. The five other articles declared (2) that communion in both kinds
was unnecessary; (3) that priests ought not to marry; (4) that the vows of chastity ought to be observed in both sexes;
(5) that private masses were allowable; (6) that auricular confession was necessary (further expounding upon Art. 3
of the Act of Ten Articles of 1536).
13
Ibid.
14
Ibid., 87.
15
Ibid.
6

sacrifice.”16 In addition to these external changes to the liturgy, the Prayer of Oblation was

displaced — separated from the Act of Consecration, effectively changing the theology and

censuring the oblatory nature of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In the end, the Prayer of

Oblation was completely removed from the liturgy and replaced with the Prayer of

Thanksgiving, The Agnus Dei and Epiclesis were also removed, and all rubrics pertaining to

reverence toward the bread and wine were expunged17. These changes mark a clear departure

from Catholicity and represent the move by Cranmer, Hooper, and their supporters away from

liturgical sacrificial worship — the first inklings of the Puritanical Low Church Movement.18

The Catholic Years

The five year reign of the Catholic Queen Mary had a purgative affect on the Anglican

Church. While Mary sought to disestablish the English Church altogether, she did not have

enduring success. However, during her brief five year reign, she was able to expurgate from

England and from the English Prelature many of the more radically Protestant clerics. In total

about three-hundred Anglican clerics were burned at the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer

and his followers. As Sydney Ahlstrom writes, “she felt compelled to reverse insofar as possible

the national apostasy which had begun with the illegal and unholy divorce of her parents.”19

The ease with which Mary was able to persuade Parliament to repeal nearly all church

legislation, Ahlstrom says, is an indicator of the superficiality of the changes — that they had not

been embraced by the masses.20 Within one month the Parliament passed a vote of repentance

16
Herbert Mortimer Luckock, Studies in the History of the Book of Common Prayer: the Anglican Reform,
the Puritan Innovations, the Elizabethan Reaction, the Caroline Settlement: with Appendices (London: T.
Whittaker), 1882, 101.
17
Ibid., 102-103. All of these changes, but specifically the removal of the Epiclesis, which reads, “And
with Thy Holy Spirit and word vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these Thy gift and creatures of Bread and Wine, that
they may be unto us the Body and Blood of Thy most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ.” are meant to de-emphasis
and nullify the Catholic doctrine of the True Presence.
18
Ibid., 102.
19
Ibid., 88.
20
bid. 87-88.
7

for it schism with Rome and England again entered into union with the Roman Church. From

this point forward, until Mary’s death “no language of prayer and praise but that which spoke in

the Breviary and Missal were ever heard in the Churches.”21 The almost simultaneous deaths of

Queen Mary and Archbishop Reginald Cardinal Pole and the expurgation of radical

Protestantism from the Anglican Church set the stage for Elizabeth’s coming reforms.22

The Reforms of Elizabeth I

Less concerned with matters of ecclesiology and theology than with her desire to rule,

Elizabeth I sought to take the middle road when it came to matters of the Church. Her

decisions, in the beginning of her reign, were designed to give “unqualified satisfaction” to no

one group, High Church or Low Church, Anglican, Catholic, or Protestant. She knew that her

people would allow her to rule and to live, if she permitted them to live with as little interference

as possible. As William Haller points out, “[S]he made herself safe.”23 She required only that

her subjects willingly swear allegiance to her as the governor of the Church of England.

Taking the throne in November 1558, Elizabeth found herself coming to power in a time

ripe for liturgical reform. However she also came to power in a time of great political turmoil.

So in the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth proceeded with small changes made only at Chapel

Royal, making it seem as though she merely intended liturgical reforms like those decreed by her

father in the last years of his reign.24 Initially, Elizabeth’s changes to the liturgy were minor,

such as the substitution of Cranmer’s English Litany for the Latin forms, which were used during

the Marian reaction. These changes which Elizabeth originally intended for use only at Chapel

21
Luckock, 113.
22
Ahlstrom. 88.
23
William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism: Or, The Way to the New Jerusalem as Set Forth in Pulpit and
Press from Thomas Cartwright to John Lilburne and John Milton, 1570-1643 (New York City: Columbia University
Press), 1957, 6-7.
24
Peter le Huray, Music and the Reformation in .England, 1549-1660 (New York: Cambridge University
Press), 1978, 31.
8

Royal, within a month were promulgated for use throughout the English Church. However, apart

from these slight modifications, the liturgy remained as it had been during the Marian reaction,

including the coronation service at Westminster Abbey in January 1559.

Elizabeth’s moderate position did not mean that she was inactive in the governance of the

Church of England. In 1559, the year after her accession to the throne, Elizabeth appointed

Matthew Parker to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. By appointing Parker, who had been

ordained a priest before the split with Rome, she recognized the need for the clergy of the

Anglican Church to have some participation in the Apostolic Succession. 25 Such an appointment

was “safe”. Unlike the coming liturgical reforms, it did not affect the parishioners in outlying

regions; therefore, it was politically moot. Peter le Huray claims that Elizabeth’s initial

reluctance to the implementation of further liturgical reforms was due to events abroad, namely

the dispute between France and Spain over possession of Italy, “which made a radical home

policy highly inadvisable.”26

With the signing of the peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, Elizabeth’s role in the governance of

the Church of England took on a more active dimension. In the same year, Parliament passed the

Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity — together called the Elizabethan Settlement. The

first act named Elizabeth as the “supreme governor” of the Church of England, mandating the

subscription of the clergy to an oath of allegiance; the second act reinstated a heavily revised

version of the Second Edwardian Prayer Book of 1552, within which is contained the first major

set of Elizabethan reforms.27

The promulgation of the Act of Uniformity saw the return of prayer book liturgy, namely

the 1552 Prayer Book of Edward VI. In most regards the Elizabethan Prayer Book was identical

25
Ahlstrom, 89
26
le Huray, 31.
27
Ibid.
9

to Edward’s; however, minor modifications were made, specifically changes to the rubrics of

ornamentation. The changes to the ornamentation rubric did away with the austerity of worship

found during the reign of Edward and embraced practices which were “unquestionably more

‘popish’”, pulling heavily from the practices of 1549.28 The longest of these modifications is an

article regarding music, which preserves the “sacred science” of music over the mere use of

congregational singing pushed by the Puritan influence. The rubric reads:

Item, because in divers collegiate, and also some parish Churches heretofore there
have been livings appointed for the maintenance of men and children, to use
singing in the church, by means whereof, the laudable science of music has been
had in estimation and preserved in knowledge: the Queen’s Majesty, neither
meaning in any wise the decay of anything that might conveniently tend to the use
and continuance of the said science, neither to have the same in any part so
abused in the church, that thereby the common prayer should be the worse
understood of the hearers, willeth and commandeth, that first no alteration be
made of such assignments of living, as heretofore have been appointed to the use
of singing or music in the Church, but that the same so remain. And that there be
a modest distinct song, so used in all parts of the common prayers of the Church,
that the same may be as plainly understood, as if it were read without singing, and
yet nevertheless, for the comforting of such that delight in music, it may be
permitted that in the beginning, or in the end of common prayers, either at
morning or evening, there may be sung an Hymn, or such like song, to the praise
of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently
devised, having respect that the sentence of the Hymn may be understood and
perceived.29

It is evidenced by this rubric on music that this first set of liturgical reforms “allow considerable

freedom of practice and belief within the broad framework of the 1559 Injunctions.”30 The

liberality of the 1559 Injunctions preserved the “pomp and ceremonial” common to Catholic

worship, an aspect which Elizabeth loved, while eliminating many of the doctrines which she

disbelieved.

28
Ibid., 32. These practices are rubrics of the First Edwardian Prayer Book of 1549 published before the
protectorate of John Dudley.
29
Edward Cardwell, Annals of the Reformed Church of England: Being a Collection of Injunctions,
Declarations, Orders, Articles of Inquiry, &c. from the Year 1546 to the Year 1716, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press), 1844, 228-229.
30
Ibid., 33.
10

Although an alliance with the Puritans would have made her theological goals simple to

achieve, Elizabeth instinctively rebelled “against the unattractive nakedness of Puritanical

worship.”31 While doctrinally and theologically Elizabeth was at odds with many points of the

Catholic position, at the beginning of her reign she was in practice “distinctly Catholic in the true

and proper sense of the term,” imparting to the revised liturgy her Catholicity.32 Her Catholicity

is most clearly seen in the Vestiarian Controversy in which the Queen reinstated the use of

vestments by the clergy during the celebration of the liturgy and of the Sacraments. Elizabeth I

indeed held firm to the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, having, once

when questioned on her position by a cleric on the matter, answered:

Twas God the Word that spake it,


He took the Bread and brake it,
And what the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.33

It is because of Elizabeth’s belief in the Real Presence that she sees a need for reverence and

devotion in the liturgy of the Church. For her, such reverence and devotion were made manifest

in the splendor and pomp given to the celebration of the liturgy through the use of

ornamentation, vestmentation of clerics, and a return to the symbolism lost through the

iconoclasm of the Puritans.

In the later years of the reign of Elizabeth I, the zeal of the Puritans won out over the

Queens Catholicity, at least theologically, with the Church of England finally embracing a

thoroughly Protestant theology.34 Despite early groundwork by the Queen to preserve a more

Catholic theology, political pressure forced compromises with Puritan leaders in order to garner

their support.
31
Luckock, 116.
32
Ibid., 117
33
Thomas Fuller and James Nichols, The Holy State, and the Profane State (London: James Nichols),
1841, 295.
34
Ahlstrom, 90
11

But much of her work was not in vain. Due to her diligence and sometime stubborn

attitude regarding the ornamentation of the liturgy, the Reformed English Church inherited a

high sense of liturgy, which survives even today in the High Church Movement. Together with

reforms enacted in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign, the reforms of Elizabeth I served to

preserve the beauty of early Anglican worship — a worship which found its origins in a previous

age — a Catholic England. An England whom the prelates of Henry VII, Edward VI, and

Elizabeth I despised as the recusant product of an errant and wayward Christendom in need of

reform. Their ideas of reform were destructive to the beauty so cherished by both Henry and

Elizabeth. In the end, contentions were allayed through the adoption of a worship which in

belief was Protestant and in practice Catholic. This compromised worship, over the course of

several centuries, has developed into the two major camps of the modern Anglican Church, the

Low Church Movement which has abandoned all liturgical practice and the High Church

Movement which has maintained the high vision of liturgical worship, so loved by Henry VIII

and Elizabeth I both.


12

Bibliography

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1975.

Brewer, J.S., M.A. and Thomas Fuller, D.D. The Church History of Britain; from the Birth of
Jesus Christ Until the Year M.DC.XLVIII. Vol 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1845.

Cardwell, Edward. Annals of the Reformed Church of England: Being a Collection of


Injunctions, Declarations, Orders, Articles of Inquiry, &c. from the Year 1546 to the
Year 1716. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1844.

Church of England Record Society. Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and
the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2000.

Elton, Geoffrey R. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 2: The Reformation, 1520-1559.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fuller, Thomas, and James Nichols, The Holy State, and the Profane State. London: James Nichols,
1841.

Haller, William. The Rise of Puritanism: Or, The Way to the New Jerusalem as Set Forth in
13

Pulpit and Press from Thomas Cartwright to John Lilburne and John Milton, 1570-1643.
New York City: Columbia University Press, 1957.

le Huray, Peter. Music and the Reformation in .England, 1549-1660. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1978.

Luckock, Herbert Mortimer. Studies in the History of the Book of Common Prayer: the
Anglican
Reform, the Puritan Innovations, the Elizabethan Reaction, the Caroline Settlement: with
Appendices. London: T. Whittaker, 1882.

Taylor, Henry Osborn. Thought and Expression in the Sixteenth Century. New York:
The MacMillan Company, 1920.