Project Canterbury

A Letter to a Friend Concerning the New Distinction of High and Low Church.

London: Printed by J. H. and are to be sold by John Nutt near Stationers Hall. 1704. 27 pp

Dear Sir,

Our late Conversation, which after so long an Absence was very Delightful and Entertaining, had yet some Melancholy Mixtures in it. We did not trouble our selves with State-Politicks, any farther than as the Church might be concern’d in them, but the present state of the Church of England did give us very sad apprehensions, and I pray God we may be mistaken in those fatal Symptoms, which seem’d to us to threaten its final Ruine. Some Men express such a flaming Zeal for the Church, as, if not timely prevented, will set it on Fire; and others run into the contrary Extreme, and think to quench these Flames by giving up the Church, and Sacrificing its Order and Constitution to Peace and Moderation. And which of these is most like to ruine the Church, is hard to say; but it is too Visible, what Danger the Church is in between them, I hope the Number of these Men on either side is not very great, though they make a very great noise: But the Generality of those, who are hearty Friends of the Church, will govern their Zeal by the Rules of Prudence and Charity; and the Friends of Peace and Moderation will yet in all their Concessions take care to secure the Constitution. So that they are agreed in the main Point, though in some particular Cases they may differ about the means of compassing that end, which they both aim at. And yet we could think of nothing but this, which has occasion’d that foolish and pernicious distinction of High and Low Church, which you and I could not understand the Meaning of; nor could I ever meet with any Man, who could give a reasonable Account of it.

We try’d to guess at it by considering who those are, whom some Men have been pleased to fix those different Characters of High and Low-Church upon. And this appear’d Comical enough among the Low-Church-Men, to spare Names, we found several of known abilities, try’d Courage and Constancy, and steady Church-Principles, who never betray’d the Church yet; but, both from the Pulpit and the Press, have defended its Government, Worship, and Discipline, against all Opposers, whether Papists or Fanaticks, and could never yet be charged with changing their Principles. Among the High-Church also, we found many Persons of Great Learning, and of great Prudence and Charity too, however some mistakes about Men and Things may at present have turn’d them off from their Byass, and given a greater Edge and Sharpness to their Zeal.

But there was one thing we observ’d, which did entertain us, and convinc’d us, how these Characters are given at all adventures. You and I have known each other as long and as intimately as any other two have known one another; our Principles were always the same, and are so still. But it seems, we are divided now into High and Low-Church; for so the contending parties will have it. Well, let them make the best they can of us; we will agree still to defend the Constitution of the Church of England, however endanger’d either by High or Low-Church. And for that reason I have drawn up this Paper to enquire what those Principles are, which may prove destructive to the Church of England. For if any such Principles should happen to be entertain’d by any in our Communion, whatever their Character be, there ought to be a watchful Eye over them, that they may do no hurt. I do not intend to dispute this Matter at large, but to give a plain State of the Case, and to represent it in one view; which I hope may tend to cure our present Distempers, and to discover who and who are on a side, what those things are we should Zealously contend for, and what Matters are capable, if our Governours in Church and State think fit, of some charitable Compliances.

The first thing that offered itself to our consideration, as of Dangerous Consequence to the very being of a Church, was those loose Notions some Men have entertain’d of a Church and Church-Communion. There are too many which pass for great Divines, who know no more of a Church, than that those who profess the same Faith, ought to Worship God and their Common Saviour in Publick Assemblies; and for this end it’s necessary, that there should be Publick Ministers of Religion, to offer up Publick Prayers, and to instruct the Congregation, and to Administer the Sacraments, but as for Church-Communion, that is at their own Choice; and if they don’t like their Preacher, or their Company, or their Rites of Worship, they may leave them at pleasure, and chuse more agreeable Company; and do this as often as their Humour Changes. Now can Men of these Principles be concern’d for the Constitution of any Church, when they can dissolve and make a Church at Pleasure? For it is plain, that this is no Church, but a mere Voluntary Society of Christians. It leaves no Authority of Government in the Church, but what is absolutely precarious, and may be defeated by every capricious and wanton Humour. It destroys the very Notion of Schism, which was always thought so damning a Sin in the Primitive Church: For, according to these Principles, every Society of Christians may disband at Pleasure, and then, to leave the Communion of any Society of Christians can be no Schism, if they Unite themselves to any other. It makes the dreadful sentence of Excommunication a mere Jest. For what does it signifie to cast a Man out of the Communion of any Church, which he may leave when he will, without any hurt or danger to his Soul? And what becomes then of the power of the Keys, to receive in, and to shut out of the Church, which yet our Saviour calls the Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Assures his Apostles, that what they bind on Earth, shall be bound in heaven, and what they loose on Earth, shall be loosed in Heaven; which certainly is the most Sacred and Venerable Authority which can be given to Man? What becomes of the Holy Catholic-Church, and the one Communion of Saints? Nay, what becomes of the one Body of Christ, which is his Church, our Union to and Communion with, which entitles us to all the Blessings of the Gospel Covenant, which is made in Christ, and the Blessings of which are promis’d only to his Body the Church?

Those who will not allow that Christ has united all his Disciples in one Body, which is his Church, and that every Christian, as a Member of this one Body of Christ, is bound to maintain Catholick-Communion with the whole Catholic Church, and in consequence of this, (for there is no other way of doing it) is bound to joyn in Communion with that part of the Catholick-Church, where he lives, if it be a sound and Orthodox part of it, and to submit to the Instructions and Government of those Ministers, whom Christ has invested with his own Authority; can never find any other Foundation for a Church, nor any other Necessary Obligation to Church-Communion, and Submission to Church-Authority.

Such loose Principles as these are at the bottom of Occasional Conformity; and I know no other Principles, that can justify it. For if there be but one Church and one Communion, and two separate and opposite Communions are not one; if Church-Communion be to Communicate as Members of a Church, and we cannot be Members of two opposite Churches; then such Occasional Conformity on one side or the other is a Schism, and nothing can Excuse it from Schism, but to reject the Notion of one Church and of one Church-Communion, as last Discoursed more at large in one of the London Cases about Church Communion.

I will not meddle with the late Bill about Occasional Conformity, nor censure the Conduct of my Superiors in that Matter. What Politick Reasons there might be to reject a Bill, which had so fair an Aspect both on Church and State, I cannot tell; but I am sure there were no Ecclesiastical Reasons for it. And I am abundantly satisfied, that many of those Reverend Prelates who Voted against that Bill, did at the same time condemn Occasional Conformity, as a causeless Schism; and there is no Reason to suspect otherwise of the greatest Number of them. If there were any, that rejected the Bill upon such Principles, as must justify Occasional Conformity, they must Answer for themselves, for I cannot Answer for them, though I must confess, it would have been Matter of great Scruple to me, to have given any Vote, which might have had the least appearance of jutstifying such a Schism, and of Sacrificing the Fundamental Principles of Unity and Church Communion to a Secular Interest. Nay, it is Matter of Scruple to me, to admit none Schismaticks to the Lords Table, without renouncing their Schism, which I am sure St. Cyprian and the Primitive Bishops would not have done. And would the Parliament require every Person, who receives the Sacrament for a Qualification, to receive at his own Parish-Church, and indemnify the Minister for refusing the Sacrament to known Schismaticks, as well as to other Scandalous Persons, and the Bishops Censure such Parish priests, as should Administer to such persons, there would be less need for such an Act against Occasional Conformity. I believe our Rubrick, which is the Law of the Land, would justifie such a Refusal; but few Men will venture it in such a Cause without a more express Authority, and, tho’ they would, yet, if such Persons have Liberty to receive where they please, they may receive where they are not known, or find out some Curates, who may be as very Occasionalists, as themselves.

These Men can’t properly be said to be of any Church, either High or Low; for they have no Notion of a Church or of Church-Communion. But there are others, who own the Church of England, and live in Communion with her, but yet have entertain’d such loose Principles, as, if Opportunity serves, will endanger the Constitution of our Church.

Thus some, who submit to an Episcopal Government, and not only own the Lawfulness of it, but prefer it before a Presbyterian Party, as better fitted to preserve the Unity and Good Government of the Church; will yet by no means allow the Order of Bishops to be Essential to the Constitution of the Christian Church, but think that those, whom we now call Bishops and Presbyters, were invested Originally with the same power, though the exercise of it as to particular Persons, was and might be restrained for the better Government of the Church: And thus the chief Government of the Church was by general consent intrusted to Bishops, and Presbyters made Subject to their Authority.

This is such an Original of the Episcopal Authority, as the Christian Church for many Ages know nothing of. I am very sensible what it was that inclin’d some of our English Reformers, tho’ they retain’d the Episcopal Government and Authority themselves, to think favourably of a Presbyterian party; viz. that tender regard they had, to the reformed Churches abroad, who had no Bishops. And they were very unwilling, as they ought to be, to Unchurch all other Protestant Churches. Some justified this upon the Case of Necessity, because they could have no Bishops, and as far as this is true, it will certainly excuse a great many irregularities, as long as that Necessity lasts. But I am sure, this will not excuse their opposing the Order and Superior Authority of Bishops, which from the Apostolick Age had been always so sacred in the Church. And if they thought fit to dispute away the Authority of Bishops, to justifie their Presbyterian party, I know no Reason we have to give up the Order of Bishops in complement to them.

But it is not my Business at Present to Dispute this Matter, which is so tender a point, but only to observe, that men of these Principles can never be true and constant Friends to the Constitution of an Episcopal Church. For what hold can the Constitution have of them, who think it pretty indifferent, whether the Church be govern’d by Bishops or by a College of Presbyters? The supposition of which, I must own, is a great Riddle to me. For if the Government of the Church was instituted by Christ and his Apostles in an Imparity of Order, the Church has no power that I know of, to alter such an Institution; If the Government of the Church was instituted in a Presbyterian party, that there is no compounding of this Matter, but one of t’other Violates the Original Institution of Church Authority. And what effects this may have upon all Publick Administrations, upon the Sacraments and Discipline, I will not say.

When Men are got thus far, it is no great Wonder, if by gentle Steps, they give up the Episcopal Authority, and retain little of it besides the Name and the Revenues; which brings to my Mind a notable Expedient to reconcile our Presbyterian Dissenters to Re-ordination by Bishops. One great Onstacle to a Comprehension is their Orders; they have been Ordain’d by Presbyters, and that in a Schism, and assert the Validity of their Orders, and think it as unlawful to be ordain’d as to be baptiz’d a second time. And yet, without over-turning the whole Constitution of the Church of England, they can never be received into the Ministry of our Church without Episcopal Orders. This was a difficulty indeed, and the remedy as surprizing, viz. that these Schismastical Presbyters should be conditionally re-ordain’d by Bishops, in such a form, as is us’d in the Baptism of Foundlings, when it is not known, whether they have been already baptiz’d, or not: If thou be not baptiz’d, I baptize thee; for the Bishops should ordain them, If thou be not ordain’d, I ordain thee: And thus they should have receiv’d Episcopal Orders, without renouncing their Presbyterian Orders, or believeing and owning themselves to be re-ordain’d. A notable Contrivance, to admit Schismaticks into the Church without renouncing their Schism, and to give up the Episcopal Authority of Orders at once! For the Case of conditional Baptism is quite different from this conditional Ordination; the first only signifies our doubt of Matter of Fact, this is a doubt of Right. We know, they have been ordain’d by Presbyters, and therefore, If thou art not Ordain’d is a question of the Validity of their Orders; which implies, that we know not, but that the Ordination of Presbyters, though in a Schism, may be good and valid. And if this be once granted, and granted by the Bishops themselves in their form of Re-ordination, there is an end of Episcopal Authority in one of the Principal Branches of it. I believe the Presbyterians would not have submitted to this, because they will not allow any doubt to be made of the Validity of their Orders; and I hope, whoever made this proposal, did not consider, what a mischievous Train of Consequences it carried with it.

The High-Church-party in the Lower-House of Convocation, as they affect to be call’d, are charg’d home in the New Danger of Presbyter from the claims of some of the Lower-House of Convocation, with invading the Rights and Authority of Bishops and Metropolitans, and challenging such independent Rights of their own, as can never be reconcil’d with the distinction of Order between Bishops and Presbyters, nor with the Ancient Government and Discipline of the Christian Church. A severe charge on any Church-Man, whether High or Low; and yet they bear it patiently without answering one Word to it; and I’ll assure you, I can’t Answer it for them. And yet, methinks, this is an odd Character of High-Church-Men, to ride upon the Backs and Heads of Bishops, and to trample Mitres under their Feet.

In pursuit of this design, these very Men have at last espous’d the Erastian Principles, and submitted all Ecclesiastical Authority to the Will of the secular Power. They make Bishops and Arch-Bishops no better than the Queens Ministers in Ecclesiastical Affairs, and justify this by the Acts of Submission and Supremacy. They form an Ecclesiastical Synod according to the Model of an English Parliament; affect the Title of the Ecclesiastical Commons, and affect their Language of Adjournments and Prorogations, and in many cases challenge the same Privileges with them; and, for want of other Arguments, prove their new and unknown Rights from the Rights and Privileges of the House of Commons, which they think run Parallel with each other. And there’s an end of any pure Ecclesiastical Authority. When a Church is incorporated into the State, the Exercise of Church Authority, as far as it may affect the State, must be under the Regulation of the Civil Power, but to swallow up all Church Authority in the State, leaves no Notion of a Church either High or Low.

Another Trial of High and Low Church must be referr’d to the Doctrine and Worship of the Church of England. The Establish’d Doctrine of our Church is contain’d in the Thirty Nine Articles and in the homilies, which are subscrib’d by all, who enter into Holy Orders. But how this will distinguish High and Low-Church-men, who all subscribe them, and them honestly, is hard to say. There have indeed been very hot Disputes about the true Interpretation of some of our Articles; and many of our Dissenters, who Embrace the Doctrine of Calvin in the five Points, have upon that Account challeng’d the true Character of true Church of England Men, as taking it for granted that this is the true meaning of those Articles, which relate to the five Points; which is like their reasoning in other Matters. For, supposing this were True, it would no more make them Church of England Men, than Calvin himself, while they reject all those Articles, which concern the Government, Discipline and Authority, that is, the whole constitution of our Church. And, on the other hand, those, who heartily agree in the Constitution are very good Church-Men, though they may differ about the Sense of the Church in some disputed Articles.

Suppose the Doctrine of the Church of England in the five Points to be either Remonstrant or Anti remonstrant; which side soever you chuse, if you make this the distinguishing mark of a Church of England Man, you must lose near half the Church, and not know which is the true half neither; for the Contending Parties must Unchurch each other, and on both sides Men of known Zeal for the Government and Constitution of the Church of England must be rejected as no Sons of the Church.

I know very well, that both Parties have taken great Pains to make the Articles of our Church speak their Sense, but I have always thought they were both in the wrong. Our Reformers carefully avoided determining those Disputes, which they easily foresaw, would make them Parties in the Quarrel, but could not put an end to it. They have determined, what they thought necessary for all Christians to know, and what all parties may, and, in some Sense do agree in. But was for those Philosophical Disputes, which are grafted upon those Articles, they say nothing of them; and, if Men will Dispute such Matters, they ought not to draw the Church into the Quarrel; what she hath expressly determin’d, we must own for the Doctrine of the Church, but as to other Matters, which Opinion soever be truest, it is not the Doctrine of the Church. Nor is this to pen the Article in such a Latitude, that every Man may expound it to his own Sense; which is double dealing, and can serve no good end in Religion: but it is to restore the Article to its Natural simplicity, and to strip it of all useless and dangerous speculations. Every man may satisfy himself in this, who will but consider how many Questions there are, and those very warmly disputed, about Original Sin, Praedestination, Election and Reprobation, Liberty of Will, the Efficacy of Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints, which the Articles of our Church make no mention of, unless we can think, that the very Names of Original Sin, Praedestination, &c. determine all the Controversies between the Calvinists and Arminians in those Points. And since our Reformers have thought fit to fling these Questions out of the Church, I know not why we should bring them in again, and make them the distinguishing marks of Church-Men.

Let us then consider the Worship of the Church of England; and here the Scene begins to open, and we may find some appearance of this distinction between the High and Low-Church. It is the character of a High-Church-Man, never to admit of the least alteration of the Establish’t Worship upon any pretence whatsoever; and those are thought very Low-Church-Men, who think it reasonable to consent to any Alterations, though they were not for the better. Now as to Alterations, I am no great Friend to them in our present Posture of Affairs, because I doubt whether we should alter for the better; for I am afraid, there are some Men, who, had they power to alter, would so transform our Church, that we should not easily know it again. And, besides this, a long establish’d form of Worship grows so sacred, that any considerable Alterations would give great Scandal and Offence to the People of our Communion; especially if such Alterations were made merely to humour our Dissenters, it would be thought to justify their Schism and Separation, and to condemn the Church; which might occasion a New Schism, whereby the Church would lose more Old Members, than she would get New ones. And therefore no Alterations, which would visibly alter the form of our Worship, must ever be thought of. But yet I can see no reason, were there an Encouraging juncture for it, against such Alterations, which do not change, but only compleat and perfect our Service. For though our Liturgy be an excellent form of Worship, I can’t say, that it is so perfect, that it can’t be better. For my part, I should think our Service better, if it were shorter, that our Devotion might outlast our Service, and not our Service, as it too often happens, outlast our Devotion. Several Expressions might be more correct, and several Collects alter’d for the better; but I think, all will grant, that the Office for the Visitation of the Sick is an imperfect one, and might be supply’d to the great comfort of dying Persons; and that the Office of Burial ought to be reform’d, or the Discipline of the Church more duly exercis’d. For to use that form in the Burial of Notorious wicked Livers, gives great Scandal to good Men, and too great Encouragement to the Wicked, whatever caution can be used, or whatever excuses can be made for it. If such Alterations as these could be safely attempted, I would venture the Character of a Low-Church-Man, to contribute my best assistance to it.

As for the Ceremonies of our Church, which are but few and decent, as indifferent and inconsiderable, as some Men think them, I have more scruple about parting with them, and I will give you my reasons for it. This gives up the Authority of the Church in the Externals of Worship, to secure the Gravity and Decency of it, which is a great Point lost. For whatever lessens the just Authority of the Church, breaks down her Hedges, and exposes her to the Mercy of Schismaticks and Enthusiasts: It nurses People up in Superstition, which ought to be cur’d, not indulg’d. For there is a Negative as well as a Positive Superstition, when Men place Religion in not doing what they may lawfully do, and what, all things consider’d, may be their Duty to do, as well as in overvaluing, what is of little worth. Though particular Ceremonies may have no great intrinsick value, yet the external Decency of Worship has; for external Worship consists in external visible Signs of Honour; and yet it is impossible to establish any external Rules of Decency in Habit, Posture, Time, and Place, which are the great circumstances of Action, but what shall be liable, if Men please, to the same or the like Objections, which they make now against our present Ceremonies. And if the Ancient Practice of the Catholick Church can stamp any Authority upon Rites and Ceremonies, I am sure, the Ceremonies of the Church of England have a great Authority, and ought to be retain'd, to keep up the Venerable Appearance of the Ancient and Primitive Church. And as for kneeling at the Sacrament, which some think little better than Idolatry, I could less part with that, than with all the rest. For if ever the humblest posture of Devotion becomes us, it is, when we approach the Table of our Lord, to feed with Praise and Thanksgiving on the Sacramental Symbols of his Body and Blood.

As for the Project of Comprehension, I should be heartily glad, as all good Men must be, to see all the divided Sects of Christians united in one Communion without destroying the Constitution of the Church of England. But this is so demonstrably impossible to be done, that I am afraid, if there be any, who seriously pursue such a project, theyw ould give up the Church to the Dissenters, and, instead of bringing the Dissenters into the Church, would carry the Church into a Conventicle.

Thus far I have consider'd the true Church Principles, by which we may guess who are the High and the Low-Church, and I hope it will appear that the Distinction is not so great, as the Noise is. I shall not now enquire into their Practices, though the Constant and Regular Exercise of Devotion according to the Rules and Directions of the Church shews a Church-Man much better, than a mere empty Profession. But this is a tender Point; and were this the Test, I fear High and Low-Church in Numerous instances must change their Names, unless a Conscientious Attendance on the Service of the Church, observing the Hours of Prayer and all other Seasons of Devotion, makes a Low-Church-Man, and only talking big for the Church makes a High-Church-Man.

But to put an end to their Trouble, I shall only Observe farther, that some very discerning Men suspect a Snake in the Grass, and that all this Noise about High and Low-Church, whatever was the Original of it, is now improv'd into a mere State Faction, and signifies no more than Whig and Tory; and the true Interpretation of those Terms now, is Hanover and St. Germains. God deliver us! if this be High Church to defeat the best Security we have both for our Church and State in settling the Succession of the Crown in the Protestant Line, and to set a Papist upon the Throne, I am sure both you and I are very Low-Church-Men, and I hope, shall always be so. We have learn't by Experience, what we may expect from Popish Princes; and, till I am weary of my Religion and Liberty, I shall never wish for such another Trial. But I hope, among these High-Church-Men there are not many of this mind. But be that as it will, I no more fear they should be able to Convert the Nation to a Popish Prince, than to Popery and Arbitrary Power. How God may be provok'd to deliver us up into the Hands of our Enemies I cannot tell; we have reason to fear it, because we deserve it. But the cunningest Politicians, with all their Malecontents, cannot oppose the genius of a Nation; the General Sense and Inclination of the People, in which all Parties Unite, will bear them down; and this I take at present to be on our side, which I hope will disappoint all such Attempts.

The greatest danger I apprehend from this at present to the Church of England, is this, that many wise and good Men and hearty Friends to the Church are so frighted with the apprehensions of a Popish Successor, as to take no notice of the great Danger from another Quarter, much less to take care to prevent it. I have reason to say this, because I certainly know, that such fears lost the Bill of Occasional Conformity; as if Popery must come in, if Fanaticks were remov'd from all places of Trust. Nay, the very same Jealousies by a strange train of Consequences had like to have lost the Act concerning First-Fruits and Tenths. The truth is, the designing States-Men on both sides play the High and Low-Church against each other, which threatens the ruin of both, and is of more dangerous consequence, than the Arts of some late Reigns in exasperating the Church and Dissenters against each other, and then giving them opportunity by turns to take their Revenge. But now both Parties pretend to the safety and happiness of the Church, and both oppose it. Whatever one proposes, thought it have a flattering appearance, and promises great present advantage to the Church, it is suspected of some ill designs by the other. The High-Church are told, of what dangerous consequence the Hanover Succession will be, who are more likely to encourage Dissenters than the Church, as being nearer related to them in Principles. The Low-Church are frighted with secret Cabals and deep laid designs to restore the P. of W. and what the danger of that is, both to Church and State, is notoriously known. But, whatever the Danger of either of them be, I think the most apparent danger is from our present Divisions, and mutual Jealousies and Emulations. For my part, I know not but that there may be some danger to the Church from either side; but the Danger, and the certainty of that Danger, is not equal on both sides. It may be doubtful, how the Church may fare on one side, but it is certain, what will become of it on the other. And Judge which of these is to be chosen. But are such remote Dangers, which may never happen, at least which we know not when, nor by what means they will happen, any good Reason to neglect our present Security and Defence, and to expose our selves naked to present Dangers? I heartily wish, Church Men on all sides would have less to do with Politicians, who express so little regard for Religion it self, that there is little reason to think them much concern'd for any Church. And then instead of Governing themselves by the uncertain Measures and guesses of Politicks, they will strengthen each others Hands by united Hearts and Councils, make the best Advantages they can of their present Circumstances, and take all possible Advantages for the Service of the Church, from what Quarter soever they come. Our hearty Prayers to God, and a close and firm Union among our selves, is the greatest strength, and will be the best security to our Church, whatever happens. And when we conscientiously discharge our present Duty, we may safely rely upon the Protection of God, without disturbing our selves with unknown Events.

I am, Sir,

Your Faithful Friend

and Servant.

Project Canterbury