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This article provides an overview of Churchmanship and the fluctuations over time of the meaning of the terms used. For detailed information see anglo-catholic, broad church, evangelical, high church, latitudinarian, liberal christianity, low church.

The word Churchmanship was derived from the older noun Churchman which originally meant an ecclesiastic or clergyman but sometime before 1677 was extended to people who were strong supporters of the Church of England.([n 1]) In the 1500's it was used for the lay office of 'churchwarden'. The dictionary gives the extension to 'Churchmanship' as c.1680.(OED2:II:407&8) The word "Churchmanship" itself was first used in around 1680 to refer to the attitude of these supporters but now serves to talk about and to label different tendencies, parties, or schools of thought within the Church of England and the sister churches of the Anglican Communion. Not all Anglicans would feel happy to be described as anything but "Anglican".(Neill:398)

The oldest label, "High", dates from the late 17th century and described a political attitude which stressed the close relationship the Church of England and the civil power. Together with its later opposite "Low", its meaning shifted as historical settings changed and towards the end of the 19th century the two were used to describe different views on the ceremonies to be used in worship. The opposing attitude was first associated with the "Latitudinarians" because of their relative indifference to doctrinal definition, but the description "Low" soon came into use. In the 19th century, the "Latitudinarians" gave birth to the "Broad Church" which in its turn produced the "Modernist" movement of the first half of the 20th century. Today, the "parties" are usually thought of as anglo-catholics, evangelicals, and liberals; and, with the exception of "High Church", the remaining terms are mainly used to refer to past history although "Broad Church" may be used today with a different sense to the historical one mentioned above being used to identify Anglicans who are neither markedly high, nor low/evangelical nor liberal(Hylson-Smith/HC:340) and thus overlapping with what used to be called "Central Churchmanship". The precise shades of meaning of any term vary from user to user and mixed descriptions such as liberal-catholic are found.

It is an Anglican commonplace to say that authority in the church has three sources: The Scriptures, Reason, and Tradition. In general, the Lowchurchman and Evangelical tend to put more emphasis on Scripture; the Broadchurchman and Liberal, on reason; and the Highchurchman and Anglo-catholic, on tradition.(Holmes III:11; Carey:14-16) The emphasis on "parties" and differences is necessary but in itself gives an incomplete picture. Cyril Garbett(p.27), later Archb of York, wrote of his coming to the Southwark Diocese:

I found the different parties strongly represented with their own organizations and federations ... But where there was true reverence and devotion I never felt any in worshipping and preaching in an Anglo-Catholic church in the morning and in an Evangelical church in the evening ..... and when there was a call for united action ... the clergy and laity without distinction of party were ready to join in prayer, work and sacrifice.

and William Gibson(pp.1,2) comments that:

the historical attention given to the fleeting moments of controversy in the eighteenth century has masked the widespread and profound commitment to peace and tranquility among both the clergy and the laity ... ...High Church and Low Church were not exclusive categories of thought and churchmanship. They were blurred and broad streams within Anglicanism that often merged, overlapped and coincided.

Sometimes the concept of churchmanship has been extended to other denominations. In Lutheran churches it can be liberal Protestant, pietist, confessional Lutheran, or evangelical Catholic.

History to 1715[edit]

In theory, since the Reformation as before it, the Church and the Realm of England were co-extensive, composed of the same persons, whether as citizens or churchmen at least up to 1660.(Smyth:123,4) The idea that they should be lingered on until well into the nineteenth century.

High Church[edit]

The term "High Church" was first used in about 1687(Chadwick/Ref:226) to describe those who held a high view of the link between the Church of England as established by law and the nation which was under threat from James II's attempts to gain legal tolerance for Roman-catholics. This group valued very highly episcopacy, ceremonies and beauty in worship, and a style of devotion all totally opposed to the puritan ideals in vogue England from 1570 through to 1660. These ideas were first mooted at the start of the century and historians project the term back onto these earlier thinkers(Neill:140) who were often termed "Arminians" The movement gained strength after Charles I came to the throne in 1625 and William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury. The two of them tried to end parliamentary control over the Church and to make it directly dependent on the Crown through the Convocations.(Neill:143-147) The more extreme supporters of this policy held that kings ruled by divine right.

High Church views became unacceptable in England under the Commonwealth and clergy holding them lost their positions, but the survivors recovered power and influence with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. They were able to narrow the range of opinion acceptable within the Church of England by forcing the ejection of clerics who, having ministered in the national church during the Commonwealth, had not obtained episcopal ordination or refused to use the Prayer Book(Rosman:106), and also to harass protestant dissenters with the restrictive legislation the so-called "Clarendon Code", but signally failed to reduce Parliament's power over the Church.

James II(1685-88) tried to legalise Roman Catholic worship by royal decree and to advance Catholics to positions of power. Despite his offer of similar status, Protestant dissenters allied themselves with Anglican resistence to his plans partly because of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and subsequent maltreatment of the French Protestant huguenots.(Trevelyan:469f) The tense situation was further complicated by the birth of a son to James' second wife who would be raised as a Roman Catholic. (His daughters by his first marriage, Mary and Anne, were both Protestants.) Several highchurch bishops were among the national leaders who voiced the opinion that James' measures were illegal and their subsequent acquittal on a charge of publishing a "seditious libel" marked a definite step down the road towards William of Orange and Mary becoming joint sovereigns.

The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and accession of William III and Mary brought about a crisis for a section of the High Church in that they had sworn life-long allegiance to James and so felt that they could not take the oath to the new rulers. Nine bishops and some four hundred other nonjuring clergy were deprived. The remaining High Churchmen managed to block William's efforts to widen the doctrine and practice Church of England and thus reincorporate Protestant dissenters,(Neill:180) but they lost political influence (except for a brief period towards the end of Queen Anne's reign) until the last years the 18th century.

Latitudinarian/Low Church[edit]

The origins of the term latitudinarian are uncertain and it has been applied to a number of related but distinct points of view. It is usually restricted to a particular type of cleric who, after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, adopted a new style of preaching which appealed to reason and common sense and emphasized moral growth, but in the early stages remaining orthodox in doctrine.(Bennett:87ff) This led them, unlike the High Church, to favour toleration and comprehension for protestant dissent. This brought them into favour with William III and, despite the fact that they formed a relatively small group, the majority of the bishops and dignitaries appointed in the reigns of William and the first three Georges came from their ranks because their political views favoured the Whigs while the High Church was solidly behind the Tories and often Jacobite in sympathy.
The epithet "Low Church" was coined by the High Church and first applied to the Latitudinarians. Sacheverell (a highchurch firebrand) characterised them as "believing little or no revelation; preferring reason to Divine Testimony; preferring to be a Deist than believe what is Incomprehensible (a reference to the debate about the doctrine of the Trinity); considering the 39 Articles as too Stiff, Formal and Straitlaced a Rule; looking upon the censuring of False Doctrine as an Intrusion on Human Liberty".([n 2])

Churchmanship from 1715-1830[edit]

The conflicts of the previous century had damaged the Church in that a significant number of conscientious and active "lowchurch" clerics had been forced out by the 1662 Act of Uniformity; the exclusion of the non-jurors in 1689-90 deprived the "highchurch" of a significant proportion of its most able clergy, and the remaining clergy were locked into a structure which "was not appropriate for the age in which they lived, and even less so for the times to come".(Hylson-Smith/Evan:6-7) However, the tone of the first half of the 18th reflected the overall Whig policy of "peace and stability".(Hylson-Smith/Evan:1-2) The period was marked by extremely low expectations of the clergy in general: their regular duties were understood to be the provision of Sunday services, often through the labours of an assistant. Non residence was a scandal. The two key changes to note in this period are the tendency of the latitudinarians to slide into some form of rational deism and the birth of Evangelicalism within the Church of England.


According to Bebbington there are four special marks of Evangelical religion in general: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible, and "what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. However, the presentation of these themes varied with time.(Bebbington:2,3) Hylson-Smith suggests that Anglican Evangelicals differed from the Methodists in that they did not develop a lay ministry; they were committed to the Church of England, and particularly to respecting the parish structure; they were moderate calvinists rather than "arminians";([n 3]) and they were uneasy about what they saw as the Methodist over-reliance on the emotions.(Hylson-Smith/Evan:11,12)

The birth of Evangelicalism within the Church of England was virtually independent from two contemporary movements: the Calvinist Evangelical Revival inspired by George Whitefield and the "Arminian"/Methodist one led by the John and Charles Wesley.(Hylson-Smith/Evan:10) It started as a "number of men and women, including Anglican clergy, underwent the same conversion experience, and came to preach, often independently the same gospel as their more famous contemporaries".(Hylson-Smith/Evan:10). For example, William Grimshaw(1708-63) in his younger days read prayers and a sermon once a Sunday and, when he got drunk, took care to sleep it off before he came home. Converted not long before he became incumbent of Haworth in Yorkshire in 1742, on arrival he found twelve people came to communion. Before he died up to twelve hundred people were coming, not just from the parish itself but from surrounding ones which lacked a resident clergyman. He was fortunate in that the Archbishop of York refused to take action against him for ministering outside his parish. Most church dignitaries and society in general would have nothing to do with Evangelicals. In 1768 six undergraduates were expelled from St Edmund Hall, Oxford for talking of "regeneration, inspiration and drawing nigh to God"(Green:204-9) and the University was effectively closed to them. At Cambridge only Magdalene would receive the Evangelicals and the virtual closure of both universities meant that it was almost impossible for known evangelicals to be ordained. The situation only improved in 1788 when Isaac Milner became President of Queens.

High Church[edit]


Low Church[edit]

Low: distinguish from "Evangelical" Carpenter

Churchmanship From 1830 to the 1950's[edit]

Anglo-Catholic / High Church[edit]

Within the high church tradition there are variations such as traditional Anglo-Catholic, moderate Catholic, modern Catholic, liberal Catholic, prayer book Catholic and Anglo-Papalist.

Broad Church[edit]


Neill notes: From 1930's He goes on to note that within the evangelicals, some are now more open to the ideas and methods of modern scholarship as opposed to the "conservatives". Within the low church tradition of churchmanship there are some distinct variations such as charismatic evangelical, traditional evangelical, open evangelical and conservative evangelical.

Low Church[edit]

Modernist / Liberal[edit]

Writing in the 1950's, Stephen Neill remarked that it is not sufficient to say that some are 'high church' and some are 'low church'. He goes on to describe seven colours in the churchmanship "spectrum" at that time. At either extreme he sees a "lunatic fringe", one so Roman-catholic that it is "hard to say what keeps it within the Anglican fold" and the other who are "nonconformists in surplices" and seem totally lacking in "any point of attachment" to the Church of England. Moving in towards the centre, there are on one side the convinced Anglo-catholics and on the other the convinced Evangelicals. Further in there are those who are "high rather than low" and those who are "low rather than high". Finally, while not exactly in the centre, there are the liberals or modern churchmen.(Neill:398,9) He then analises the diocesan bishops classing seven as anglo-catholics, seventeen as "high rather than low", ten as "low rather than high", six as "evangelical" and three as probably not objecting to the designation "liberal".

Diffusion Overseas[edit]


  1. ^ The OED gives the first occurrence of the sense "ecclesiastic" as c.1340.(OED)
  2. ^ Quoted by Balleine(p.209), capitals reflect the original text.
  3. ^ Here "arminians" refers to the original debate over predestination: the same adjective was used in the first half of the seventeenth century by the puritans as an insult to discredit the early Highchurch/Laudian party even though predestination was not a major interest of many of them.


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  • Bebbington,D.W.. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain London: Routledge (1993) 
  • Bennett, Gareth. To the Church of England Worthing, UK: Churchman Publishing Ltd (1998) 
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  • Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation London: Pelican (1966) 
  • Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church (2 vol) London: Adam & Charles Black 
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  • Gibson, William. The Church of England:1688-1832 London: Routledge (2001) 
  • Green, V.H.H. Religion at Oxford and Cambridge London: SCM (1964) 
  • Holmes III, Urban T. What is Anglicanism? Wilton, Conn: Moorehouse-Barlow Cº (1982) 
  • Hylson-Smith, Kenneth. Evangelicals in the Church of England:1734-1984 Edinburgh: T&T Clark (1989) 
  • Hylson-Smith, Kenneth. High Churchmanship in the Church of England Edinburgh: T&T Clark (1993) 
  • Neill, Stephen. Anglicanism London: Pelican: Revised and reprinted (1960) 
  • Murray, J.A.H. New English Dictionary on Historical Principles Oxford: Clarendon Press (1893) = OED 
  • Smyth, Charles. The Church and the Nation London: Hodder & Stoughton (1962) 
  • Rosman, Doreen. The Evolution of the English Churches Cambridge University Press (2006) 
  • Spurr. The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689 London: Yale University Press (1991) 
  • Trevelyan, G.M. History of England London: Longman Green & C° (1944) 

External links[edit]