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In Anglican Christianity, the low church wing of one of the Anglican churches includes those who give relatively little emphasis to ritual, sacraments, and sometimes the authority of clergy. The term is most often used in a liturgical context. "Low church", in a contemporary Anglican context, denotes a Protestant emphasis, and high church denotes an emphasis on ritual, often as Anglo-Catholicism.
The term was initially intended to be pejorative. During the series of doctrinal and ecclesiastic challenges to the established church in the 17th century, commentators and others—who favoured the theology, worship, and hierarchical structure of Anglicanism (such as the episcopate) as the true form of Christianity—began referring to that outlook (and the related practices) as "high church". In contrast, by the early 18th century, those theologians and politicians who sought more reform in the English church and a greater liberalisation of church structure, were called "low church".
Though Anglican in origin, and most commonly used in that context, the "low" and "high" terms may be used by extension of other denominations, hence High Church Lutheranism (but not the opposite "low" version, taken as the Lutheran default).
The term low church was used in the early part of the 18th century as the equivalent of the term Latitudinarian in that it was used to refer to values that provided much latitude in matters of discipline and faith. The term was in contradistinction to the term high church, or high churchmen, which applied to those who valued the exclusive authority of the Established Church, the episcopacy and the sacramental system.
Low churchmen wanted to tolerate Puritan opinions within the Church of England, though they might not be in agreement with Puritan liturgical practices. The movement to bring Separatists, and in particular Presbyterians, back into the Church of England ended with the Act of Toleration 1689 for the most part. Though Low church continued to be used for those clergy holding a more liberal view of Dissenters, the term eventually fell into disuse.
Both terms were revived in the 19th century when the Tractarian movement brought the term "high churchman" into vogue. The terms were again used in a modified sense, now used to refer to those who exalted the idea of the Church as a catholic entity as the body of Christ, and the sacramental system as the divinely given means of grace. A low churchman now became the equivalent of an evangelical Anglican, the designation of the movement associated with the name of Charles Simeon, which held the necessity of personal conversion to be of primary importance.
At the same time, Latitudinarian changed to broad church, or broad churchmen, designating those who most valued the ethical teachings of the Church and minimised the value of orthodoxy. The revival of pre-Reformation ritual by many of the high church clergy led to the designation ritualist being applied to them in a somewhat contemptuous sense. However, the terms high churchman and ritualist have often been wrongly treated as interchangeable. The high churchman of the Catholic type is further differentiated from the earlier use of what is sometimes described as the "high and dry type" of the period before the Oxford Movement.
In contemporary usage, "low churches" place more emphasis on the Protestant nature of Anglicanism than broad or high churches and are usually Evangelical in their belief and practice. They may tend to favour the Book of Common Prayer services of Morning and Evening Prayer over the Eucharist, though the Diocese of Sydney has largely abandoned the Prayer Book and uses free-form evangelical services. Some contemporary low churches also incorporate elements of charismatic Christianity.
More traditional low church Anglicans, under the influence of Calvinist or Reformed thought inherited from the Reformation era, reject the doctrine that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato (e.g., baptismal regeneration) and lay stress on the Bible as the ultimate source of authority in matters of faith necessary for salvation. They are, in general, prepared to cooperate with other Protestants on nearly equal terms. Some low church Anglicans of the Reformed party consider themselves the only faithful adherents of historic Anglicanism and emphasise the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England as an official doctrinal statement of the Anglican tradition.
Several provinces of the Anglican Communion in Asia have merged with Protestant churches. The Church of South India arose out of a merger of the southern province of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (Anglican), the Methodist Church of South India and the South India United Church (a Congregationalist, Reformed and Presbyterian united church) in 1947. In the 1990s a small number of Baptist and Pentecostal churches joined also the union.
In 1970 the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, the United Church of North India, the Baptist Churches of Northern India, the Church of the Brethren in India, the Methodist Church (British and Australia Conferences) and the Disciples of Christ denominations merged to form the Church of North India. Also in 1970 the Anglicans, Presbyterians (Church of Scotland), United Methodists and Lutherans of Churches in Pakistan merged into the Church of Pakistan. The Church of Bangladesh is the result of a merge of Anglican and Presbyterian churches.
In the 1960s the Methodist Church of Great Britain made ecumenical overtures to the Church of England, aimed at church unity. These formally failed when they were rejected by the Church of England's General Synod in 1972. In 1981, a covenant project was proposed between the Church of England, the Methodist Church in Great Britain, the United Reformed Church and the Moravian Church.
In 1982 the United Reformed Church voted in favour of the covenant, which would have meant remodelling its elders and moderators as bishops and incorporating its ministry into the apostolic succession. The Church of England rejected the covenant. Conversations and co-operation continued leading in 2003 to the signing of a covenant between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. From the 1970s onward, the Methodist Church was involved in several "Local Ecumenical Projects" (LEPs) with neighbouring denominations usually with the Church of England, the Baptists or with the United Reformed Church, which involved sharing churches, schools and in some cases ministers.
In the Church of England, Anglo-Catholics are often opposed to unity with Protestants, which can reduce hope of unity with the Roman Catholic Church. Accepting women Protestant ministers would also make unity with the See of Rome more difficult.
In the 1990s and early 2000s the Scottish Episcopal Church (Anglican), the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church were all parts of the "Scottish Churches Initiative for Union" (SCIFU) for seeking greater unity. The attempt stalled following the withdrawal of the Church of Scotland in 2003.
In 2002 the Church of Ireland, which is generally on the low church end of the spectrum of world Anglicanism, signed a covenant for greater cooperation and potential ultimate unity with the Methodist Church in Ireland.