Kampen’s recent post about baptism got me thinking about sacraments and ordinances, and how those are conceived of differently within different church traditions. My own Mennonite Brethren tradition, part of the Low Church tradition, has opted for the word “ordinances” to describe the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and treats these rites as being symbolic acts of remembrance. They are practiced first and foremost because Jesus commanded his followers to do so, and are acts of responsive remembrance, and are not effective in and of themselves. Rather, since lasting salvation could not be achieved through the repeated ceremonies and sacrifices prescribed by the Mosaic Law, the death and resurrection of Christ put a final end to the need for such repeated practices as means of God’s grace. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection is understood to be the sole necessary and effective means of grace, all Christian rituals are understood to be not means of grace in and of themselves, but symbols that are part of the church’s submission to the lordship of Christ.
The High Church tradition is perhaps exemplified by Roman Catholicism, with High Church Protestants generally being somewhat less bold in their claims about the effective power of the church. Catholic sacraments are understood definitively to be means of the grace of God, and give grace of themselves. Moreover, the use of sacramentals, most of which were instituted by the church rather than by Jesus, is also understood to help incite a piety in the Christian that itself may obtain the grace of God.
These distinct understandings of sacrament are reflective of how the High and Low traditions perceive the nature of the church. Just as the Roman Catholic Church holds a strong view of the efficacy of the sacraments, it also holds a high view about the nature of the work of the church. The RCC sees itself as the body of Christ on earth, doing the work of God. The church is also a vehicle of continuing revelation, as attested by the authority given to tradition in Catholic doctrine, as well as the notion of the infallibility of the pope’s pronouncements ex cathedra.
Contrariwise, the Low Church more often sees itself as disciples of Christ, emphasizing their subjection to God’s authoritative revelation, generally understood to comprise scripture and Jesus. The Low Church is very suspicious of any doctrines that are grounded in tradition, rather than scripture, and so doctrinal quarrels among Low Church adherents are usually fought in the arena of Biblical exegesis.
In short, the High Church holds a strong view of its own instrumentality in bringing about God’s purposes, whereas the Low Church emphasizes its humility and subjection to God.