Low Church, No Church & High Church

I had heard of the Vicar of Mendlesham long before I visited his church. He, ‘Father Philip’, was the most Anglo-Catholic cleric in the area, his building awash with statues, images, smells and bells. Having the church’s living, he had allegedly rejected all requests to relocate or take on more parishes, such as other vicars are known to accumulate. There is something refreshingly old fashioned about a parson living in his parish and ministering to that very community, but then I think he was appointed before I was even born. When we talked, I secretly harboured suspicions that he was appointed before the reformation, and kept his head down, ageing wonderfully well. Sure enough, the building was littered with high church trinkets, such as icons, statuary and excessive candles. The puritan within me frowned at such fripperies. The parson himself was in the vestry doing this or that. When he emerged, I apologised for the late visit (it was nearly 4pm when Suffolk churches are wont to close) but he seemed pleased to see me, and was quick to invite me to the evening’s mass and beer festival. This time, it was my inner Victorian nonconformist that arched its back- booze and Mass combined! He explained that he had invited his ‘flying bishop’ and must go to collect him. This did not stop him from tarrying and chatting with me, the bishop apparently kept waiting.

To cut a long story short, we got on very well. Like me, but with better reasons, he despaired of modern Anglicanism. He predictably disapproved of female clergy, but also of the insipid nonsense that passes for preaching. He quoted one ‘sermon’ he had heard which frothed about fellowship, but missed out the gospel. Suddenly, I realised this was a man on my wavelength. He even said he would be prepared to interrupt a preacher who failed to preach about the forgiveness of sins or who cast doubt on the resurrection, obtaining assurances from his local bigwigs that they would not deny the faith’s fundamentals. I began to get excited: was this an Anglican who thought Christian doctrine uncompromisable? I got to the point: did he believe in justification by faith? Yes, he did. By faith alone? Yes- but evidenced by works as taught by James, which is fair enough. After a long day of touring churches, I felt like I had actually had a brief period of fellowship with a real believer.

Decades ago, I thought I had more in common with the low church Anglicans, they of the plainer, more protestant style of worship. They could be a bit liberal on theology but I overlooked that, because there were fewer statues of Mary peering down from their churches’ dark corners. I now feel I have more in common with the high church Anglo-Catholics. I still care not for their obsession with Christ’s mother, excessive use of candles, their taste for endless ritual and ceremony. I could not worship this way myself, nor advise others to do so. Yet I have no doubt that many true, saved people can see through the incense and beyond the statues to Christ Jesus Himself, the saviour of sinners.

I hear Mendlesham attracts good numbers, unlike many parish churches. Some may admire the ceremonial, but for the time being, I have no doubt that they shall hear the real gospel too. At one point, he looked distressed when I told him of my Cromwellian churchmanship. He asked if I favoured breaking up images. The difference between me and Oliver, of course, is that I prefer people smash their own idols. Interestingly, Mendlesham church still houses the village’s fifteenth and sixteenth-century armoury, from the days when villagers might be expected to rise up and fight. May the good fight continue.