Before I go back and address Matthew Gatheringwater’s now lost (and partially restored) comment about clerical garb — its propriety, how people understand it, what Theodore Parker would have thought — I need to ramp up by considering “high church” and “low church”

If I may be excused for quoting myself, let me pull forward what I said about Universalists and Ash Wednesday:

It is worth a moment to consider the terms “low church” and “high church” each tends to be reduced to liturgical sensibility — because it reflect what one thinks the church is capable of being.

Considered as a spectrum, the low option is prone to consider the action of the individual, moral improvability, the human origins of the church, and the parochial. The high option is prone to consider corporate humanity, holiness, the divine origins of the church, and the universal. Both can be beautiful and true — and abused. Drawn broadly, low worship is “preacherly” and high worship is “sacramental.” Both Unitarianism and Universalism skew “low” but there have been “hightening” (towards center) movements from time to time. Which is good: at its best, liberal churches (Christian or not) are broad: negotiating between the two extremes, thus being ‘catholic’. [SW: in the sense of being universal; not catholic in the sense used below.]

Oddly enough, one of the movements that gives me the biggest rash — Ken Patten and his awful Charles Street Meetinghouse — is an example of a liturgical, catholicisizing movement: one of my beefs with him is that he sets the ceiling so low, putting it in the realm of human phenomenon, aesthetics, and his own conception of what the truth core of religion is. So holiness is beauty and beauty is holiness. Blech!

So you see where I’m coming from. Another way to describe the “high church”/”low church” impulse is towards the catholic and the protestant respectively, though it would be a mistake to identify these ideas with Catholic and Protestant churches because there have been a lot of cross-fertilization. Actually, from a portion of the Protestant side, the reproachment goes back more than a century, and the Universalists (and to a lesser degree, Unitarians) have been a part of it.

Why? It was a reform movement. “Reform” tends to push from an edge to the center, and the low Protestants — whether Liberals and Evangelicals — had become religions of the Self. Self seeking Cultivation on the one hand, or Self emperiled by Sin. (Both are versions of Self in Battle with Evil.) Whether it is “me n’ Jesus” or “me n’ Oversoul” the effect is a faith out of touch with a common human reality and its own sense of history. Particularities and peculiarities creep in. (The Catholic side has its own problems, but I’ll let the folk on the other side of the spectrum expose these.) There is nothing strange in this: the alternative to “radical liberalism” is the “Broad Church” that straddles that high/low divide. On the “Unitarian” side, you see this in James Martineau eschewing the Unitarian name for Free Christianity, for instance.

Well, in short, Theodore Parker would think my use of vesture is atavistic. Not that I mind: I think his radical, reductionistic, and in the end, personalist approach to the church is wrong. But more about the application of vesture next time.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I have absolutely nothing fruitful to say here, but I thought I’d chime in with “high and crazy, low and lazy, broad and hazy”. How’s that for eccelsiology in a nutshell ;)

  2. If your vestments were atavistic 145 years ago, what does that make them now?

    Frankly, I don’t see what the high church/low church distinction has to do with the bands. You are trying to emphasize the sacramental nature of Unitarian Universalism? Since when did we start having sacraments again? Oh, I get it: Your religion is Universalism circa 1800. Now, if only you could get some 200-year-old parishoners…

    Personally, I think your bands are charming, but I can’t help but wonder if they put you at a disadvantage with non-Christian Unitarian Universalists. Have you found this to be the case?

    Tell me more about the bands, please, but also tell me more about why you dislike the Charles Street Meetinghouse experiement. Why wouldn’t a Humanist set the ceiling in the realm of human phenomena? Or do you just dislike Patton because he wouldn’t wear vestments, either?


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