The term “broad church” originally referred to a belief in the broad interpretation of doctrine and worship that originated within Anglicanism, which is the Christian tradition of the Church of England. Ultimately, however, broad church has been perceived as leaning toward the more liberal side of the church. In terms of placement, broad church falls between low church and high church, which are the other pillars of principle that form the tradition’s understanding of doctrine and liturgical practice, called churchmanship.
The low church form of churchmanship functioned as a pejorative for members of the Church of England, who favored a more liberal interpretation of the church’s doctrine and began to express their passions in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was in sharp contrast to the high church, which emerged as a response to such sentiments and stressed strict adherence to centuries-old tradition, particularly the Church of England’s Roman Catholic ties. The broad church theory emerged in the 19th century as a bridge between the low church, which likened itself to the church’s Protestant heritage, and the Anglo-Catholic nature of the high church.
English poet Arthur Hugh Clough is credited with originating the broad church term. He was initially in support of the high church movement during his time as a student in the late-1830s at Balliol College, one of the campuses that comprise the University of Oxford system. At the time, Oxford was prominently influenced by the high church, with the leader of the campus-based movement being led by academic and clergyman John Henry Newman. By the end of his academic career at Oxford, however, Clough had rejected the high church mode, and his refusal to teach the Church of England’s doctrines led to his resignation as a tutor at the college.
Another major broad church proponent, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, was a religious leader like Newman. He was dean of Westminster Abbey from 1864 to 1881. In 1847, Stanley wrote in the Edinburgh Review that the Anglican church “was not High or Low, but Broad,” meaning that the church was meant for inclusion of a diverse array of opinions. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, the broad church term was being phased out in favor of the term liberalism. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in 2006’s The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today, used the term “religious liberalism” in place of broad church when describing the three main principles of the Church of England.