Some Thoughts on the “Three Streams” Business

I’ve thought about writing this for some time, but Stand Firm in Faith is doing what they do best: standing firm, in this case against the “Three Streams” concept of Anglicanism.  Since I have, indirectly, been accused of holding this idea–and more recently gotten myself bogged down in an unedifying debate on the subject of the origins and nature of Anglicanism–and at the risk of starting the blogger’s equivalent of Groundhog Day again, I’d like to say a few things about this.

First, I don’t think that the composite nature of Anglicanism is the result of a conscious effort on the part of its founders.  The whole beginning of the Church of England is a messy, complicated affair that does nothing for the self-proclaimed role of the English-speaking peoples as the human race’s guardians of liberty.  It was in fact a brutal, zig-zag process which cost many of its participants on both sides their lives.  The result was a church basically Reformed in doctrine but with a number of residual “outs” that would either enrich it or come back to haunt it, depending upon how you look at the situation.

Second, the lack of human intentionality doesn’t preclude the fact that God is working in a process even when it looks to us to be flawed or not in a “straight line”.  Too much of the discussion in the Christian world centres around how this or that tradition, institution or doctrinal system is “seamlessly” descended both from above and from the origins of the faith.  The Orthodox, for example, would like for you to think that the Apostles were crossing themselves with three fingers and chanting the Thrice-Holy Hymn (with or without the additions of the Peter the Fuller) before Acts 2 ends, but we know things are more complicated than that.  Part of the nature of the creation is that created beings are imperfect, but that imperfection is the source of their free will.  In this time where everything is a “perfect package deal” that gets lost, but it doesn’t change reality.

Third, the adoption of an episcopal form of government was a strategic mistake from the standpoint of having a truly Reformed church.  Calvin himself commended the Presbyterian form of government, not only because it squared with his concept of what the church was, but also because it represented a clean break with Roman Catholicism, a break that he, a Frenchman in a country where Catholicism was his major opponent, felt a greater necessity for than those in a country where the Roman Catholic church had been effectively nationalised.  I think he knew that, if the bishops were allowed to hang around, sooner or later someone would get the idea that we should start drifting towards Rome.  It took three centuries for that to happen, but happen it did.  Calvin may have been wrong about many things, but he wasn’t stupid.

There were those in England who agreed with Calvin, and much of the unrest in the seventeenth century leading up to Cromwell stemmed from that agreement.  There was also the example of the Scots, who did adopt Calvin’s model.  But if there’s one thing the English hate just about more than anything else, it’s being upstaged by the Scots.

Turning from that unpleasant thought, we need to consider another aspect of the “three streams” analogy that gets overlooked: what happens when the streams overflow their banks.  Much of the impact of Anglicanism on Christianity in general takes place outside of the Anglican confine, and in turn those influences have come back to the Anglican world in one fashion or another.  Other than the residual influence of non-Anglican churches which come out of an Anglican culture (I think of the West Indies at this point) the biggest overflow is the Wesleyan movement.  John Wesley never intended to be anything than an Anglican, and his idea is deeply rooted in Anglicanism, but ultimately it had to go outside of the confines of the Anglican world to flower.  When it did, Protestant Christianity found the strongest alternative to a purely Reformed construct that it has ever had, and of course modern Pentecost came out of the Wesleyan tradition.

Finally, most discussions of streams and what centre on doctrine when the key question is ecclesiology.  I’ve written about this before, but the question we must answer is this: is the church a formal mediator between man and God?  And can the church ultimately make divinely authoritative pronouncements on the meaning and definition of our faith? These, more than anything, are the questions that separate churches which profess and call themselves Protestant and Roman Catholicism.  Anglo-Catholicism is little more than a formalistic spirituality if it does not affirm that it too can bind and loose in the same sense as the Roman Catholic Church, and Anglo-Catholics are not univocal on this.

So there we are.  How to sort this out in one ecclesiastical “structure” where revisionists really make a mess out of things and have the upper hand in many high places is the ongoing challenge in the Anglican-Episcopal world.  If we keep our eyes on the essentials, and realise that the messy origins neither prevent progress nor offer perfect uniformity, we’d go a long way towards realising God’s plan for the Anglican world, if not ours.

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