By Leander Harding
Some parishes, dioceses, and Anglican judicatories identify themselves as three-stream expressions of Anglicanism. The vision here is to bring together in a creative synthesis the evangelical, the Catholic, and the Pentecostal or charismatic traditions within Anglicanism. In the past, animosity between the high-church party and the low-church evangelical party has been notorious. The only thing upon which they could agree was mutual suspicion of the charismatic renewal, though this movement made significant inroads among both Catholic and evangelical parishes. As the pressure of theological revisionism has increased, adherents of these three theological traditions or streams have found a common cause in their desire to resist versions of the Christian faith in which the Word of God has been demoted to an interesting artifact of a previous generation’s search for the divine.
This new intra-Anglican ecumenism has its detractors. There are those who think that talk about three streams is Anglican Fudge at its worst. Often, though not exclusively, these detractors are from the low-church, evangelical tradition of Anglicanism. Perhaps they resist the Anglo-Catholic narrative of Anglicanism as a via media between Rome and Geneva, and insist that the settlement of the Anglican Reformation was a via media between Geneva and Wittenberg. They do not especially like Hooker or the Caroline Divines and regard the Oxford Fathers as cuckoos in the Anglican nest. They regard the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism as being hopelessly riddled with works righteousness and a sacramental theology with no warrant in Scripture. They differ in their attitude toward the charismatic stream, but they are quite sure that a drink made of all three streams is weak tea at best and most probably a poison, which is taking the Anglican witness away from its true Reformed identity. Better is the Lutheran-Calvinist brew of the 39 Articles, perhaps with a very light touch of sweetening from the Pentecostal or charismatic stream.
Proponents of the three streams often respond to these challenges by arguing about the real nature of Anglicanism. Historical research is immensely important, and a better and more accurate understanding of the teaching of our forebears in the Anglican traditions can only help us, but it is a fundamental mistake to reify any moment in Church history as the arbiter of all future developments. A theological crisis cannot be solved by historical research alone. Alexander Schmemann, the great liturgical scholar, complained of an “archeological approach” to liturgical studies, and an archeological approach to theological tensions in the Anglican world today will likewise not serve.
Amid such controversies, I recommend to all sides Lesslie Newbigin’s short, lucid, and compelling book on ecclesiology, The Household of God. It is available as a reprint and can be downloaded free here. The book is based on lectures that Newbigin gave in 1953 as part of his defense of the ecumenical work that bore fruit in the formation of the Church of South India. Newbigin identified three answers to the question about the nature of the Church; the evangelical, the Catholic, and — very surprisingly for a 20th-century mainline theologian — the Pentecostal.
Evangelicals stress the role of faith in defining the nature of the Church: The Church exists where there is an agreement about salvation by grace through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Catholics stress incorporation into Christ through membership in the one continuous, visible body with its apostolic sacraments and ministry. The Pentecostal says to both that You may have correct doctrine and correct sacraments and ministers, but if you do not have the Spirit you do not have the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the true Church of God. Newbigin said to his startled audience of establishment churchmen and academics that the Pentecostal has the whole New Testament on his side.
Newbigin insists that an adequate ecclesiology must incorporate all three of these answers to the esse of the Church if it is to be faithful to what the New Testament says about the Church and if it is to be faithful to the high value that the New Testament places on the unity of the Church. That we are content with our divisions is to Newbigin evidence that we don’t believe the Church is what the New Testament says it is: the one body of Christ, the one family of God. Furthermore, for Newbigin the quest for the unity of the Church is necessary in order to be faithful to the God-given mission of the Church, which is to reconcile us to God and to each other in Jesus Christ the Lord. For Newbigin, the Church must be evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, always seeking unity and always sacrificing itself in mission. The point of reference by which the Church is to be judged is not some golden age of the past but the eschatological future, in which the high priestly prayer of Jesus for the unity of his Church has come true, and the whole creation is reconciled to the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am deeply persuaded that the visible solidarity and unity of Christians is of paramount significance for the ministry of evangelism in the 21st century. Newbigin said of the intractable divisions of his time that they caused the human heart to wonder with a kind of agony if there can indeed be one human family. How can we be ambassadors of reconciliation if we are not practicing reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican world and with other Christian traditions?
I am encouraged when an Anglican body refers to itself as a three-stream entity. I think this is meet and right. There needs to be added to that description a commitment to mission and a willingness to have present life and practice judged in the light of the eschatological unity of the Church.
If there is a danger in three-stream thinking, it is not taking the thinking far enough and mistaking ecumenical détente for the hard work of building deep ecumenical consensus. Newbigin warned that real unity can only be won by an embrace of the cross and therefore by a dying to what is for the sake of the future to which we are called. Being able to blend styles is not the same thing as coming to unity in a church that is evangelical in faith, Catholic in sacraments and order, filled with the Holy Spirit, and committed to mission and to judging itself against the standard of the kingdom that is coming.
But it is a good start.