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Three streams (but not the ones you’re thinking of)

“Three Streams” is a phrase that has come to the fore in the last 10 years or so, especially amongst Anglicans in the ACNA and in continuing Anglican churches. The phrase is meant to suggest (a) that there are three historic “streams” within historic Christianity — the Catholic, the Evangelical, and the Charismatic — and (b) that Anglicanism embodies these in a distinct way that can serve the renewal of the Church.

Prof. Gillis Harp has suggested that the notion may have its origins in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God (1953) or possibly an article by Richard Lovelace in Charisma magazine in 1984. Regardless, it was brought to prominence by the late Wheaton College professor Robert Webber in his wide corpus on “Ancient-Future” worship, sometimes called the Convergence Movement. In an article for ACNA’s newsletter Apostle, Trinity School for Ministry’s professor emeritus, the Rev’d Dr Les Farfield writes:

The genius of Anglicanism is that for five hundred years it has held in creative tension three different strands of Biblical Christianity. Those three streams are the Protestant, the Pentecostal/Holiness and the AngloCatholic [sic] movements.

I must say I find this a problematic argument from a historical perspective: How many Anglicans before the twentieth-century charismatic movement would have found recognizable the claim that the “Pentecostal/Holiness” stream is an integral part of Anglicanism?

But what I find more problematic is the way of thinking that has developed among many who advocate the approach, namely, that parishes should choose a stream in which their parish sits. (This is not an official position, I should add, as this interview with ACNA archbishop, Foley Beach, indicates). 

Clearly the approach works as a heuristic — to identify as one or the other is not meant to indicate the rejection of the other two (though one would ask whether this happens de facto in many places). Rather, my concern is that setting up the conversation in this way completely obliterates the meaning of “catholic,” if this merely indicates the sacraments and the historic three-fold order of ministry or even worse “high church” worship. The problem is when evangelical or charismatic, or Franciscan or Dominican or contemplative or “Celtic” or a whole host of other such adjectives are set in any sort of competitive relationship with the term “catholic.” And, ecumenically-speaking, this use of the word will, at best, be confusing to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and, more likely, be quite offensive.

But those are not the three streams that I want to highlight. Though I think they’re related. Here’s a little background.

Last week brought a new experience for me at Societas Liturgica in Quebec City: not only was I able to rub shoulders with a host of liturgical scholars from across the globe but it was also my first experience of a fully international conference situation (German, French, and English). In the coming weeks, I will likely write more about a number of the different ideas that this conference left me with (either here or over at my own blog, Laudate Dominum). But the idea that continues to buzz around in my mind came by way of a presentation by Boston University doctoral student Nelson Cowan on the music of Hillsong Church, the massive Pentecostal church movement out of Sydney, Australia. As he reminded us, more than 500 million Pentecostals gather to worship every Sunday. And Hillsong is a part of this Pentecostal movement. If, as a reader of Covenant, you don’t know much about Hillsong or you turn up your nose at Pentecostalism, then I would gently suggest that you likely don’t have a very significant grasp of what Christianity looks like globally nor a sense of how Christianity will look in the coming generations.

Nelson mentioned one of Hillsong’s newer compositions, “This I Believe (The Creed),” which has a remarkable history:

In January [2014], John Dickson, co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity and senior Anglican minister in Sydney, asked on Facebook, “Can someone with real Hillsong contacts please urge their brilliant songwriters to put the Apostles’ Creed to inspiring music. They’d be doing mainstream Christianity an enormous favour.”

At the same time he directly tweeted the same request to Hillsong. His appeal reached the ears of Cassandra Langton, Hillsong’s Creative Director, who tweeted her reply to John within 24 hours, “We shall have a go!!!” (quoted from this less-than-objective report )

And by May of that year, “This I Believe” was being sung across Australia, and soon, in a vast array of churches. (Hit play and listen as you continue to read).

Our Father, everlasting
The all creating One
God Almighty

Through Your Holy Spirit
Conceiving Christ the Son
Jesus our Saviour

I believe in God our Father
I believe in Christ the Son
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Our God is three in one
I believe in the resurrection
That we will rise again

For I believe in the name of Jesus


I believe in you
I believe you rose again
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord (repeat)

Our judge and our defender
Suffered and crucified
Forgiveness is in You

Descended into darkness
You rose in glorious light
Forever seated high

I believe in God our Father… (as above)

I believe in Life Eternal
I believe in the virgin birth
I believe in the saints’ communion
And in Your holy church
I believe in the resurrection
When Jesus comes again
For I believe in the name of Jesus

I believe in God our Father… (as above)

There are a whole host of conversations that this song could engender. For example, how is paraphrasing the Creed similar to and dissimilar from paraphrasing Scripture? What kind of ecumenism does this represent? How are we to understand the repetition (which I love, by the way!) of the refrain, “I believe in the Name of Jesus”? Is the implication of the refrain that the only reason we can confess everything else in the Creed is because of a trust in Jesus who reveals this fullness of God? I’m sure you can add your own.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with three streams?

Here’s the thought that came to me after listening to Nelson’s talk: The way to incorporate contemporary worship music may very well be best achieved in a context closest to its origins, that is, in a service of singing and preaching. Conceived in this way, the three streams would be:

  • The Holy Eucharist, the acceptable sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered by the Christian gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day;
  • The Divine Office (at least Morning and Evening Prayer), the daily, psalm-centric praying of the Scriptures;
  • Praise and Worship (I use this for the sake of ease as a term to refer to a service centered on contemporary worship songs, but could include many others items).

From a historical perspective, I want to suggest that Praise and Worship be conceived as “popular piety,” like devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, the Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, or the rosary (to name just a few). As an Australian Baptist who was at Nelson’s talk noted, the kind of intimate, familiar language of much worship music is remarkably similar to much of what can be found in the language of medieval mystics. Such language and its corresponding spiritual posture are in no way foreign to historic Christianity (contra this recently re-posted “Rant about Worship Songs” from First Things).

But I do wonder to what degree they are compatible with eucharistic worship or the Divine Office. Consider another example. Music from the Taize Community (the ecumenical monastery in France), with its take on traditional Gregorian chant of biblical and liturgical texts, is definitely contemporary but would not fall under the rubric that elicits my concern. If I were to try to condense my concerns, I might summarize them in this way: the kind of emotional response elicited by worship music in the pop/rock idiom is difficult to distinguish from the emotional response elicited at a Mumford & Sons or U2 show.

The result is that experiencing a particular emotional response in a Praise and Worship context becomes tied to having “properly worshiped,” and people end up evaluating their encounter with God on the basis of their emotional response. This is the flip-side of a problem that is just as dangerous (and discussed most ably by Fr. Tony Clavier a while back on Covenant): thinking that worship and/or the Eucharist is primarily about receiving something, rather than offering something (i.e. everything! — bread and wine as representative of all God has given, “our selves, our souls, and bodies,” and the self-offering of Jesus on the Cross).

Most dangerously, this can get wrapped up with the reception of the Sacrament: “real” or “proper” reception of the Sacrament could be tied to a certain kind of emotional intensity or response. This we must name with absolute clarity as a grave error.

There are other issues that I’ve bracketed. Nonetheless, they are issues that we must consider carefully when thinking about Praise and Worship, and I’ll just flag them:

  • The centrality of the worship band in the worship experience: this worship often happens within the context of a space that is usually devoid of any particularly Christian symbols and within architecture that is not particularly Christian. The ethos is often closer to a rock show than anything else. As a sacramental Christian, I have profound concerns about this: to use Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique of certain forms of Roman Catholic liturgy after Vatican II, this form of Praise and Worship runs the serious risk of being turned in on itself such that we’re celebrating ourselves under the guise of worshiping Almighty God.
  • Related to this lack of traditional Christian symbolism and architecture is the high preponderance of very attractive, well-dressed, highly emotive people who are on worship teams, who then become that at which we are to look and gaze the entire time. This seems quite likely to “mis-form” people in a number of ways: (a) It could easily imply that Christian leaders/ministers should be attractive, fashionable, and especially emotive, or at least that faithful Christians will look this way; (b) this could be very distracting for many people and introduce the stray romantic or erotic feeling, a problem which is only compounded by the fact that there is a way in which these desires can and should be redirected Godward.
  • In short, the relevance of so many of the “outward and visible” signs of pop culture, combined with the lack of architecture, symbols, vestments, ritual actions, and ceremonies introduces a great deal of possible confusion about who we are worshiping, what we’re even doing, and what is the purpose of this gathering.

No doubt, critics will respond, that exclusively “ecclesial” music also brings an emotional response. And this is absolutely true. All music affects the internal life of a person, no matter how slight. But I would contend that the response wrought by singing Hillsong’s “This I Believe” or Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” or “Holy is the Lord” is categorically different from a Palestrina “Gloria,” a Gregorian Psalm, or even the stronger emotional response from singing hymns such as “Christ, the Fair Glory of the Holy Angels” or “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” The latter leads heavenward; the direction of the former songs is much less clear.

This type of worship can be profoundly edifying. But I would suggest that without profound discernment about the music itself, along with the lyrical content, it is most difficult to join it properly to Eucharistic Worship. It is easier to incorporate it into the Divine Office, but I think it may be best on its own. In the same way that it is a mistake to alter the liturgy to make evangelism its primary purpose (when this is instead a possible result), the perhaps unintended move to elevate a certain kind of emotional experience as an essential proof of true worship is a disastrous error. Even more, if some of the concerns I raised above are not addressed, the use of this music by sacramental Christians could lead people to the adoration of emotions or “the beautiful people” who lead the music, and not to the adoration of God.

Just as it requires more work and creativity to bring the Gospel to those who do not know Christ in a context outside the Eucharist, so too making space for a more emotive and intimate-yet-corporate encounter with the Lord will also require more work. And I think it will require a carefully considered form of liturgy all its own. But I think it is worth it.

What if Eucharistic Christians were to bring back Sunday night and/or Wednesday night church, but in the form of Praise and Worship? This could be joined to Scripture reading and preaching (lay or ordained). And as some catholics are learning, this can even be integrated into a sacramental context by concluding with Eucharistic Adoration and/or Benediction (see this great website that even includes a song list). And there is no reason that this worship shouldn’t regularly have an evangelistic edge.

Sunday Eucharist | Daily Morning & Evening Prayer | Weekly Praise and Worship

This rich and diverse combination of Scripture, Praise, Sacrament, and Adoration can grow and deepen Christians. And these are Three Streams that can lead us to the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The featured image is a Hillsong service in Sydney’s Acer stadium (2010). It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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