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SAVANNAH: Prayer Book Society Conference Grapples with Anglican Identity

SAVANNAH: Prayer Book Society Conference Grapples with Anglican Identity
Anglicanism Catholic and Reformed: Revisiting the Reformation Legacy 1517-2017

By David W. Virtue in Savannah
February 21, 2017

The popular model of a "Three Streams" hermeneutic to describe present Anglican identity is deeply flawed, says an Anglican Grove City College Professor of History. While the model might be a virtue, it is in fact "superficial" and "incoherent", Dr. Gillis Harp told hearers to a conference on the Reformation heritage of Anglicanism, sponsored by the US Prayer Book Society. The conference focused on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

"It takes an occasionally helpful (but over-simplified) descriptive model of the Western church during the middle part of the twentieth century and turns it into a prescriptive theological ideal or reads it back (anachronistically) into the past," he said. Harp described it as creating "a kind of Hegelian doctrinal synthesis which actually constitutes opposed positions based upon very different readings of the Bible."

"Nor are the differences between the three streams (at least as commonly identified by its partisans) all simple differences of emphasis; some actually constitute opposed positions based upon very different readings of the Bible."

He said the "three streams" within Christianity usually referred to Catholic, Evangelical (or Protestant) and Pentecostal (or Charismatic) traditions or "tributaries" being channeled into a single "river" or stream. Lately they had come to mean organic unity between Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal streams, but more recently, the organ of the ACNA, The Apostle, defined the Three Streams curiously now designated Protestant, Pentecostal/Holiness, and Anglo-Catholic as flowing together in to a single river.

Harp, an ACNA church planter, argued for the recovery of the Church of England's neglected Protestant face, which he said, can provide a deeper and more historically accurate representation of what Anglicanism has meant at its best.

The history professor said that an irenic spirit was behind much of this Three Streams template and, when grappling with ecumenical matters, such an approach is praiseworthy. "However, the Three Streams approach tends to either denigrate or neglect both the Anglican Reformers and the Anglican Formularies. Some "three streams" teaching either misunderstands the Protestant Reformation, summarizes it cursorily, or simply leaps over it.

"Part of the appeal of the Three Streams approach is that it confirms a bad tendency to not take the Reformation seriously. Anglicans today (and this is especially true of North American Anglicans) have long either ignored or downplayed the significance of the English Reformation.

"Happily, Anglicans today can benefit enormously from the substantial body of scholarship on the English Reformation that has appeared in the past few decades. While there continues to be considerable disagreement in the literature about some aspects of the Reformation in England, a consensus of sorts regarding some matters has emerged."

"Recovering a proper respect for and appreciation of the Protestant Reformation in general and of the English Reformation as it actually happened (and not as the wishful thinking of some used to construe it) is essential to a fuller and deeper appreciation of Anglican identity.

"Reformed Protestants continued to regard themselves as "catholic," albeit not Roman or papist. Diarmaid MacCulloch, a British historian and academic, makes the point regarding Cranmer when he says of the archbishop that to define him "as a Reformed Catholic is to define all the great continental reformers in the same way: for they too sought to build up a Catholic Church anew on the same foundations of Bible, creeds, and the great councils of the early church."

The Rev. Dr. Oliver O'Donovan, an English scholar known for his work in the field of Christian ethics and political theology, observed that the transformation of the moral life occurred in the absence of a language of "sanctification".

"This is done through the Collects, analyzing the stages of the moral life; the radical break of conversion; the formation of the church as a moral community; the ruling of God through external norms, in commandments, promises and examples; the ruling of God through internal fashioning of character and virtue and the reaching of a formed mental intention and its translation into act; the prolongation of consistent service over the length of a lifetime."

The Rev. Fr. Gavin Dunbar, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, said hearers need to grasp the "reformed and catholic" nature of the 16th century Reformation liturgy of the English church. "It is critical to grasp what "reformed and catholic" meant to the reformers -- not two principles, but one, now purified of all that obscured or distorted the "true and catholic" doctrine and worship of the church, and exhibited with greatest clarity the gracious God revealed in the gospel. Without this understanding, the Prayer Book was perceived as deficient by Anglo-Catholic, liberal catholic, liberal protestant liturgists of the 19th and 20th century, with consequences for Anglican identity, unity and mission.

Dr. Neil Robertson, professor of Humanities, University of King's College, Halifax, said the Elizabethan settlement can only best be understood as a distinctive interpretation of the classic Protestant distinction between two kinds of righteousness -- Luther's which distinguished between alien and proper righteousness and the Anglican tradition commonly described as justification and sanctification. Robertson said that Richard Hooker found the distinctively Anglican way of understanding in contrast to many Continental forms of reformation, thus Anglicans can retain a positive relation to older ecclesial and sacramental forms.

Addressing a Tractarian view of the authority of Scripture, the Rev. Dr. George Westhaver, Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, noted that Newman, Pusey and Keble explored and proposed a way of reading the Bible modelled on that of the Church Fathers.

"For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, some aspects of the Reformation had promoted a form of rationalism so mixed up with theological empiricism and naturalism as to yield both a superficial reading of the Bible and a sensibility which undermined faith. For Newman, Keble and Pusey this sacramental approach to the Bible was inextricably connected both with a proper understanding of the Incarnation, and an appreciation of the work of Christ in creation. On the one hand, this approach could seem in tension with Reformation emphases on the perspicuity of the Bible. On the other hand, the Tractarians stressed a sacramental encounter with the Real Presence of Christ in the Scriptures, and the role of the Scriptures as a means of sanctification and help to conversion. For the Tractarians, reading the Bible is fundamentally connected to the life of prayer and worship."

Dr. Jesse Billett, Trinity College, University of Toronto, noted that Anglicans have historically looked to the Book of Common Prayer as the guarantee of the catholicity of their Church. Over the past century the BCP has been more frequently read by scholars as expressing both the affirmations and negations that characterized the Protestant Reformation. "As a result, some catholic-minded Anglicans have felt the need to supplement it from other sources or to abandon it altogether. The quality of the BCP is consistent with both the pre-Reformation humanist Catholicism of Erasmus and the catholic ecclesiology of later Anglican theologians like Michael Ramsey. The Prayer Book's catholic integrity is further vindicated in more recent Roman Catholic reflections on the interdependence of Scripture and Tradition as 'one sacred deposit of the word of God.'"


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