jQuery Slider

You are here

Three Streams: Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic: A Reply to the Ven. Dr. Christopher A. Brown

Three Streams: Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic: A Reply to the Ven. Dr. Christopher A. Brown

By Gillis J. Harp,
November 27, 2014

Dr. Christopher A. Brown begins his recent essay on Anglican identity with a very welcome point about the often invoked (and frequently misunderstood) 'three-legged stool' of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Brown rightly notes that this metaphor unfortunately has tended to encourage Anglicans to place all of these sources of authority on the same level, carrying the same weight. He correctly observes, however, that Anglicanism has instead "always affirmed the 'Primacy of Scripture.'" So far, so good.

At this point, however, Brown allows that the stool metaphor can be useful since it "can be correlated with" the Low, High, and Broad Church "emphases" within Anglicanism, and that these emphases that "form a dynamic tension in which they complement one another." Yet might such an approach similarly imply that Scripture only represents one of three equal elements in a "dynamic" relationship? It may help to recall here that references to the three parties within the Church of England (low, high, and broad) first arose to describe the character of the established church in the early eighteenth century. The language was not used to promote or celebrate Anglican "comprehensiveness;" rather, it served to describe the divisions that had emerged historically within the state church.

Brown then makes matters murkier by commending a much more recent and problematic threefold model of the Church. The Three Streams template of Catholic, Evangelical, and Charismatic is, he claims, preferable as the "perhaps more vital three-fold notion of comprehensiveness." Significantly, he concedes, "there is nothing intrinsically 'Anglican' about these three streams;" nonetheless, he maintains that "Anglicans are uniquely positioned to assimilate these three streams and hold them in a creative tension."

Hence a descriptive metaphor has apparently morphed into a prescriptive template. It is almost as though the inclusive diversity and doctrinal minimalism so celebrated by the leadership of the Episcopal Church since the latter half of the twentieth century has now been recast by well-meaning orthodox Anglicans as a uniquely Anglican gift to the church catholic. In short, has a vice been translated into a virtue? But is theological incoherence ever a virtue?

Problems persist when Brown turns to consider each of these streams in turn. Curiously, Brown's description of the Church's "Catholic" character doesn't contain any teaching that is non-Protestant or which the Magisterial Reformers would have repudiated (recall that even Calvin did not insist on the English church ditching its episcopal hierarchy). His treatment of the Evangelical stream seems to reflect a concern to reject the excesses of American evangelicals in our day (something I certainly endorse). Yet, typical of many such treatments, no clear doctrinal definition of Evangelicalism is offered. Instead, "every Christian," we are assured, "with an urgent commitment to the Gospel [notably undefined] is an Evangelical." Whether this would be the Gospel as understood by the Oxford Martyrs or by Cardinal Newman is not specified. In fact, one can supposedly be an "Evangelical" regardless of "an individual's denominational loyalties or preferences of worship style." A kind of doctrinal indifference thus spills over into his definition of Evangelicalism, and so also into his understanding of Anglican corporate worship where personal preference for assorted "worship styles" rules. As for ceremonial and vestments, to each his own! (One wonders why Cranmer took such pains to reform the liturgy, instead of just accepting a plurality of well-meaning "worship styles.") The latter phrase strikes me as more a product of our consumerist culture than suited to careful theological analysis. Are we simply consumers seeking a culture that appeals to us, or a theology that is Biblical and taught in our tradition's Formularies? Similarly, the treatment of the Charismatic stream here seems to consist mainly of stressing the gifts of the Spirit guaranteed to all Christians. The classic Pentecostal two-stage understanding of conversion, with a special baptism of the Holy Spirit, goes unmentioned, despite its rejection by the other two streams.

Writing for a poplar lay audience isn't easy and I appreciate Dr. Brown's efforts in this regard. The Three Streams are promoted in part for how each can serve to keep the "excesses" of the two other in balance. Yet it strikes to me that the fact that something as non-doctrinal and often shallow (pun intended) as the Three Streams metaphor can become so accepted in some Anglican circles today is evidence of the lamentable influence of a non-theological mindset in general and a consumerist (almost Post-Modern?) conception of worship in particular. It is hard not to conclude that the doctrinal vagueness of so much contemporary Anglicanism hasn't only shaped the thinking of revisionist liberals.

It is, of course, altogether possible that I have managed to misread or misinterpret Dr. Brown's essay and I look forward to his response. If his reply can generate greater clarity with regard to discussions of Anglican identity that will certainly be most welcome.

You can read Dr. Brown's article here: http://www.virtueonline.org/three-streams-catholic-evangelical-and-charismatic

Gillis Harp is a professor of History at Grove City College. This article first appeared in The Anglican Way

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top