Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How about a 'Three Streams' ecclesiology?

Ecclesiology has to do with the theological self-understanding of the church. One popular concept among some Anglicans today is the “three streams, one river” approach. In his article on the subject, the Rev’d Leslie Fairfield explains: “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 Anglo-Catholic movements.” 

There is so much that is problematic about this, it is hard to know where to begin. The Pentecostal (or Charismatic) Movement only began in 1900, and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. But the Catholic faith has been practiced in Britain since at least the third century, if not the first. But the main difficulty is that the metaphor tries to identify the river (the Catholic faith) with a party (Anglo-Catholicism). It’s a category mistake which leaves the whole concept incoherent. You should have one river of pure water—the undiluted Catholic faith. Beyond Pentecostalism and Protestantism, other movements in church history have had streams pouring into the river—Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Iconoclasticism, etc.

Streams will pour into the river as a simple fact of life. But those streams have both the elements of pure water as well as pollutants. People come into the church and they often bring outside ideas, misconceptions, and outright theological errors with them. What we need are filtering mechanisms. They are things like the Bible, the catechism, preaching, and the ministry of bishops (who are called to guard the faith and drive out strange doctrine). A good church has these to purify the water from foreign elements which make their way into the river, keeping it clear instead of murky.

Instead, many in ACNA celebrate the streams and consider the Catholic faith to be but one of them. I find it remarkable that some who would not think of tolerating theological diversity as the Episcopal Church does today don’t hesitate to do the same thing under the name “three streams.”

The formation of the Anglican Church in North America comes with its own set of challenges, the primary one being to herd several constituencies together into one group. So it's no surprise that talk of  'Three Streams' or something like it would emerge. Basically, it is a political statement. But the problem is that it can't help but be a theological statement.

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