By Chuck Collins
What would a one-stream Anglican Church look like – – the biblical, evangelical stream that’s front-and-center in the Articles of Religion, the Homilies, and in the Book of Common Prayer? We all know that three-streams sounds nice and agrees with our digestive sensitivities (Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal), but it’s a new idea – only from 1954 (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God). We also know that there is not a hint or suggestion of more than one stream anywhere in the Formularies. In fact, our whole history hinges on one stream, the one that connects us to the apostles’ teaching, the catholic and apostolic faith that is handed on in succession to the next generations. What would it mean then to the catholic and pentecostal “streams” if we were to return to the one stream of our Reformation Anglican identity?
One-stream Anglicanism is completely at home with traditional worship and practice. The 16th century English reformers were crystal-clear that the Bible is primary (sola Scriptura), while maintaining a high regard for how it has been interpreted over time (i.e. tradition). Reading the reformers is like reading Scripture through the glasses of the esteemed church fathers. The reformers all wanted to clean up the church according to the teaching of the Bible, and none of them wanted to split the church. But when the Medieval Church determined to not be moved from its unbiblical and extra-biblical beliefs, the one-holy-catholic-apostolic church had no alternative but to continue in the Scriptures – what became the Protestant Church. The good part of the “catholic” tradition comes directly from the Bible and has the highest regard for an utterly holy God, it seeks to offer him our best and most beautiful (buildings, music, and worship), it provides order in ministry, and considers every human being, born and unborn, with unmitigated dignity.
The Protestant stream is sometimes seen as formulaic, propositional, and cold. It can be that way, to be sure, but it wasn’t so for Thomas Cranmer and the English reformers. Truly biblical and evangelical Anglicans welcome and experience the very present reality and extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit – the baptism of the Holy Spirit of which John the Baptist and Jesus spoke! This is not because it is a separate stream, but because the Bible teaches God’s indwelling power to save and to sanctify. The Bible not only promises forgiveness of sins and reconciliation as a legal pronouncement, but his grace sweeps us into the very heart of God (thanks to Dane Ortlund for this image!) – communion with our Maker and the Maker of the craters on Mars. What could possibly be more exciting than the One who spoke everything into being and who walked with the disciples on earth for 33 years, ate with them and taught them day-by-day, now coming to live “in” them/us through the power of Pentecost?! That the third person of the Trinity makes his home in us in such a way, empowers and equips us to live and thrive in his Kingdom – in the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit of which the Bible speaks! That he lives in us and we live in him is our greatest comfort and intimacy in life and in death. This is a believer’s inheritance as God’s children, but it is not another stream of Anglican understanding; it is living out in experience what the Bible teaches.
Being a Reformation Anglican gives us generosity of belief and practice based on the perimeters of Bible teaching. And, importantly, it keeps us in check and disciplined for other things that might be added to the pure Word of God preached, and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christs ordinance. The one-stream church has no place in it, for example, for the unbiblical Medieval practices of having other mediators between God and man besides the man Christ Jesus; it will not tolerate a faith & works combination for salvation (sola fide). Nor will it accept an ex opere operato understanding of automatic grace in its rites and sacraments apart from faith. There will be no place in such a church for a special class of sacrificing priests whose special words and actions magically make bread and wine into something to be gazed upon or carried about. And especially, there is no room in such a church for the extra biblical ideas of a pope as God’s spokesman on earth or for anything like an “ontological change” in ordination. None of these can be justified or sanctioned by the plain teaching of Holy Scripture. Likewise, the one-stream of Reformation Anglicanism keeps us from the glaring mistakes of pentecostalism: the abuse of “God told me” language to justify what I really want anyway, and the extraordinary harmful emphasis this invented stream often has on my (selfish) personal fulfillment and an endless “seeking the blessing.” Biblical, evangelical Anglicanism keeps our focus on the gospel of what Christ has done for us in his Son, and away from the intensely individualistic “bless me” moralism that is sometimes observed in distracted, invented streams of Anglicanism.
What would it look like to return to our Formularies and to a one-stream understanding? It is obvious that the other streams besides the one defining stream (including a fourth progressive stream), would have to answer to the teaching of the Bible and find their full expression from the teaching of Holy Scripture. Such a church would discover anew the central teaching of the Bible – God’s unstoppable love for sinners, the free gift of grace that is received by faith. A church with one stream would be excited about the universal priesthood (all believers have equal access to God through the one mediator Jesus Christ), and would weigh all liturgical practices, church programming, and evangelism on how well they support and proclaim the simple and powerful teaching of the Bible. The one-stream church would provide the bowling bumpers against the pull and excesses that other streams sometimes impose, those matters that find no warrant in God’s unique revelation and are ultimately a distraction to the church’s real mission and ministry.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Executive Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism in the USA. He is a retired Episcopal Church USA clergyman. You can read more at: www.anglicanism.info.