There Should Never Have Been Three Streams

It has become commonplace among many North American Anglicans to classify themselves as for or against the language of “Three Streams, One River.” Not long ago in this very journal we read, from Dr. Gillis Harp, a very good critique of the increasingly popular notion that within the Anglican renewal three valid “streams” of Christian practice (catholic, evangelical, and charismatic) are able to flow together in one “river” of unified worship and witness. The metaphor, according to Harp (but in my own less eloquent phrasing): 1) takes a partial description of the 20th-century ecclesial milieu as prescriptive for how we ought to build the Church moving forward, 2) tends to use Scripture out of right context, 3) romanticizes a simplistic view of the Early Church, and 4) follows Robert E. Webber in a bias toward Dix and Aulen and against the English Reformers. I have come largely to agree with such critiques of the Three Streams metaphor, not because I am not a catholic or an evangelical or a charismatic, but because it offers us false choices and a dangerous conclusion.

My Christian nurture and first theological education occurred within Pentecostalism. When I discovered the writings of Robert E. Webber, I saw in print for the first time some of what I had begun to find but could not have articulated so clearly out of my own explorations of Eastern, Roman, and Anglican worship and theology. My post-graduate studies were done at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. The Lord brought me eventually into Anglican priesthood. The idea of perfectly blended churches where catholic sacramentalism and evangelical scripturalism and charismatic empowerment met together and played nicely danced in my head like Christmas sugar plums, whatever those are.

But there is much danger, I now believe, in describing catholic, evangelical, and charismatic traditions as valid and separate Christianities. And there is a resulting danger in positing that a balance of the right proportions of each in their modern expressions will bring about the fullness of worship we need. The results of Three Streams experiments tend to be hybrid-blends that most catholics, evangelicals, or charismatics would no longer even recognize as really catholic, evangelical, or charismatic. As the “streams” diverged, they seem to have taken on waters from other sources, and when they meet again, they flood the banks. That which should never have been separated to begin with should not be put “back together” by combining current, swollen monstrosities.

The Church is recognized creedally as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We Anglicans, then, need only agree together on one of the three elements proposed as essential. We are called to be catholics, “kata-holics,” if you will, those who are (and whose worship is) “from the whole.” Anglicanism is historically, doctrinally, and doxologically catholic. Evangelicalism and charismaticism ought not be essentially definitive descriptors for us. Catholic is enough. I do not mean, though, that catholic is enough apart from the evangelical and charismatic. I mean that catholic is enough because it is already implicitly evangelical and charismatic. Anglicanism, in its Reformation doctrine and its renewals and revivals, has always borne witness to this reality.

When catholicism is truly catholic, it is inherently evangelical and charismatic. It preaches the Word of God resulting in holy lives and the avoidance of doctrinal error. And it lives in the Spirit, enacting sacramentally and prayerfully, and even miraculously, the life of Christ in the world. Word and Spirit are not divorceable from each other and have no proper or healthy context together on earth other than the catholic Church. Where churches are Word-deficient, and thus not properly evangelical, they forget Scripture, accreting errors and neglecting holiness and righteousness of life, which is uncatholic. Where churches are not properly charismatic, they walk in the flesh, “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof;” formalism and automatism replace faith and fervor; miracles and renewal cease, which is uncatholic.

The evangelical and the charismatic, properly aspects of catholicity, each become monstrous in isolation. Monsters are not beings which have wrong things, mind you, they are beings with right things all out of proportion to each other and in relation to each other. An attempt to live an evangelical faith without catholicity might get you to heaven, but it will lead on the way there to bibliolatry and endless, warring proof-texting; the denial of biblical (and thus catholic) church order; the perversion of sacraments into bare ordinances; and schism after bitter schism. The good things evangelicalism holds to grow to monstrous proportion when wrested from catholic unity and discipline, even as the catholic churches languish without them. Similarly, an attempt to live a charismatic faith without catholicity can get you to heaven as well, but it will lead on the way there to rampant and undisciplined apocalypticism, fanaticism, second-blessing spiritual snobbery, and endless gifts- and experience-chasing. The good things charismaticism holds to tend to, as Pentecostals often say about charismatic evangelists, “blow in, blow up, and blow out” if not tempered, disciplined, harnessed by a catholic order and liturgical context.

Three Streams devotees long for catholic worship, evangelical worship, and charismatic worship to come together “as they should.” The problem is that there should never have been three streams, and bringing them together as they have come to flow in isolation from each other often compounds the collected errors that each picked up as it flowed apart from the proverbial river. A catholicism divorced from Word and Spirit is fraught with error. Our English Reformers knew this; they saw it in Rome. Anglican experience has often borne witness to the problem of streams breaking out from the catholic river. When Romanism supplanted the Gospel, we had to canoe back upstream (a perilous journey) to find a catholicity that flowed with evangelical truth and a spirituality full of graces but free of superstition and hyper-sacerdotalism. When Puritans broke away to chase one underrepresented element of catholicity or enthusiasts to chase another, Anglicanism’s Reformed Catholicism held fast. Our catholicity seeks to point our way back through and with Oxfordians, Carolines, Reformers, Cappadocians, and Fathers, to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith that holds sacramental things, evangelical things, and even charismatic things together without allowing any of them to spin off into “isms.” Looking to appropriate this, that, and the other of the bloated “isms” into a prescriptive balance is ultimately not helpful. That experiment just raises a new set of “isms,” still anemic in this regard and monstrous in that. Convergence movements have often resulted in the creation of “Frankensteinian” churches proud of their broad “inclusivity” that really keeps everyone else at arm’s length. What is needed instead are patient integrations together of all of the things that are truly catholic as we submit to catholicity as the prime concern. In order to go forward together, we have to go back together. This is the work of renewal we have seen throughout all of our catholic history in its orders and preaching movements and revivals and reformations.

There never should have been Three Streams. There is only one Church. And it is catholic. Because it is catholic, the Church is also evangelical and charismatic and a lot of other things. Spinning churches out of single attributes of catholicity was wrong. Spinning tributary monstrosities into a new theoretical river is not our best idea either, though the motives behind such attempts are often admirable. Be catholic. Be fully, beautifully, biblically, spiritually catholic. Follow the sign-posts to the old sources, and the old challenges. Be disciplined by an old liturgy and find the ways it is already full of Word and Spirit, and full of power when filled with faith. Preach loudly and long if you want to; I sure do. Speak in tongues if the Spirit gives the utterance. And surely bring the people of God to the Table of the Lord. But these are not three equal validities to be proportioned to one another. Things evangelical and charismatic are rightful aspects of catholicity, but catholicity looms large over both as the Word and the Spirit (Irenaeus’s two hands of God) form and fill one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.


Paul Edgerton

Fr. Paul C. Edgerton is the planting vicar of The Church of the Redeemer in Wilson, North Carolina, a parish of the Reformed Episcopal Church (ACNA). A bi-vocational pastor, he has taught in the public school system for nearly two decades. Fr. Edgerton has had the privilege to study at Cranmer Theological House and the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies and writes for RedeemerSongs. His wife Christie and his three crazy children keep him laughing.

'There Should Never Have Been Three Streams' have 6 comments

  1. November 17, 2020 @ 9:10 am Cindy Erlandson

    This sounds very wise, and well-explained. Thank you.


  2. November 17, 2020 @ 4:10 pm Daniel Voce

    Thank you for this wonderful uplifting post. Parts of it deserve to be learned by heart. I rejoice to read something so positive and such common sense.


  3. November 18, 2020 @ 7:03 am Francis Lyons

    Exactly. That’s why we speak of three streams. Where has catholic fullness been hiding all these centuries?? It has been sorely missing. Send over some great Latin, or even Greek, praise chants when you get a chance…


  4. November 26, 2020 @ 11:33 pm Joel West

    Thank you for posting this, and reminding us that the schisms within Anglicanism are no healthier than those within Protestantism or Western Christendom. The third “stream” is a relatively recent invention, but this reminds me of this 2015 article by the head for Forward in Faith about the need to merge the two streams.


  5. November 19, 2021 @ 4:04 am Colin Saxton

    This is a blessing to read. To build upon what you said…our foundation is the Lord Jesus Christ who gifts the entire catholic church with his Spirit. Anything that is born out of that which is true is first nurtured in love for one another. Without this fundamental love of the Spirit in the believers for one another then what materialises isn’t of God but from the heart of man. Everything flows from the Spirit who teaches us first to love one another. Our brothers and sisters are all who confess that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15) – this is the foundation, seek love which rejoices in the truth and all gifts and fruit will then flow from the Spirit. if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, not matter where they are in error or truth, then we cannot love our enemies and we certainly cannot confess that we love the Lord (1 John 4:21). Love is the bond of perfectness and without it faith cannot work.


  6. November 28, 2023 @ 11:49 am James

    While I appreciate the spirit in which this is written and affirm its essential truth that all of the “streams” can be found within true catholicity, the article seems blind to the realities of those who have marginalized one or another of the emphasis and thereby blessings of experiencing God through that lens. The author seems to feel that identifying streams that are already within the church will cause division, when in fact, that division already exists. Instead, identifying the streams is a step toward validating them and encouraging the scripture, the sacraments, and the Spirit to be received as catholic expressions by those who would be tempted to reject one or another of them.


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