Three Strands

by Padre David Greenwood

There is a new theory of Anglicanism that has been floating in the air. This is the “Three-Strand theory” – that Anglicanism is really a compendium of three separate strands of thought and has been so since the mid 17th century. The Three-Strand theory offers there are three types of Anglicans (1) Evangelical Anglicans whose spirituality and theology clearly resonated strongly with those heady and Christo-centric, solo-scriptora Bible centred days of the Continental Reformation. Evangelical Anglicans are personal salvation oriented and anti-Diocesan, almost-congregationalist Anglicans who are more like our friends, the Baptists. (2) Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a spirituality that remains in line with the teaching of the Church fathers and the patristic age. They long for reunion with Rome, ache for grounded strong centrist governance structure offered by the Papacy, have a love for Mary & liturgy, are parish centred and diocesan focused. (3) Liberal (or Lauditudinarian) Anglicans hold a spirituality and theology which resonates sharply with the Reformation ideas coming from France in the age of Reason. Their passion for justice, human rights, charity and pastoral care have lead them to support the ordination of women, remarriage of divorced persons and the full inclusion of persons of different sexualities as essential gospel messages that trump historic practices and ancient biblical edicts.

That there have been Low (Evangelical) Anglican, High (Anglo-Catholic) Anglicans and Broad (Laudinarian) Anglicans is nothing new in the Anglican Communion. What is new is the assertion that these diverse expressions of Anglicanism are now being presented as fully independent “strands”, which have always been in existence albeit in a loose affiliation called the Anglican Church; that actions within the last 30 years are causing these, mutually self-contained strands to now unravel; and that this unravelling is the normal and natural completely reasonable expected course of events. In 2000, Aidan Nichols’ work, The Panther and the Hind: a Theological History of Anglicanism introduced these strands as separate but self-contained independent elements within Anglicanism. And, in Anglicans and the Roman Catholic Church: Reflection on Recent Developments published this month (May 2011), Stephen Cavanaugh explains that the move of 780 Church of England priests to the Roman Catholic Church since the 1970s was the normal and predictable evolution of things as the three strands come to an understandable and inevitable unravelling.

What I find new and novel is that this is not a faithful depiction of the Anglican Church in which I grew up and experienced. In fact it is a hollow caricature that is being used as an apologetic, an after-the-fact re-writing of history to justify the ends.

First, the various expressions of Anglicanism are not and never have been self-contained and independent. People, parishes, Anglican groups, love their Bible, love their liturgy, love their music, love their history, seek church union and fellowship with other expressions of Christianity in faithfulness to Christ’s prayer that we all be one, seek justice, support the marginalized and oppressed, comfort the grieving, bind up the wounded, seek biblical based and traditionally valid religious education, long for the sacraments, laugh, live, pray and rejoice in the risen Christ… and they do this… all together — in a wide-tent church that recognizes each others’ ticks and foibles, but DOESN’T recognize three separate independent self-contained “parties” or “strands”.

Second, and perhaps most notably in the vastness of Canada, a three strand Church is an issue for an urban church, not a rural church. In rural Canada, filled with small towns which host only one Anglican parish church, these rural small town churches have rarely been able to be “strand-specialist” churches. All types of small town rural Anglicans have had to share the pews together doing High Church things one day and Low Church things another day and embodying it and claiming it all as their own. It is only in urban settings that two or more “specialist” Anglican churches can claim the corners of an intersection and attract congregations that are uniquely aligned with a particular flavour.

Third, many denominations have different strands or traditional groups within them, but that doesn’t make them entangled hybrids destined towards eventual unravelling. There are culturally Scottish Presbyterians, Korean Presbyterians and American Presbyterians who culturally and linguistically are as different as chalk and cheese; but that does not mean they are not united in their faithful expression of Christianity known as Presbyterianism. The Dominican Order within the Roman Catholic Church has an expressed mandate to be a Society of preachers and teachers and they are proud of their scholastic heritage; conversely Jesuits have travelled the world with evangelical zeal bringing the Christian faith to every corner; and Benedictines are synonymous with the rooted monastic life, filled with simple living, under rule and centred in prayer; but no one would suggest that these three expressions of Roman Catholicism are somehow not validly united or are naturally destined for unravelling and separation from their Mother Church.

Now despite all that I have said, I love the Three-Strand theory in as much as it helps to explain how different expressions and traditions within Anglicanism arose and how different relationships and issues in the 17th century influenced the developments of internal traditions and the theological diversity of Anglicanism. But when the Three-Strand theory claims the three strands are mutually independent and not validly related at all, then I get mad, because this is saying something against my family. My mom and dad are different people with different likes, dislikes and temperaments, similarly my brothers and sisters have differing sports loyalties and music tastes… but we love to be together, because we are all one family… and I love each one. I would be lost and lesser without any one of them. Similarly my Church has difference traditions, groups, flavours, focuses, trends and passions… but we love to be together and are proud of our wide-tent heritage, because we are all one family… and I love each and every one of them. I would be lost and lesser without any one of them.

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