One of the common ways of defining orthodox Anglicanism in (especially) the modern, North American context is to use the paradigm known as "three streams". This model attempts to harmonize disparate theological systems in Anglicanism. It is deeply influenced by Convergence theology, which holds that Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal theologies are coming together, under the power of the Spirit, to reform the Church. The problem with this paradigm is that it has been grafted into Anglican identity by neo-Anglicanism to the point that it is regarded as "classically Anglican". I am afraid to say that this is another of the Anglican Myths.
Dr. Harp (whose article is linked to below), who has written on this subject for the Prayer Book Society, outlines the beginning of this terminology to a Church of South India paper from 1953. It was then adopted by Charismatics and then later by neo-evangelicals, through the influence of Robert Weber. I will be relying heavily on Dr. Harp's article because his treatment of the subject is superb. He discusses next the confusion between this modern paradigm and the historical churchmanships of the Church of England:
"Purportedly, Catholics have stressed works (especially sacrificial service), whereas Evangelicals have emphasized faith, and Pentecostals Spirit-guided discernment “rather than [measuring orthodoxy by] objective criteria.” The statement concludes that the church at its best should knit together these “apparently incompatible approaches.”4 Some Episcopalians see this schema as normative of Anglicanism and confuse today’s talk about the ‘three streams’ with the historical division of the Church of England into high church, low church and broad church “parties,” as those terms were used in Anglican circles in the eighteenth century. At that time, the national church included within it clergy and laity who could be divided into at least three distinct groups; that is, a high church element that stressed the visible church (including it distinctive polity and traditional liturgical forms), a low church group that stressed the need for personal conversion and what eighteenth century evangelicals called an “experimental faith,” and a broad church party that stressed the reasonableness of the Christian faith and thus natural revelation over Scripture."
I will not attempt to provide extended commentary on Dr. Harp's article, as I recommend my readers to read his (much better) article on this subject.
Truth be told, I am having trouble writing this article. There are so many things that need to be cleared up in regards to this myth, for it strikes at the heart of the problem: What is Anglicanism? I don't intend or even think it possible to answer all questions related to that greater question in this small post. Instead, I offer a few brief thoughts on what I think is the core error in this myth.
First, this myth distorts Anglican history; it is historical revisionism, almost classically so. The point of historical revisionism is to recast a portion of history in a different light, usually because the events or ideas associated with that part of history are embarrassing or do not serve a purpose for the contemporary author or thinker. This myth seeks to dilute the Protestant nature of our Church. This follows in the tradition of the Oxford Fathers, especially Newman, who equally sought to dilute the Protestant and Reformed nature of the Church of England through his Via Media theory (to be explored in another article) and his distortion of the teaching of the Articles by harmonizing it with Tridentine teaching. I would argue, actually, that the three streams ideology and via media ideology are really brother ideologies. The latter sought to distance Anglicanism from Protestantism by placing it in the "middle" ecclesiastically speaking. The three streams ideology seeks to dilute the Protestant Church of England (and her daughter Churches) by claiming that Protestantism is only but one stream or facet of the Church's identity. This seeks to acknowledge that the "Catholic" stream has also been equally a facet of Anglicanism just as much so as the Protestant. Now here there is another problem, the confusion of terms. Proponents of three streams ideology mean something different by "Catholic" than what the Prayer Book or Anglican Divines understood by that term. The confusion of terms is also a tactic used to distort Anglican history for the purpose of eradicating Protestant identity. The Reformers understood that Romanism is not Catholic, nor had it ever been. Any doctrine associated with Romanism, not taught in Scripture, was heretical and, by nature, unCatholic. Examples of this include justification by faith and works, purgatory, indulgences, the Sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation, etc. These are not Catholic doctrines but Romanist ones. The nature and business of the English Reformation was to restore catholicity to the Church of England by removing Roman accretions. By nature, the words Protestant and Reformed imply Catholicity, according to the definitions of the Prayer Book and English Reformers (obviously your Roman friends will disagree). The notion that Catholicty was somehow lost in the Church of England was a myth perpetuated by the Tractarians to fuel the fire of their revolution. This three streams ideology is dangerous because it seeks to harmonize disparate theologies as Dr. Harp points out.
I would argue that Anglicanism has one stream: Reformed (Catholic). I put "Catholic" in parentheses because of the principles I enumerated above. Reformed religion is Catholic by nature, the Church of England is Catholic because it is Reformed. It has maintained the catholic ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. It has maintained catholic worship in its godly Liturgy in the Prayer Book. It maintains a historic succession with the early Church by the line of bishops and the maintenance of apostolic doctrine. It has purged itself of Roman errors and not fallen into revolution from below.
I close with one of my favorite quotes from Bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont:
“The Church is a Protestant Church, emphatically and distinctly such, because her duty to PROTEST against error, is, in the natural things, inseparable from the right of REFORM. Is he ready to repeat her protest, to defend its duty, and to demonstrate its truth? The Church is a Catholic Church, that is, a branch of the ancient, Universal Church of Christ, in contradistinction from all heresies and schisms. Is he thoroughly persuaded of this fact, and ready to assert, against "all gainsayers, but chiefly and preeminently against that corrupt system which would fain be called the only Catholic Church, the purity and faithful consistency of her doctrines ? If not, let him be put back awhile until he learns to understand the office which the Church expects of him. He may have piety, he may have learning, he may have all high moral and intellectual capacities, he may be sound in the essentials of his individual faith so far as concerns his own salvation. But all this he might be, without any of the distinctive principles which can alone authorize us to clothe him with the commission of the ministry. Our power to give him this commission is a solemn trust, delegated to us on certain specified conditions. And if those conditions, or any of them, be manifestly wanting, we have, strictly speaking, no legal right to ordain”
Dr. Harp's article: http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=11234#.T_WmLI4Ts00