Monday, March 21, 2011

Cranmer - an Appreciation

It seems inappropriate to let the 455 anniversary of Cranmer's execution pass without saying something about his achievements as a reformer, a liturgist, and as a theologian. Today, Cranmer and his vision of what Anglicanism should be is deeply unpopular even with those who describe themselves as 'traditionalists.' I suspect this neglect of Cranmer by many who venerate tradition are only interested in preserving "the revolution before last," which, in the case of Anglicanism, is the Catholic Revival of the late nineteenth century.

Cranmer's family had lived for several generations on the border between Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Cranmer was born in 1489 in Aslockton, Notts., then as now a small village, not far from Grantham. Cranmer's father was a yeoman farmer, a class that had grown economically important since the Black Death, and was to remain the backbone of English society until the industrial revolution. These men passed on their farms to their eldest sons, but there was little they could do for their other sons than give them a good education.

Thomas Cranmer ended up at Cambridge where he came to embrace the principles of the Reformation cause at some point in his mid-30s. Already married and widowed, Cranmer had received major orders c.1519, and was pursuing an academic career in one of the University's lesser colleges. However, the ideas he heard discussed at the White Horse Inn converted him to the reforming cause, and providence - I cannot think of a better explanation - arranged his career so that he was in an unequalled position to push the cause of reform.

Cranmer first came to the notice of Henry VIII during his attempts to secure an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer suggested putting the matter to the Universities of Europe, thus bypassing the Papcy and the Curia which were both under the control of Catherine's nephew Charles V. In return for being useful, Cranmer was made Archdeacon of Taunton, and was sent as one of Henry's representatives to the German princes. He settled in Nuremberg in 1531, and shortly afterwards married. This was an unusual step for a cleric from Catholic England, but natural enough in Lutheran Nuremberg where it seemed Cranmer anticipated spending the rest of his life. I think we can all imagine his surprise, and concern when he was recalled to England in 1533 to succeed William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Not surprisingly, Cranmer tended to lead quaite a retired life away from Court. He favoured his more rural residences as this made it possible to lead something close to a normal family life with his wife, Margaret, and their increasing brood of children. Meanwhile at Court, Thomas Cranmer did his bit as a faithful royal servant implementing the Acts of the Reformation Parliament which severed England, Ireland and Wales from the Papal obedience. He also signed off on Henry's annulment and crowned Anne Boleyn as Henry's consort in 1533. The one blot on Cranmer's career was his complicity in Henry's matrimonial adventures. However, one suspects that this was not something Cranmer lost too much sleep over given that Henry's lawyers could usually give his position an air of legal respectability.

Cranmer's ability to pilot through reform was limited whilst Henry lived. The smash and grab raid on the monasteries did not originate with Cranmer, but with Thomas Cromwell who wished to reduce the amount of property, and with it the power and influence of the Church. Cranmer's hand can be seen in the establishment of the New Foundation cathedrals - Gloucester, Chester, Peterborough, Bristol and Oxford - whose statutes placed a far more stringent requirement for preaching on the Dean and Chapter than existed in the Old Foundations. Also when it came time to reconstitute the Chapter at Canterbury - a former cathedral prior - he insisted on creating a college of preachers, funded from the old monastic revenues, which doubtless he intended to be the shock troops of the Reformation.

Cranmer's first hesitant steps towards a new liturgy came with the Litany of 1544, and his decision to make the Sarum Use standard throughout the Province of Canterbury, and possibly the whole of England in either 1534 or 1543. After Henry's death he formed a small committee to assist him with first 'The Order of Communion' which was to be inserted into the Latin Mass, and then with the first version of the Book of Common Prayer. The 1549 BCP became mandatory throughout England on June 10 1549 and marked the complete abandonment of Latin in the liturgy. However, it is a rather conservative looking document, even though on serious inspection, one has to dismiss the claims of Bishop Stephen Gardner, and modern Anglo-Catholics that the Communion service therein supports transubstantiation or consubstantiation as bogus. Cranmer's work endured mainly because of his masterly use of the English language and sound theology. It is interesting to note that those groups within Anglicanism keenest to abandon Cranmer's liturgy have also been the one's most eager to abandon Creedal Orthodoxy.

Cranmer revised the BCP again in 1551-2 this time into a more clearly reformed structure, but the actual wording changes are few and minor. The most significant being the replacement of the old words of administration with 'Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and be thankful." Cranmer's book on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper shows that he held to what he described as the doctrine of the 'true presence' as opposed to transubstaniation. Through his reading of Ratramnus and the Early Fathers, and the arguments of Nicholas Ridley, he had come to a doctrinal position close to that of Calvin - that is to say 'Receptionism.' He also gained much from his friendship with other Reformed moderates such as Martin Bucer.

Cranmer also has a measure of influence on the educations of Edward and Elizabeth, ensuring that they received a series Christian Humanist, and Protestant leaning tutors. Edward seems to have become a dedicated reformer, who doubtless would have developed into a definite Calvinist. Elizabeth, who was Cranmer's God-daughter, seems to have embraced rather more of Cranmer's outlook except in ceremonial matters.

Towards the end of his life, Cranmer's mature theology trod a via meia between Lutheranism and Calvinism. On most issues - Predestination, Baptism, the ministry, Church-state relations - Cranmer seems to have remained broadly Lutheran, but in terms of the Eucharist he had adopted a position similar to that of Calvin. Both the Forty-two Articles of 1553, which are directly Cranmer's work; and the Thirty-nine Articles of 1571, which were revised by Cranmer's protege, Matthew Parker, reflect this middle way between Lutheran and Calvinist. Cranmer's theological position can also be seen in his contributions to the Book of Homilies - a compendium of officially approved sermons - set forth in the reign of Edward VI as part of the ongoing programme of Reform.

After the accession of Mary in 1553, Cranmer's arrest and trial were to be expected. In order to secure his recantation he was placed in solitary confinement and was also a witness to the burnings of his close friends Latimer and Ridley. This has the neccessary effect on Cranmer, who broke under the strain and signed his recantation. Under normal procedures, Cranmer would have saved his skin by such a recantation, but Mary could not forget his part in the proceedings that had secured the annulment of Henry's marriage to her mother. As a result Cranmer was led out to burn on March 21st 1556 his final public act being to recant his recantation, and affirm his Protestant faith.

Cranmer is not in the ordinary sense an heroic figure, and is all the more interesting because of that. Whatever you may think of his role as a Tudor civil servant - an occupation that always makes the practicioner aquainted with forty shades of grey - one cannot fail to realise that Cranmer was one of the major architects of Anglicanism. In his reform of the liturgy, and his careful steering of a course between the competing Protestant ideologies, Cranmer laid the foundation for a national, liturgical, episcopal, Reformed Church that took its theological cue from this or that school of modern writers, but from the Scriptures and the Four Latin Doctors.


  1. Peter:

    Thank you for the correct use of "via media" for Cranmer and the Elizabethan episcopal bench, to wit, the middle way between Lutheranism and Reformed theology.

    One question: Is there documentary evidence for Cranmer's involvement at the White Horse Inn?

    Thanks for a most commendable article.


  2. Perhaps the one distinctive aspect of Calvinism that I have always regard as entirely orthodox, even Orthodox, is the doctrine of Receptionism. Indeed, to this day, unlike Roman Catholics, the Orthodox never venerate the reserved sacraments except in the context of ceremonies in which Holy Communion is administered to the laity from the reserved sacrament. Likewise, non-communicating masses, or priest masses, have never been allowed among the Orthodox. Thus, Eastern liturgical practice has always preserved the strong union of the consecration of, and partaking of, the elements--as if to say that the Real Presence has no independent signification apart from the actual participation of the faithful. And this, to my mind, is precisely the point that Calvin, and Cranmer, were making in response to Latin Scholasticism, which was going in exactly the opposite direction.

  3. Thank you for this remembrance of the under appreciated and under-heralded Thomas Cranmer. I continue to be amazed at his use of language to convey the Biblical truths of repentance and faith in various liturgical forms in the BCP. As you note, he is a fascinating historical figure... so very human and arguably so very godly as the Archbishop of the English reformation. He seemed not concerned as to his receiving the credit for so much that he was directly or indirectly responsible for. Diarmaid MacColluch's bio on Cranmer and Ashley Null's book examining Cranmer's theology are well worth reading for anyone wanting the meat and potatoes, as it were, of this man.

    God's blessings,

  4. Thank you for an interesting reminder.

  5. Thanks for a splendid article, Bishop Robinson!
    Laurence K. Wells+

  6. An excellent article and a fine reminder of what we do owe Cranmer. The language of his liturgy still moves us, but his vision of the primitive church and its worship seems as much a fantasy, an invention as the 19th century ritualist's view of that of the Rome of their own day. Fortunately for us as Anglicans and Christians, we have remained open to the scholarship which has made both the theology and discipline of the primitive church accessible and relevant. Plus, we are almost over the shock of worshiping God in a language we understand. Well, almost.

  7. In St. John Chrysostom's liturgy the Orthodox pray that God will send down His heavenly grace upon us. It is a very here and now thing. That is why we are urged to be present at every opportunity to receive Communion. This same petition for God's grace is found at least twice in the 1928 (if I recall correctly)and it has this sense of immediacy, I think.

    I love the 1928 BCP and still use it for personal devotions. Many phrases are found here that are in the Liturgy of St. John.
    "It is meet and right..."
    "this reasonable service"
    "Having in remembrance..."

    Yes, what Cranmer crafted is unique, extraordinary and rich. The BCP is a true treasure.

  8. Dear Philip,

    You are correct, there is no direct evidence of Cranmer being a member of the White Horse group, but it is a reasonable supposition given the direction of Cranmer's contacts and patronage in the 1530s, and the fact that he was resident in Cantab. at the time.

    Also, contrary to what some people seem to assert, it seems pretty sure that Cranmer's reforming convictions were formed long before he came into Court circles - probably as early as 1525. I tend to see Cranmer as an Erasmian Humanist, attracted to Lutheranism in the mid-1520s, who in the mid-1540s embraces the receptionist view of the Eucharist without seriously modifying his position. This is probably a gross over-simplification, but it fits with what I know of his theological evolution.


  9. Alice,

    The other great influence on the 1928 BCP Communion Service is Bishop Rattray of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and it is to him that the credit belongs for the definitive recasting Cranmer's Prayer of Consecration in a more Eastern form. The Non-Jurors following Caroline Divines such as Lancelot Andrewes really rather 'rediscovered' the Eastern Fathers in the early 1600s. This work was to have an impact on the Scottish BCP of 1637, the Durhan Book, the non-Juror Liturgy published under Queen Anne, and the Scottish revisions of 1714 and 1746. It was from the last named source that it made its way to America thanks to Seabury and Smith.


  10. I may be the last person in the world to feel this way, but to me the 1764 re-location of the Epiclesis was a liturgical and theological mistake. The 1549 position, repeated in the 1637 Scottish liturgy, (that is, before the Dominical Verba) is more consistent with the usage of the Western Church and shows a better theology of consecration. The result of the 1764 relocation interrupts the logic of the Memorial-Oblation and the remainder of the Prayer of Consecration. It creates a hodge podge, in which we have an Eastern style epiclesis but nonetheless used unleavened bread.

  11. What a beautiful, moving, and judicious account of the father of the Prayer Book. I still have not read Diarmaid MacCulloch's bio of Cranmer. Thank you, Bishop Peter.

  12. Dear Fr. Wells,

    Up until 1920 a major of Episcopal parishes would have used leavened bread, so the incongruity is more a result of the 'catholic revival' than anything Rattray or the Non-Jurors intended. I sometimes think we had certain things correct, and then our friendly neighbourhood Spikes introduced all manner of things that do not fit in with proper Anglican praxis in the name of being 'more catholic.' Last time I checked being catholic was a bit like being pregnant - one either is or is not!


  13. I see that my comment was less than clear. Because of the 1764 innovative relocatiob of the Invocation, we have it in the place utilzed by the EO's, but it is still not quite satisfactory from the EO point of view,
    It merely asks that "we receiving them ... may be partakers," and falls short of asking concretely that the bread and wine may be changed. Otherwise, with either leavened or unleavened bread, we have a rite clearly Western in style and ethos. An ersatz Byzantine epiclesis is inconsistent with rest of the rite.

    By his introduction in 1549 of a reference to the Holy Spirit in the equivalent of the former Quam oblatinem, Cranmer cut a Gordian knot and resolved a conflict between East and West. The 1764 brain-storm squandered that liturgical achievement.
    Too bad.

  14. Brother Peter:

    Albeit modifiable and unscholarly, further inquiry re: White Horse Inn at Cambridge Un., Lutheran and Reformed thought. See:,_Cambridge plus references to Elton.

    "Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, the future Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer and the reformers Robert Barnes and Thomas Bilney. The group was not confined to those associated with the reform movement of the next two decades, however, and also included future conservatives like Stephen Gardiner, the future Bishop of Winchester. Others who met at the tavern included Miles Coverdale, Matthew Parker, William Tyndale, Nicholas Shaxton, and John Bale."

    Of interest to me, Matthew Parker, Chaplain to Ann Boleyn, and QE1's first Archbishop. Why, pray tell, did she, Bess 1, elect and choose Parker? More needs to be expressed and expounded on ABC Parker. He understood the 1552 BCP. He embraced the 1559 BCP, which all Protestants could have used, including Lutherans. On his watch, the 39 Articles were passed in Convocation. On his watch, Papal inquiry was made to send delegates to Trent, which Bess 1 disregarded.

    This article suggests that Parker--at Cam Un--was involved with White Horse Inn. Also, lamentably, that--in time--it was destroyed and replaced with some marker.

    What was Parker reading?