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.