Thomas Cranmer – The Chaplain

It’s very good to welcome you all back to Worcester College Chapel to start this new calendar year and the Hilary term. We have a splendid range of preachers this term who have all chosen a writer or saint of the British Isles, from any period, who is of special interest to them. Some of the saints are depicted in the mosaic floor tiles in front the choir stalls in this chapel. We have the Bishop of Monmouth preaching on St. Gwynllyw, about whom I know nothing at all; Dr. Gillingham is preaching on St. Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, Canon Prof. Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical history will be preaching on Bede, the Venerable, and an early historian of the English; we also have the Bishop of Norwich, who has chosen to preach on St. Cuthbert and Emma Pennington on Julian of Norwich. Our own Provost has kindly agreed to preach on that great poet, pastor and writer of the English Church, George Herbert and the series is book-ended with a look at two great reformers of the English and Scottish Churches: Thomas Cranmer and John Knox.
Every year at Worcester College there are at least one, if not two, Gaudy meals for old members of the college, who come back for a wonderful dinner, to recapture the magic of their undergraduate days and to reminisce with old friends. In recent years, one Gaudy a year has been highly populated by members who were undergraduates in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, Chapel was compulsory for students (who were all men), who had to attend either Mattins or Evensong on Sunday. Those same men, now in their twilight years, are the same people who, after a Gaudy meal, which often finishes late ay night, unfailingly get up early on the Sunday morning here, to attend the 8 a.m. Book of Common Prayer Communion service. In fact, it is not uncommon to have 40 or 50 people in Chapel at that early hour and nearly all of them, I would say probably all of them, know the words off by heart. The words of the Book of Common prayer, those small green books which you see in the pews before you, are part of our heritage in this country. Our language and culture has been shaped by it and, it goes without saying, that it is still very much at the heart of the Anglican Church’s liturgy today. This service of Evensong uses the words of the book of common prayer and Evensong, matins and communion is said and sung in Churches and cathedrals with exactly the same words as have been used for the past four and a half centuries.
Well, this year, the BCP, as it is known, celebrates the 350th anniversary since its restoration after the civil war, in the 1662 version. It is this version, with perhaps minor alterations in the early 20th century that we retain today. The same version that ‘Wills and Kate’ used for their wedding ceremony in Westminster Abbey last year, and therefore the marriage liturgy that has come back into fashion for many couples wishing to wed.
But the Book of Common Prayer has its origins many years before 1662 and the man primarily responsible for its authorship and influence is that man I shall be considering as one of our great British spiritual writers, if not saints, Thomas Cranmer. I want to look briefly at his life and work and then to examine one aspect of his theology that may be pertinent to us today.
So, who was Thomas Cranmer? Put very simply he was the English priest who, as Henry VIII’s friend, counsellor and ally, and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1532, facilitated the theological complexities of Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the King’s and the English Church’s break with Rome, the slow process of Church Reform in England, and the production of the book of Common Prayer in the reign of the boy king Edward VI, with its liturgical and theological development for the ‘common people’. All of this, of course, ended with young Edward’s death and the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, and Cranmer’s execution here in Oxford. So how did he manage all this, and what is his lasting legacy? I’ll give the briefest of outlines.
History tells us that Thomas Wolsey had failed to promote Henry VIII’s argument that divorce from Katherine was justified, because he had failed to persuade the canon lawyers of the case. But the young Archbishop Cranmer appealed not to Canon law of the matter, but to Statute law in order to establish the Royal Supremecy over the Church, which the Anglican Church retains to this day. But Cranmer was more that Henry’s lapdog. He was clever enough to manipulate Henry’s capriciousness in this matter to further that cause of a reformed Church in England. In the 1530s Cranmer promoted Royal supremecy, but only, in a sense, because he believed it reflected a greater divine order. Indeed throughout this decade Cranmer’s theological mind was being expanded by the developments on the Continent and, in particular, the nature of Christian commitment expounded by the Wittenberg professor, Martin Luther. From the works of Luther Cranmer began to grasp the answer to a fundamental question about life and death: how am I saved? What is the path to salvation?
Cranmer began to grasp that, for him, the way to salvation owed much to Luther’s ‘rediscovery’ of the gospel as well as Erasmus’s approach to the Bible in terms of philology. That is, unpacking the details, derivation, translation and meaning of the words. Therefore Cranmer’s sermons on the 1530s show an influence of Luther and, therefore, Saint Paul, in the doctrine of justificatio sola fide, justification by faith alone. For Salvation, simple faith has priority over good works. Now, at the time, this theology was still in contrast, even conflict, with Henry’s conservative commitment to Catholic Christian tradition, as well as in conflict with the theology of most other English bishops. Nevertheless, Cranmer wove a discreet and diplomatic path until, in 1547, with the death of Henry and the Accession of Edward, Cranmer was able to produce a book of homilies which explicitly set out his reformed views on salvation, faith and good works. It is the homily on salvation from which we heard this evening.
Three things must go together in our justification… Upon GODS part, his great mercy and grace: upon Christ’s part, justice, that is, the satisfaction of GODS justice, or the price of our redemption, by the offering of his body, and shedding of his blood, with fulfilling of the law perfectly & throughly; and upon our part true & lively faith in the merits of Jesus Christ, which yet is not ours, but by GODS working in us…

Such views received hostility from Cranmer’s Episcopal colleagues, such as Stephen Gardiner, bishop fo Winchester, who still regarded justification by faith as a Lutheran heresy and a threat to tradition catholic doctrines. However, Cranmer’s theology found its expression most clearly in liturgical reforms. The sacrifice of the Mass was turned into a Communion of the People in everyday language and in 1549, with the production of the first Book of Common Prayer, the kingdom was, in effect, legally bound to comply with these changes in worship, which retained the structure of old liturgies, and yet Cranmer’s skill was in augmenting them with a range of prayers which were sympathetic to the new doctrines of the reformation. Therefore, the Latin medieval missal, breviary, and so on were now available to ordinary people an clergy in English as Common Prayer, not only for use at the altar but also in handy size as we see before us. Some of the old practices were kept and some discarded, and thus Cranmer might be seen as the first exponent of the Via Media, the middle way, which went on to become the hallmark of broad Anglicanism today, somewhere between Catholicism and Protestantism, depending on your point of view.
We could hardly call Thomas Cranmer a saint, and his denunciation of the pope as the antichrist is hardly a model for 21st-century ecumenism, but whatever his faults, I think he was ultimately genuinely concerned for the spiritual health of a his home nation and contributed greatly to the development of ordinary people’s faith, spirituality and worship, which is still felt today. Often it is said that the great life is marked as much by the manner of its end as to how it was lived. If we are to believe the polemicist John Foxe, then Cranmer’s final speech on Broad Street here in Oxford before his burning on 21 March 1556 contained an admirable exhortation to his listeners, and ironically perhaps a prophecy for future generations of Christians, including today’s Church as we begin the week of prayer for Christian Unity this week, and it is with this that I shall end:
“Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation that others may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified and you edified. My exhortation is, that you love all together like brethren and sisters. For alas, pity it is to see, what contention and hatred one Christian man hath to another; not taking each other, as sisters and brothers; but rather as strangers and mortal enemies. But I pray you learn and bear well away this one lesson, To do good to all people as much as in you lieth, and to hurt no one, no more than you would hurt your own natural and loving brother or sister.

The Chaplain
15th January 2012

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