March 21 – Thomas Cranmer

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Thomas Cranmer, reformer of the Church

Thomas Cranmer, Martyred 21st March 1556

Thomas Cranmer is variously described in Anglican and Uniting Church calendars as “martyr” and “liturgist”; to many he is also known as “reformer”. Behind those words is a figure of some complexity. In 2006, on the 450th anniversary of Cranmer’s death, the Revd Ian Pearson kindly allowed me to mark the occasion with a Prayer Book Communion in Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney.

Henry Speagle gave the address which has just been published, “Thomas Cranmer and the Contest for Anglican Identity”. In it he spoke of Cranmer as one who found his identity only “after a tortuous and often tormented pilgrimage”.

From his birth and baptism in 1489, that pilgrimage included his studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, and ordination in 1523. Soon coming to the attention of Henry VIII and made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Cranmer supported the King’s seeking of an annulment of Henry’s first marriage, the break with Rome, Henry’s claim to be “Supreme Head” of the Church of England, and the destruction of the monasteries — henceforth the foundation of stately homes and of riches for some, or else, in Shakespeare’s words, “bare ruin’d choirs”.

A convinced Protestant, seeking reformation, Cranmer welcomed the placing of an English Bible in churches in 1538 and in 1544 produced an English Litany for use in worship. However, it was only after the accession of Edward VI that he was able to replace the old Church of England Latin services with the 1549 Book of Common Prayer of which he was the chief author. Influenced by continental reformers, he soon replaced this by the more protestant Prayer Book of 1552. He was especially responsible also for “the stripping of the altars” — the abolition of many traditional ceremonies and the destruction of popular shrines.

In 1553, Mary Tudor became Queen, the links with Rome were restored, and the title of “Supreme Head” disappeared. (Elizabeth I was instead “Supreme Governor”.) Cranmer, “this mild man of God” as John Knox called him, was arrested, tried for heresy and sentenced to death by burning. He signed several recantations but on the day of his death, the 21st March, 1556, he finally renounced them all, and affirmed the beliefs he had long come to hold, especially with regard to the Holy Communion. It was ironic that the erastian who had seen the monarch as head of the Church was now one who came to repudiate what the monarch believed to be true of salvation and sacrament, and in the end returned to what he believed to be Scriptural and truly Catholic.

Some of the shrines and symbols and ceremonies Cranmer zealously abolished have long since been restored to his Church, but evangelical and liberal Christians would both still find wisdom in his understanding of the Eucharist and so many generally have benefited from an English Bible, a mainly married clergy, and from vernacular worship — in the 20th century restored even in Rome itself.

Cranmer’s greatest monument is the incomparable language of a Prayer Book, in its 1662 form still the official liturgy of the Church of England and of the Anglican Church of Australia. That Book of Common Prayer has been a major influence in many later liturgies, including Wesley’s Sunday Service, and some 20th century Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational and United forms of worship. John Wesley found in its liturgy “more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety” than in any other—although not perfect.

Through its services, many have come to faith, among them philosopher C.E.M. Joad and evangelist Bryan Green. And for some, like myself, who have known it from childhood, and for others as yet unfamiliar with it, it can still be, together with the Scriptures always underlying it, in George Herbert’s words, “a cupboard of food” and “cabinet of pleasure”.

We should remember the tragic aspects of the “Reformation” — mutual excommunications and persecution — but we can also thank God for blessings it has brought to the whole Church and pray in words largely those of Cranmer:

O Almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head corner-stone: grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable unto thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Contributed by John Bunyan