Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

preaching the windows cranmer 2


The second in a series of sermons on the four men depicted in the Lady Chapel window of St Mary, Moseley.

The Reverend Duncan Strathie
Vicar of Moseley

Sunday 17 September 2017, Trinity 14

Like a giant stirring from a deep slumber, Europe slowly began to awake from the Black Death. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, France, Spain and Britain were developing as the leading independent nations in Europe—their peoples having developed common languages, customs and cultures.

There was also a move to establishing rule throughout swathes of contiguous land under centralised structures of monarchy and government. Columbus had discovered the Americas and there was a hunger for new national identity and prestige as Europe stood on the brink of imperialist expansion.

Rising from the legacy of Charlemagne's Europe, Otto 1 was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in 919. Thus the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation came into being and Otto was widely regarded as having come into the succession of Roman Emperors.

In effect, the fact that the empire was both ‘Holy’ and ‘German’ meant that the political leadership of Western Christendom would remain in Saxon hands. By the middle of the fourteenth century, it had become essentially a German institution which was further weakened as German princes began to become ever entrenched in their rights. Its demise had left a vacuum at the heart of Europe.

Another movement that signalled the awakening of Europe was the Renaissance that saw a rediscovery of the classics. Culture began to develop and society became hungry for new experiences and challenges. All of this gave rise to an air of expectation and an increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The Church of God could not hope to escape the fast approaching tide of change.

Although some had managed to maintain the missionary dimension of the Church, for most people Christianity had become mainly external. Rather than a living faith, worship centred on such things as the performing of certain acts, being present at services, going on pilgrimages, performing of penances, veneration of relics, and the like.

If all of this had been allied to a living faith, things would not have been so bad but every one of these, however helpful, or at least innocent, in their origin, had become in practice little better than paganism revived. Christainity had become no more than an empty façade.

In the second half of the fourteenth century the teachings of John Wyclif found ready support. As a master of scholastic philosophy and theology at Oxford he became heavily influenced by Augustine. Towards the end of his life, his writings and speeches grew in their challenge of Papal authority. By publishing treatises on divine and civil dominion he established the idea that all ownership is God’s and that we are only stewards and that if the privilege of stewardship is abused, then it should be forfeited.

Meanwhile in Bohemia the second half of the fourteenth century witnessed a rising tide of reform influenced by the writings of Wyclif. Strengthened by academic links between Prague and Oxford and by royal marriages, there was much that was similar in the two reform movements.

John Hus became the leader of the Bohemian reformers and like Wyclif aroused much opposition and persecution against his followers. After being charged with heresy at the Council of Constance, Hus was eventually burnt at the stake in July 1415.

Throughout Europe other, less well organised, reform groups began to agitate and press for change. The seed-bed was being prepared for wide-scale reform.

Another part of the mosaic that contributed to the Reformation was the flourishing of lay piety and Christian Humanism towards the end of the fifteenth century. Both of these movements came together in the teaching and philosophy of Erasmus.

Here the desire for reform was not concerned with organisation or structures, but primarily with doctrine and also with spirituality. Erasmus’s work was highly critical in nature and made a strong appeal to the original texts of scripture and the teachings of Christ. He believed that reform could only be achieved by applying the tools of scholarship to Scripture. The inevitable consequence of this would be to infuse new life into Christendom.

A contemporary biography of Thomas Cranmer states:

Thomas Cranmer, the sonne of Thomas Cranmer of Aslocton, esquier and Agnes Hatfield his wyefe, doughter of Laurence Hatfield of Wylloughby of lyke degre, was born (at the sayd Aslocton, within the county of Nottingham) the second of July 1489, and learned his gramar of a rude parishe clerke in that barbarus tyme, unto his age of 14 yeares, and then he was sent by his seyd mother to Cambrege, where he was nosseled in the grossest kynd of sophistry, logike, philosophy morall and naturall (not in the text of the old philosophers, but chefely in the darke ridels and quidites of Duns and other subtile questionestes) to his age of xxij yeares. After that he gave hymselfe to Faber, Erasmus, good Laten authors, iiij or v yeares togyther, unto the tyme that Luther began to wryte: and then he, considering what great controversie was in matters of religion (not only in tryfles but in the cheefest articles of our salvation) bent himselfe to trye out the truthe herin: and, for as moche as he perceyved that he could not judge indifferently in so weyghty matters without the knowledge of the holy scriptures (before were enfected with any mannes opinions or errours) he applyed his whole studye iij yeares unto the seyd scryptures. After this he gave his mynde to good wryters both newe and old, not rashely running over them, for he was a slowe reader, but a diligent marker of whatsoever he redd, for he seldom redd without pen in hand, and whatsoever made eyther for the one parte or the other, of thinges being contraversy, he wrote it out yf it were short, or at the least noted the author and the place, that he might fynd it and wryte it out by leysure; which was great helpe to hym in debating of matters ever after. This kynde of studie he used till he were made doctor of divinitie, which was about the 34 of his age.

(Quoted by Brooks p.4 from MS Harl.417, fol 90; in Narratives, of the Days of the Reformation, pp. 218-19)

And so it was that Cranmer, scholar, lawyer, linguist, liturgist, logicist, theologian and diplomat came to the attention of the monarch: Henry VIII.

Henry VIII’s succession of wives was not merely a result of his philandering but a indication of how strongly he was driven to sire a healthy male heir to the Tudor throne. He was well aware of the failure of England’s only queen in the previous 500 years and he wanted to ensure that his, and his father’s strong rule was continued, particularly given the awakening of the nations of western Europe. His ambitions seemingly driven as much by a desire for the best for England as by any egotism.

Mary (b1516) was the third and only surviving child of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth (b1533) was next to be born, the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Edward (b1537) was a weak and frail child and his mother, Jane Seymour died in childbirth. That Edward survived until he was sixteen was in itself surprising.

We can thus see that a number of areas were evolving into new forms creating pressure for change. A new nationalism, religion and the arts all joined economic and social factors as the awakening prompted the questioning of the status quo.

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observes that because of his position as a Cambridge don, Cranmer inevitably would have been drawn into the debate surrounding Henry’s marriage. Cranmer’s advice that Henry VIII should turn to the Church in England and Europe’s theologians to resolve his conflict with the Pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was something that struck a resonance with the Monarch.

Not only because it raised the status of, and hastened the independence of, the province of Canterbury, but also because it fitted the wider political manoeuvrings of Henry and his links with France in an attempt to break free from the dominating and controlling influence of Spain, the Roman Church and the Pope. As Pollard comments: ‘That divorce and its ramifications were the web into which the threads of Cranmer’s life were woven’.

Cranmer was despatched to Rome to aid English officials in their fight to secure agreement for Henry to remarry. The closeness of Cranmer’s relationship with Henry grew with the passing of time: ‘The true source of strength for the Reformers lay in the maintenance of Cranmer’s personal bond with the King, who not only defended him against several concerted attacks but allowed him to continue planning advanced liturgical reforms’, notes the historian, Dickens.

Cranmer’s surviving private papers show that the teams conducting research to support Henry’s position gathered a large body of evidence that focused on the jurisdictional claims of the papacy.

Cranmer’s task was to translate and edit this into a usable form. Two documents emerged. One for internal government use (Collectanea Satis Copiosa, after Nicholson), the second for public consumption which attempted to persuade that history proved that it was the King and not the Pope who had supreme jurisdiction over the realm.

This second document, know as Determinations, was originally published in Latin and then underwent several revisions in several vernacular editions—all by Cranmer. As the revisions progressed so did the strength of support for the King’s position.

Cranmer encouraged English bishops to ‘…withstand the Pope openly to his face, as Paul did resist Peter…’ and concluded that: ‘…the King’s conscience in the matter represents a “motion of the Holy Ghost” which is higher than mere law’.

Subsequent parliamentary activity and legislation was based on these documents and as Henry moved ever closer to a total break with Rome it was Cranmer’s hand that was on the tiller.

Made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Cranmer was most reluctant to assume the position, it was never something he sought and by using an appeal to theologians as a basis, Cranmer was in a special, almost unique, position of State/Church entanglement. This entanglement of the Church of England and the state is still in place.

To reinforce the inevitable break with Rome which came in November 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, the English church was, almost by default, forced to adopt practices and procedures that set it increasingly apart from the Roman church.

The recognition that the national Church was a sovereign but constituent part of the ‘catholic, (small ‘c’) that is universal, Church’, set the Church in England on a divergent course from the Roman Church.

With growing influence from Lutheranism (the reforms from German monk and theologian Martin Luther) that were spreading across parts of Western Europe, Cranmer’s increasing appeal to Scripture and to his authority as Archbishop, and the now legal status of independence from Rome, it was only a question of time before widespread reforms would sweep through the English Church.

Cranmer was a moderate man with a sensitive perception able to see clearly both sides of an argument, Papist or Puritan, royalist or republican, and it was his strength and no weakness. Above all, there shone his sincerity of mind and singleness of heart: to quote his own words, ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit’—yes, these familiar words were written by Cranmer!

In a court of time-servers and place seekers, in a world of sycophants and scoundrels, he stands out as a man of simple, self-less integrity, quick to defend even an enemy or detractor, as Henry himself once warned him.

Cranmer’s methodology drew on the scholastic tradition: that is a thesis is stated which is opposed by an anti-thesis which when brought together produces a synthesis—a kind of compromise. And that is why ambiguity and compromise lie at the heart of Anglicanism. We are not an either or church, we are a both and church.

That is why we have no problem accommodating conservative Reformed Evangelical theology and Anglo-Catholic theology, along with liberal theology all in the same church. It also demonstrates the way in which the Church of England is uniquely both catholic and reformed.

We know about Martin Luther who ended up professor of theology at Wittenberg. We know the name John Calvin who developed his own distinctive reformed theology in Geneva. A theology that was taken up by John Knox and later introduced to Scotland and which gave birth to Presbyterianism.

But there were many other people who contributed to the debate and conversation that fed into the sweeping reforms: Martin Bucer in Strasburg, Phillip Melanchthon who was a Lutheran Professor also at Wittenberg, Peter Martyr, Chemnitz, Bullinger, Haffenreffer, and Hutter, not to mention Zurich’s Zwingli, all contributed to the conversation as letters ping-ponged back and forth across Europe. Cranmer also relied heavily on the early Church theologians—the Church Fathers and Mothers.

What was in vogue today was overtaken by new ideas tomorrow and the evolution of theology, away from the constrictions of the Vatican, opened new, previously undreamt of vistas on the theological horizon. In true scholastic fashion Cranmer’s ideas continued to evolve being shaped by the latest new ideas from his fellow theologians but always rooted in scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church, although slow to respond, did bring in sweeping changes of it’s own, but essentially remained unchanged. Northern Europe became Reformed, mostly in a Lutheran way, but with some pockets of Calvinism.

But which way did England go? Typically it went down the middle, it followed the via media, the middle way. We wanted the best of all worlds and so Anglicanism was born with a gestation of over a century, beginning with Cranmer’s order for the Eucharist—in English for the first time in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

This was superseded by a revised edition in 1553. Alongside these two early English language liturgies (previously all liturgy was in Latin) came the doctrinal statements set out in the Articles of Religion. Initially in 1536 there were 10, which were reduced to six in 1539, expanded to 42 in 1553 and finally settled on 39 in 1563. These can be found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer today—have a look.

To unpick the 39 Articles and reinterpret them for today would hasten the collapse of our Church and the Anglican Communion as views have become so divergent. Yet whenever a priest is licensed he or she has to swear that they will accept and abide by the historic formularies of the Church of England: the catholic creeds, the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

A note in the journal of Edward VI reads: ‘…the execution of discipline could not be entrusted to the bishops, some of whom were papists, some ignorant, some aged, some of bad repute’. It is apparent that Cranmer shared these views as he undertook these projects: to reform canon law and to organise the beliefs of his Church in a way that united as wide a band of Protestants as possible.

So as long as we have a Church of England we will have the BCP at it’s core with its definitions of classic Anglican theology and identity. But we must remember that it is the product of a scholastic method and some of its antitheses make uncomfortable reading today and impede some aspects of ecumenical convergence—especially with our Roman friends against whom it was intended to be antithetical!

Many editions of the Book of Common Prayer begin with the text of the Act of Uniformity which was passed in January 1549 and which established The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church after the use of the Church of England, as the sole legal form of worship in England.

Alas, a detailed exploration of the evolution of Cranmer’s theological thinking, his texts and his defence of monarchy as the head of the Church in England, is not possible within this address. Historians suggest that these English forms of worship were prepared for Henry as early as 1546. The fact that they were amended so frequently demonstrates a commitment to an ongoing programme of liturgical reform and a commitment to embody right theology.

In the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer wrote: ‘…the seruice in this Churche of England (these many yeares) hath been read in Latin to the people, whiche they understoode not; so that they haue heard with theyr eares onely; and their hartes, spirite, and minde, haue not been edified thereby’. He also makes reference to a form of prayer ‘…muche agreable to the mynde and purpose of the olde fathers, and a greate deale more profitable and commodious, than that whiche of late was used. It is more profitable, because here are left out many thynges, whereof some be untrue, some uncertein, some vain and supersticious: and is ordeyned nothyng to be read, but the very pure worde of God, the holy scriptures, or that which is euidently grounded upon the same; and that in suche a language and ordre, as is moste easy and plain for the understandyng, bothe of the readers and hearers’.

Reaction to the 1549 BCP pulled Cranmer in two opposing directions at the same time. His survival in the face of immense pressure, even with Edward’s support, again pays tribute to his political skills and his ability not to be deflected from the course he was intent on following.

Had anyone other than Cranmer been at the helm, the next edition of the BCP might well have been a sell-out to the Swiss position or a complete reversion to Roman rites. It was, however, doggedly ‘English’ and built firmly on the foundation laid by the 1549 BCP.

The 1552 revision represented a move away from a more Catholic position which had seen the importance of what was transacted in the Eucharist to have been the point of consecration, when the bread and wine became actual flesh and blood, to a more Reformed position that placed the emphasis on the point of individual reception by the communicant, as being the point of figurative transition in form.

Dix observes that ‘Compared with the clumsy and formless rites which were evolved abroad, that of 1552 is the masterpiece of an artist. Cranmer gave it a noble form as a superb piece of literature, which no one could say of its companions, but he did more. As a piece of liturgical craftsmanship it is in the first rank—once its intention is understood’. Yet again Cranmer stamped his own highly individual mark on the nation’s liturgy.

When Edward was succeeded by Mary it was clear that the English Reformation could not continue on its course or even maintain its current position. A return to a more Roman outlook was inevitable. ‘Half Spanish, the daughter and confidante of Catherine of Aragon, sometimes treated by her father as a bastard, Mary grew up with an attachment to Rome so fervent as to be fanatical.’ (Chadwick p. 123)

Now it was the Protestants rather than the Catholics who found themselves the subject of heresy trials. Many were freely allowed to go to the strongholds of Reform in Europe as Mary and her ministers began to overturn the Edwardian Reforms.

However, Mary could not bring about a complete restoration as in the 20 years since the dissolution of the monasteries land had been disposed of and many monks and nuns had died or moved to Catholic Europe. ‘Her own faith centred on the offering of Christ in the Mass, and it was this above all that she wished to reinstate.’

In December 1554 three old statutes against heresy were re-established and the burning, as a last resort, of Protestants began—earning her the nickname Bloody Mary. With Cardinal Pole having returned from exile in Rome to absolve parliament and assume the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, and former bishops in gaol refusing to recant, it was only a matter of time before Hooper, Ridley, Latimer and eventually Cranmer faced their fate at the stake.

The end of 1558 and the beginning of 1559 not only saw the death of both Mary and Pole but also a good number of their supporting bishops. By the time of Mary’s death, much had been achieved in terms of introducing a reformed Catholicism to England, ‘Marian Catholicism was at one with the larger Counter-Reformation’, Eamon Duffy comments.

However, when Elizabeth acceded to the throne the way was clear for a restoration of Protestant England and the opportunity of Cranmer’s legacy to find new life. However, as Chadwick notes: ‘…historians still argue whether, in making England Protestant during 1559, the queen and her advisers were pushing a reluctant Parliament or whether the house of Commons was pushing a reluctant queen’. It seems clear that there was a general lack of enthusiasm to face a situation of religious reversal for the third time in a decade.

Elizabeth worked with her Bishops to seek a settlement that would once and for all establish a common expression of the Christian faith across England. Under Elizabeth much of the ‘feel and content’ of Reformation England as it had been under her half-brother was restored.

What was new was that in ensuring that legislation was speedily drawn up, passed and implemented, new structures and procedures were introduced. These innovations in turn helped to begin the process of institutionalising the Reformed Church of England. A further legacy from which we suffer today.

A Papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, issued on 25 February 1570 by Pope Pius V, declared ‘Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime’ to be an heretic, released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders. Among the queen’s alleged offences it lists that ‘she has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics’. Some would argue, nothing new there then!

After a steady stream of further reforms in 1563 the 39 Articles were passed by Convocation and these were eventually passed by Parliament in 1571. Pressure for further reform continued from both sides of the debate, Elizabeth however resisted and thus ensured the maintenance of Cranmer’s legacy of a via media course.

Cranmer had been not only the architect, but also the midwife and then builder that saw the Church in England undergo transition to become the Church of England.

But what became of Thomas Cranmer? Under Queen Mary, On 13 November 1553 Cranmer and four others were brought to trial for treason, found guilty, and condemned to death. He was imprisoned in Oxford awaiting his fate.

On 4 December, Rome decided Cranmer’s fate by depriving him of the archbishopric and giving permission to the secular authorities to carry out their sentence. In his final days Cranmer’s circumstances changed, which led to several recantations.

His last recantation was issued on 18 March. It was a sign of a broken man, a sweeping confession of sin. Despite the stipulation in Canon Law that recanting heretics be reprieved, Mary was determined to make an example of Cranmer, arguing that ‘his iniquity and obstinacy was so great against God and your Grace that your clemency and mercy could have no place with him’, and pressed ahead with his execution.

Cranmer was told that he would be able to make a final recantation but this time in public during a service at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. He wrote and submitted the speech in advance and it was published after his death.

At the pulpit on the day of his execution, he opened with a prayer and an exhortation to obey the king and queen, but he ended his sermon totally unexpectedly, deviating from the prepared script. He renounced the recantations that he had written or signed with his own hand and as such he stated his hand would be punished by being burnt first.

He then said, ‘And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine’. He was pulled from the pulpit and taken to where Bishops Latimer and Ridley had been burnt six months before. As the flames drew around him, he fulfilled his promise by placing his right hand into the heart of the fire while saying ‘that unworthy hand’ and according to Foxes Book of Martyrs his dying words were, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God’.

In all that I have outlined a recurring motif has been the constant appeal to scripture in the first place and to the Fathers in the second place. Whatever the political, social or economic motivation for the elements which together forged the English Reformation, once the impetus for Reform was in place, those at the helm turned to the One True Church’s catholic heritage.

As an Anglican I really feel that I have the best of both worlds. The Episcopal oversight of the Church, apostolic succession, the vestments and symbolism, and the ancient creeds and texts are all bound up in well-rounded Reformed theology. A theology that places God at the centre and puts its trust in scripture with a ready ear to listen to what the Fathers and Mothers had to say about things.

For many the via media of the English Reformation is the embodiment of English ambiguity and therefore a source of continuing frustration. In the final analysis in my view, it is in fact the embodiment of the right balance between the Church’s catholic heritage and the timely demand for doctrinal reform.