Four hundred years have now passed since England was given the portentous sign of an archbishop dying in flames for evangelical truth, and holding out the right hand that had almost betrayed him as a first victim to the fire. In those four hundred years there have been revolutionary changes in every aspect of the nation’s life, not least the religious. And since no nation can live in a vacuum, they are changes which for good or evil have significance for the world at large. There is every reason, therefore, to ask whether Cranmer still has a message for our twentieth century Christian world, and if so, what form that message will take.
Beliefs Cranmer Valued
Perhaps we can begin with the doctrine of Cranmer. For, after all, it was his doctrine which shaped the rest of his activity. And first we may take into account two or three more formal considerations. Cranmer was a dogmatician, but he was not a dogmatist. He had a mind which was always open to new truth. He took seriously the possibility that he might misunderstand the Word and revelation of God. He was always willing to be taught—so long as the teaching was in the right school and by the right Master. He was sixty years old before he came to understand the doctrine for which he died. And having found it, he did not lose all sympathy for those who had not yet done so. That is why he made his articles of religion as comprehensive as possible within an evangelical and scriptural framework. He was no inquisitor or persecutor. He realized that, to prevent a confusion of voices, the Church needs a confession on disputed issues. But he had no desire either to arrest a conscientious obedience to the Holy Spirit or to disrupt the Church by overly scrupulous definition. If truth, as he saw it, was quite incompatible with error, it was not incompatible with charity. And he had no illusions of having a monopoly of truth.
Materially, the doctrine of Cranmer has no very original feature, as compared with other Reformers. Its basis was loyalty to the Word of God, and it was in this bondage to the Word that Cranmer won through to the true liberty of the children of God.
Justification by faith played a central place in his teaching, with the characteristic emphasis that a true faith is a faith which obeys the divine command as well as the divine invitation, and therefore expresses itself in works. A reconstruction of sacramental doctrine was his third and most detailed contribution, and at this point Cranmer has some insights which may well guide us to a more genuinely biblical doctrine than either a crass “sacramentalism” on the one side or a mere “symbolism” on the other. The patristic learning of Cranmer is a distinctive feature, and if he did not always prove satisfactorily that the fathers taught good Reformation doctrine, he has shown us that they will always repay a careful study—especially when read independently of later medieval categories. Always, however, Cranmer was careful to subject the fathers to the apostolic, and therefore the scriptural, norm. For it is by the Bible that the Church and its thinking may rightly grow into the likeness of Christ. And it was not for nothing that Cranmer as a university don had demanded a biblical knowledge from his students, and as archbishop took practical steps which resulted in the licensing and later the definite institution in the churches of the English Bible.
Gifted Liturgical Phrasing
In the Anglican communion itself, the theological work of Cranmer is often discounted. His writings are not read, and the articles seem alien to a generation which has lost touch with the background from which they come. Only the patristic enthusiasm strikes a responsive chord, and even the fathers are not at all read as Cranmer read them. But if this is the case, and there is scope in many quarters for a deep re-thinking of the issues that Cranmer raised, the situation is very different in relation to his liturgical work. Of course, the prayer-book of Cranmer has its critics. The doctrinal assumptions of much of the revision are particularly disliked. The divesting of many of the offices of the more elaborate ceremonial, as well as the truncation or drastic reorganization of the structure, can hardly command the enthusiasm of those who look in a very different direction from Cranmer. Yet even the worst critics cannot dispute the fact that Cranmer had not only a fine ability to give liturgical form to his doctrinal presuppositions, but a genius in phraseology which makes the English Prayer Book one of the most highly treasured of all service-books, and one of the most daunting and exasperating for those who realize from time to time that there is a practical need to keep it up-to-date.
We can hardly learn from Cranmer’s phrasing, for this displays an element of sheer genius and is therefore inimitable. It teaches us, perhaps, that in the long run large-scale revision of set forms must wait for the hand of a master or masters. But there are many valuable lessons in the aims or principles of Cranmer, whatever forms of worship we may practice or adopt.
Lessons For Worship
A first is that worship should not be too complicated, but follow a simple and well-defined pattern so that there is not the distraction of novelty or confusion.
A second is that worship should be congregational. The mother-tongue is essential for this purpose (as also for edification). And the congregation should be able to join not only in singing but in prayer as well, through responses or common prayers. It must not rely on that which is read or said by the minister any more than it does on that which is sung by a choir.
A third is that the liturgical treasures of the past should as far as possible be exploited in the living situation of the present. The old forms were necessarily burst by the new content, but this did not mean that the old content could not be put into the new forms. As far as possible Cranmer adopted all suitable existing materials. He was not an iconoclast (except, of course, in a more literal sense). He wanted a worship that had wealth and dignity and tradition. He tried to keep the balance between conservatism and reform. And if he pleased neither the extremists nor the reactionaries, he did at least create a new thing which has commended itself to generations of worshippers and enriched the liturgical life of more than the Anglican communion.
The administrative side of Cranmer’s work was the least successful, for he was continually hampered by rulers whom he could not control, and thwarted by the lack of any consistent support from ecclesiastical colleagues. Many of the practical measures of reform carried out under Henry were not of Cranmer’s devising or execution. Others which he might have desired were incapable of realization.
Negatively, we learn from Cranmer the danger inherent in every Erastian or semi-Erastian system. A theoretical case can be made out for the royal headship which Cranmer espoused in conscience as well as practice, but it presumes a “most religious and gracious king” who will not use the Church and its affairs merely as an instrument of domestic or foreign policy.
But positively, there are better things to say, for Cranmer had vision even where he had no capacity. In the redeployment of monastic and chantry endowments, for example, he saw the need for a great increase in the number of preaching and teaching bishops and pressed for the provision of schools and hospitals. The injunctions, especially in the early years of Edward VI, lay great emphasis on the question of an educated as well as a godly ministry, resulting, of course, in an instructed and therefore more genuinely Christian people.
A favorite project of Cranmer was the drastic revision of canon law. The persistent obstruction of civil rulers prevented its practical realization. But the project reflects a typically Reformation concern for discipline. And the proposals include an important provision for the restoration of synods. Cranmer himself never had the force or authority to implement his suggestions. In the rough and tumble of administration and relationships with civil powers it may well be that there is a place for characters very different from cranmer.
But Cranmer did at least show a wide range of vision, and if he had been given the opportunity he might easily have carried through a far-reaching program of reform. In the circumstances and setting of the time, it may indeed be doubted whether any churchman, however forceful, could have done very much more. Even the masterful Wolsey broke on the rock of Tudor despotism.
This brings us directly to a final consideration of the character of Cranmer. For in the last analysis, it is by the life that a man is known. And Cranmer as a man has been the center of almost persistent controversy and misunderstanding. He has been pitied as a weakling and vilified as a sycophant. He has even been accused of hypocrisy and deliberate cruelty. And there are facts or episodes which can, of course, be adduced to support any or all of these interpretations.
Perhaps the real element of truth underlying them is that Cranmer was undoubtedly thrust willy-nilly into a position which he did not desire and for which he had, humanly speaking, no particular aptitude. Cranmer was almost a born scholar. He loved his quiet, studious life at Cambridge. He had no taste or ability for great matters of state and government. He was humble by nature and modest in taste and ambition. He had not the nature either to ride rough-shod over opponents or to stride gladly and militantly to martyrdom. He was one of the little things of the world, a despised earthen vessel, destined by God to carry a great treasure.
Cranmer was not by any means perfect, and in his high office the weak strains in his constitution were frequently exposed. But if he had the weaknesses of his virtues, they were solid virtues all the same—and genuinely Christian virtues.
Void Of Selfish Ambition
For one thing, he had no selfish ambitions. He did not covet wealth or glory or power. He did not abuse his position, even in the scramble for monastic riches.
Again, he was wholly honest and candid, if humble, in relation to himself. When attacked by his enemies, he was quite prepared to be examined and did not try to bluster his way through.
Above all, he was openhanded and friendly, especially to those who attacked or offended him. “Do my Lord of Canterbury an ill turn, and he will be your friend forever,” was a saying well supported by the facts.
It was perhaps because Henry saw in Thomas Cranmer a man without guile and without animosity—the very opposite of himself, but a genuine exemplification of Christian virtues—that he came to feel for him not merely admiration that he was so great a scholar, or gratitude that he solved his matrimonial problems, but affection that he was so loyal a subject, and above all so good a man. In Cranmer—elevated against his will—we catch a glimpse of the self-abasement which the world—even the world of historical judgment—can still scorn, but which is still the way of the Son of God, the way of the cross, and therefore the way of the Christian.
Architect Of Anglican Reform
And God did indeed use this weak thing of the world to confound the high and the mighty. At the deepest level, even in time, the contribution made by Cranmer in his lowliness and weakness was greater and more far-reaching than that of Henry in his power, or Wolsey in his statecraft, or Gardiner in his guile, or Northumberland in his forceful rapacity. For it was this man who proved to be the true architect of Anglican reform as it was finally carried through after the Marian reaction. His main work was in terms of spiritual realities—a Bible, a Prayer Book and a doctrinal confession. And in spite of their apparent insignificance, these are the most potent and abiding realities, in history as also in eternity. In other words, the life and character and work of Cranmer—for all their admitted deficiencies—are a challenge to our perception of the true proportion of contesting realities, the mode of the divine operation and the nature of our apostolic and Christian calling.
G. W. Bromiley, Ph.D., D.Litt., is rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and former Vice-Principal, Tyndale Hall, Bristol. He is also author of Thomas Cranmer: Theologian.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more