Long Ago and Far Away
Thomas Cranmer, author of the Prayer Book – by Allan Blanch
(written to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.)
Although to many of us it may all seem long ago and far away, we should thank God for Thomas Cranmer as we observe the 500th anniversary of his birth on 2nd July, 1489. To this day we benefit from his work.
Cranmer was the son of a village squire in Nottinghamshire. He excelled with the longbow and was a master horseman from his youth. Following a harsh early education he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, then newly founded. After taking the M.A. degree he married Joan, a Cambridge girl. When she died in childbirth he was restored to his fellowship at Jesus College and ordained. His subsequent B.D. and D.D. degrees were the fruit of painstaking and assiduous study.
He longed to pursue the quiet reflective life of a scholar but was suddenly summoned to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Later he said, “there never was man came more unwillingly to a bishopric than I did to that.”
We may identify three particular reasons to honour the memory of Thomas Cranmer: he was a man of the Bible, a preaching theologian and a superb liturgiologist.
A MAN OF THE BIBLE
As a University examiner in Divinity he refused to pass candidates who were not competent in the Bible.
From 1534 he worked with others for the authorization of an English Bible (possession of even part of which had carried the death penalty) and rejoiced when the Great Bible appeared in 1540. It is sometimes called “Cranmer’s Bible” because he wrote a Preface to it. He encouraged its purchase, saying “let us think (it) a better jewel in our house than either gold or silver,” for “in the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul.”
A PREACHING THEOLOGIAN
With his fellow reformers Cranmer was eager to promote biblical preaching and especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone through the grace of Christ. Clergy were unskilled in preaching so Cranmer wrote some sermons which appeared in 1547 among the twelve Homilies – officially published sermons to be read in church.
His treatment of justification spread over three sermons: Of Salvation, Of Faith, and Of Good Works. “This is the ordinance of God, that they which believe in Christ should be saved without works, by faith only, freely receiving remission of their sins… and therefore wholly to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification unto Christ only, and his most precious blood-shedding,” he wrote.
Faith, he said, “is not only the common belief of the Articles of our faith, but it is also a true trust and confidence of the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and a steadfast hope of all good things to be received at God’s hand.”
Further, “as soon as a man hath faith, anon he shall flourish in good works, for faith itself is full of good works, and nothing is good without faith.”
Though not as good a preacher as Latimer, Cranmer’s work was full of scripture and clear teaching, lit up by some vivid expressions and pungent contemporary application.
Naturally, Archbishop Cranmer wanted church services conducted in English, instead of Latin, to accompany good preaching and the English Bible. He began with a Litany in 1544 which included a petition for deliverance “from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, from all false doctrine and heresy…”
Gordon Rupp’s comment that “to describe Cranmer’s Litany as a lovely service would indeed be rather like describing the Day of Judgement as a pretty sight” is somewhat exaggerated, for if it was probing it was also pastoral.
Whereas many Latin service books had been in use, Cranmer and others drew all services together in one volume, the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, all in English. Neil and Willoughby said of this, “perhaps insufficient justice is done to the compilers of the 1549 Prayer Book in the failure to recognise adequately the admirable historical temper which could patiently sift out and retain forms of prayer worthy of perpetuation…”
Cranmer achieved this although the book had a bad reception, being too ambiguous. Calvin wrote to him, “do not imagine that you have reached the goal.”
With the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the high-water mark of English liturgiology was reached. It was full of scripture and upheld the Bible’s authority. It was for common prayer, involving the congregation. The Order for the Lord’s Supper taught that the grace of God in the sacrament is in the life of the believer not (as the Mass taught) in the bread and wine. The high points of the service were the (prescribed) sermon and the reception, not the consecration by the priest.
The words of administration were, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving” and “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”
It was for the doctrine and principles contained in this Prayer Book that Cranmer was executed under Queen Mary. He suffered agony and anguish in doubts and compromises before his final resolute march, deathly pale, to the stake outside Balliol College, Oxford, on a wet and blustery Saturday in March 1556.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, for so long the only one used by Australian Anglicans, saw very few changes after 1552. But An Australian Prayer Book’s Second Order of Holy Communion generally follows the sequence, if not the theology, of the pre-Reformation rite. It allows the inclusion of items excluded by Cranmer such as the Agnus Dei. The Agnus Dei (“O Lamb of God… have mercy upon us… O Lamb of God… grant us Thy peace”), occurring at the time of the consecration of the sacramental elements, was omitted after 1549 to help remove any idea of prayer to the Son of God under the forms of bread and wine.
Nobody would suggest that Cranmer’s liturgical patterns are sacrosanct or beyond improvement, any more than we would advocate the preaching of prescribed homilies. But when we see liturgical movements back towards medieval patterns, and when we occasionally hear sermons (some based on Old Testament texts) which make no mention of the Son of God and Saviour of the world, we might well reconsider with fresh appreciation the Christ-centred, biblical and reformed heritage of theology and liturgy left us, at great cost, by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
Canon Allan M. Blanch has served, at various times, as Rector of St. Barnabas’ Broadway, St. John’s Beecroft and St. Philip’s Church Hill – all in Sydney.
He is an Emeritus Vice-President of the Anglican Church League.