Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Thomas CranmerThe starting point for me, in choosing a ‘spiritual hero’ is someone who has inspired me not just in the moment, but on an ongoing basis. It took me some time to recognise Thomas Cranmer in this respect, as his name doesn’t appear on the cover of the books by my bed, or at the bottom of the prayers or meditations that I dip into. But as the ‘designer’ of so much of our liturgy and the author of so many of the inspiringly beautiful words and phrases that we say, often without consciousness, his name should not be forgotten.

I often find the use of visual metaphors helpful in understanding complex concepts. When considering ‘what is religion?’, I think of it as the clothes that we choose to put around God in order to share our experience of the indescribable, undefinable presence that we would otherwise only know within ourselves. Describing Cranmer as a ‘designer’ is therefore a very high accolade. He is the ‘fashion supremo’ of our Anglican Church. He designed the overall ‘look’ (or experience) and fashioned garments suitable for wear in all places and for each occasion. He choose the cloth, not the previous choice of the incomprehensible Latin, suitable really for only the fortunate few who lived in comfort and plenty, rather the mother tongue of the people who would ‘wear’ his work, the much more comfortable and familiar English. This move probably did for liturgy what nylon did for women’s hosiery some 400 years later! Once the basic designs were created, Cranmer and his fellow craftsmen then embellished the cloth with the beautiful detail of the language that has lasted through the centuries often unchanged and continues to inspire and transform us today.

With such a legacy, it would be easy to put Cranmer on a pedestal and assume that he led a life of beauty and tranquillity, suitable to inspire his work. This seems to have been far from the truth. A Nottinghamshire lad, he was destined for the Church from an early age as his father was only able to provide a living for the eldest of his sons. Thomas became a theologian at Cambridge University and developed an academic interest in the reform of the Church and the abolition of the power of the Pope. It was a chance conversation with two advisors to Henry VIII that brought Cranmer to the notice of the King, who was seeking ways to be free of his first wife. Cranmer was thus thrust into the limelight and the service of a difficult King! Cranmer now had to face the difficulties of living at the forefront of theological and political change. In his own life he choose to marry, despite his priestly orders and then, having been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury (1553), he gave the King his much desired first divorce. Cranmer went on to help the King end three further marriages but was also known to stand up to Henry when others would fear to do so. It was fundamental to his belief that service to the King was part of his duty and this undoubtedly influenced his response to the dilemmas that he faced. Following the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer experienced his most productive period. The first, and subsequently second, Prayer Books were introduced (1549 and 1552 respectively). The forty-two Articles were developed (1553) which were reduced to thirty-nine and adopted by the Anglican Church after Cranmer’s death. The death of Edward VI in 1553 left Cranmer in politically deep water. The dying Edward had forced him to support the endeavour to give the throne to Lady Jane Grey. When Mary acceded to the throne only nine days later, Cranmer was condemned for treason. Mary’s government sought to force Cranmer to renounce his previous reforming work in the Church. By 1556, Cranmer had been worn down and he signed the so-called ‘recantations’. He was taken out to be burned on March the 21st 1556, with the expectation that he would declare his recantation publicly. He did not. He restated his reforming principles that the Pope’s power was usurped and that transubstantiation in the Eucharist was untrue. He then held his right hand, with which he had signed the offending document, in the fire to be burned before his death.

Cranmer found, at his end, the courage to die true to his convictions. In life he faced huge dilemmas and unexpected greatness. He had to make decisions that must have often been made in the knowledge that his life, as well as his principals, were at stake. Despite the day-to-day challenges of this life, he left a legacy of beauty and meaning that has endured.

We do not know exactly which parts of the prayer book are entirely original Cranmer. We know that much of it was taken from the pre-reformation Sacramentaries of three famous Bishops of Rome, Leo I, Gelasius and Gregory the Great. Some words were however new to the Prayer Books and these may well have been penned by Cranmer himself. I have chosen one such example, the Collect for the second Sunday after Easter:

Almighty God, which hast given thy holy son to be unto us, both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of Godly life; give us the grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life.

Alison Maddocks
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 3rd February 2001