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Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556)


Thomas Cranmer



Cranmer’s theological depth and poetic gifts are evident above all in his matchless liturgies. Consider the Collect for Holy Communion (a “collect” collects or gathers up the aspirations of worshippers’ hearts):

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name, Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

And of course Christians of all denominations use his Prayer of Confession as the vehicle of their heart’s outpouring:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts….

Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire, began studying at Cambridge in 1503, and married upon graduating. When his wife died within a year, however, he returned to Cambridge and was ordained priest. His native brilliance and his unrelenting diligence saw him acclaimed a theologian of immense learning. In 1520 he began meeting with other Cambridge scholars whom Lutheran winds blowing across the North Sea informed and invigorated. “Little Germany”, as the group was called, had within it many who would subsequently become leaders in the English Reformation — and pay dearly for it.

Political developments as bizarre as they were dangerous soon plunged Cranmer’s life into that cauldron whose seething toxicity would torment and terminate his life. For two years Henry VIII, King of England, had wanted to divorce Catherine of Arragon on account of her “failure” to provide him with a male heir. Cranmer was consulted. He concluded that scripture, the church fathers, and church councils concurred that Henry was unlawfully married. (Catherine was a relative.) Sent to Germany to confer with Lutheran princes on the matter, Cranmer met and loved Margaret, niece of Andreas Osiander, a prominent Lutheran theologian. They married clandestinely. While as a priest Cranmer had already taken a vow of celibacy, his reading of scripture (especially his noting that apostles had married) convinced him that marriage was permitted the clergy and to be esteemed among them. For years, however, Cranmer dissembled and kept his marriage secret.

By January, 1533, Henry was desperate for a divorce, if only because the woman he wanted to marry next, Anne Boleyn, was already pregnant. Since the Archbishop had died, Henry appointed Cranmer, assuming Cranmer to be a supporter. Cranmer pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine void and that to Anne (they had meanwhile been married secretly) valid.

Lest we think Cranmer to be nothing more than a self-serving chameleon, it must be understood that he believed, on his reading of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, that the king was God’s appointed ruler. This belief would be tested repeatedly for the rest of his life. For in 1536, when Cranmer learned that Henry had been fornicating prior to his marriage with Anne Boleyn, he pronounced this marriage invalid — thus permitting Henry to marry Anne of Cleves, only then to pronounce it invalid too on the grounds that it had been entered upon unlawfully. Henry, more simply, had found Anne of Cleves personally revolting.

Yet when Henry despised those who disagreed with him and ordered their execution, Cranmer pleaded for clemency, albeit in vain. Thomas More and John Fisher (after whom residences are named on the campus of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto) were loyal Catholics, martyred for insisting that Henry wasn’t the head of the Church. Men like More and Fisher were adamant: the pope alone was God’s vice-regent on earth, even though the English Church, now severed from Rome (1536), announced the English monarch to be its supreme head.

By now Cranmer’s theology was largely Lutheran. Henry continued to insist on non-papal Catholicism. Still, Henry found much in Cranmer that he admired and liked, even summoning Cranmer to minister to him on his deathbed.

Edward VI ascended the throne. Under him the Church of England became much more Protestant. In the freer political climate Cranmer penned the Book of Homilies, a theological compend summarizing Protestant doctrine; the Book of Common Prayer, still used by Anglicans worldwide; and the Forty-Two Articles, closest to the Reformed theology of the continent. The favourable climate turned into a reign of terror, however, as “Bloody Mary” became sovereign in 1553. The English Reformation appeared about to crumble. Cranmer was charged with treason and imprisoned but not brought to trial for 22 months. He was old, sick, weakened by incarceration, and haunted by the sight of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, fellow-Reformers, burning excruciatingly at the stake.

Theologically learned but never psychologically resilient, and mentally depleted after almost two years of harassment, Cranmer appeared to flip-flop as he struggled to hold together his belief in the God-ordained absolutism of a Catholic ruler and his Protestant theological convictions. He signed four recantations in which he acknowledged his duty to a Catholic king. The fifth, however, found him recanting even his heart’s convictions. Not satisfied, Queen Mary wanted him killed. On the day of his execution he calmly recited the Nicene Creed, and then stunned onlookers with a ringing recantation of his recantations. Boldly he declared himself possessed of the faith of the gospel. Since his right hand had shamefully signed the earlier recantations, he thrust his right hand into the fire as the flames slowly licked up his body.

Cranmer knew the doctrine of salvation to be the heart of theology. He knew that grace-wrought salvation always implied faith. For this reason he returned repeatedly to a favourite gospel story, the penitent thief at the point of death. The unadorned faith by which the penitent had flung himself upon the crucified had been met with the assurance, “Today, with me, in paradise.”

Cranmer’s vacillations appear born of incommensurable convictions concerning crown and cross, rendered all the more complicated by a temperament that tended to see-saw in the face of severity. Still, any who fault him should ask themselves if they have tasted the terrors of the 16th century. All of us, in any case, should cry to heaven in the words of Cranmer’s collect for Evening Prayer: “Lighten our darkness, O Lord, we beseech the….”

Victor Shepherd