Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Cranmer I Never Knew

Notwithstanding my professed conservatism on things Anglican, I have not known much about Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, other than the usual things: hero of the Reformation, martyr, English prose stylist par excellence, slightly wobbly at the end of his life on what he did/did not believe. But now I am getting up to speed with the aid of Diarmaid McCulloch's superb, and impressively dense yet well told story of his life. (Currently at the point where Henry is about to die). Readers here probably read MacCulloch years ago. Some thoughts from me might serve as revision for you.

First, I had not appreciated how complex, how uncertain, and how controversial the progress of the English Reformation was through the period of Henry VIII's and ++Cranmer's joint presidency over the Church of England. At times the pathway between being burnt for evangelicalism or being burnt for catholicism was very narrow indeed. Cranmer himself narrowly avoided execution prior to Henry VIII's death. One reflection is that if ++Rowan Williams has read this book too (surely he has), then he must sleep well at night. Like Cranmer he faces ever shifting shades of opinion, and the prospect that overnight the political landscape of Anglicanism will change dramatically. There is no new Archepiscopal territory Williams is exploring through these years ... and he does not have to worry about being burnt alive. He can even proudly walk in public with his wife!

Secondly, I had not realised how far Cranmer travelled in his own theological journey, how long he held onto certain convictions before changing them, and how many times those convictions changed significantly (especially on the meaning of the eucharist). There is a sharp reminder here that to be a 'Cranmerian Anglican' is best done with a full knowledge of the range of possible forms of being Anglican which could be described as 'Cranmerian', along with a need to have reasons for being the particular form of Cranmerian which one is, (i.e. other than 'if Cranmer believed it, it is good enough for me.' That only raises the question 'the Cranmer of which year?'). On the one hand, Cranmer's journey in theology is something of a licence for Anglicans to change their minds as time goes by and reasons for doing so come to hand. On the other hand, Cranmer's clarity of expression of his theology is potentially helpful, and may set him apart from other Anglican theologians: 'I follow Cranmer at point X because he clearly sets out why X is true. No one else does this so well as he.'

Thirdly, it is clear to me (now!) that there never was a golden era in Anglicanism when all Anglicans not only believed the same things, but did so joyfully and without nostalgia for a different day and age. In any endeavour to secure the imprint of truth upon a human society the ideal is that all should freely agree to the truth. Taking just the Henrician period of Cranmer's reforming archepiscopacy, the most obvious observation is that the battle for hearts and minds was not won by Cranmer and his evangelical fellowship of courtiers and clergymen. They tried. They preached. Some even gave their lives in the cause. But they did not win all to their side. Not hard to be reminded that in today's controversies in the Anglican Communion it is important to attempt to win hearts and minds if some kind of security of establishment of doctrine is to be achieved. Conversely, without that security, we should expect that a familiar pattern in Anglicanism will continue: one controversy after another, though hopefully without the burnings.

But Cranmer is no less a hero for my better knowledge of his life. He grasped the revelation offered him concerning justification through faith in Jesus Christ and stuck to it. A true evangelical, if ever there was one.


Tim Harris said...

Glad you are enjoying McCulloch (his 'History of Christianity' is also impressive). It is pretty much high in the 'must read' category for understanding key developments in the English reformation.

One of the perpetual (and largely erroneous) statements on the English reformation is that it happened on Henry's watch as monarch. Not so - the Church of Henry's time was 'less than reformed', even if now under the headship of the English monarch.

The defining reforms came under Edward VI (the 1549 and especially the 1552 prayer books), and even more significant was the resolution through the Elizabethan Settlement. The most interesting historical studies (on a county by county basis) are in the acceptance (or otherwise) of the mandated forms and practices in the Elizabethan period, and the approaches taken by key bishops and patrons in this period. Puritans were still Anglicans, and this was an intriguing time of theological debate.

Have you got to the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549 yet? This may explain something of the subversiveness of my Cornish roots...

Peter Carrell said...

No, just to 1544 at this stage ...

I agree that the most significant embedding of the English Reformation occurred after 1549 etc ... nevertheless the Henrician period is impressive for the widespread conversion of many to the evangelical cause!

liturgy said...

Greetings Peter

You are doing, IMO, precisely what Diarmaid MacCulloch [NB spelling & Tim] was determined his tome would not do – have Cranmer taken ownership by a partisan group.

That aside, I hope you noticed:

There is little doubt we owe [Cranmer] the present form of the sequence of eighty-four seasonal collects and a dozen or so further examples embedded elsewhere in the 1549 services: no doubt either that these jewelled miniatures are one of the chief glories of the Anglican liturgical tradition, a particularly distinguished development of the genre of brief prayer which is peculiar to the Western Church. Their concise expression has not always won unqualified praise, especially from those who consider that God enjoys extended addresses from his creatures; but they have proved one of the most enduring vehicles of worship in the Anglican communion.

and hopefully join me in the attempt to prevent our General Synod from continuing along the path on which it is set to destroy that collect tradition.



Zane Elliott said...

Hi Peter,
I read portions of the same text earlier this year so that I could put together an essay on 'The spirituality of Anglicanism.' As a result it is on my Christmas list. (Oh no what is happening to me?)

I think that so far it has been one of the most exhilarating, and formative pieces of research I've done.

In response to your question 'the Cranmer of which year?' - 1552!

I hope that your reading will have you joining me in black and white soon =p


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
Naturally I use the term 'evangelical' in a very broad, (almost) non-partisan sense :)

(Actually, seriously, I think even MacCulloch draws out the consistent theological commitments of Cranmer (once made) such as justification by faith, and repeatedly contrasts them with the opposing points of view taken by those who appreciated the relation between faith-and-works differently to Cranmer. But I take the point that Cranmer was not unambiguously 'evangelical' if by that one means belonging to a particular definition of evangelicalism. I suspect by the end of the book I will be of the conclusion that Cranmer was sui generis.

Yes, on collects, let's be Cranmerian rather than Xerian where X stands for whichever is the leading culprit in GS's assault on collects ...

Peter Carrell said...

I am not about to give up coloured stoles, Zane, and neither should you be, for Cranmer's most fervant wish for the church was not that it kept looking back to the past :)

Zane Elliott said...

Hi Peter,
'Cranmer's most fervent wish for the church was not that it kept looking back to the past :)' - I'd agree to an extent, but we have to understand the context that ++Cranmer was speaking into... moving 'back to the past' would have been to return to the Roman ways that he helped the C of E steer away from.

Did those moments of looking back include forsaking the cassock, surplice, and tippet that he saw as 'innovative' (on account of the fact that they identified the clergy as presbyters instead of the RC 'priest') to the coloured stoles of days gone by?

The Oxford movement's influence on NZ, I would argue, has us denying exactly what you identify as Cranmer's most fervent wish for the Anglican church and returning to much 'popery.'

Are my comments controversial, misinformed young and fiery? Potentially all... I guess my bias for 1552 shines through.


p.s I know I'm not going to convince you to join me in Cassock and surplice land, but its worth a crack! =)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Zane,
The worries about popery in the 19th century (or the 16th century) are not our worries today.

Our question concerns the relevant, appropriate and edifying dress clergy should wear, taking account of expectations of existing congregations and missional possibilities for reaching people barely familiar with church styles. Whatever the origin of albs and stoles, their significance today is that they are part of the dress code for Anglican clergy in this country. There is a minor role for cassock and surplice, (e.g. evensong at a cathedral), but there is no role for wearing such garments as part of some reliving of ancient battles.

We have bigger fish to fry in this secular world. And the tendency of the surplice to billow makes it highly susceptible to catching fire as the fish are fried.