Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop Of Canterbury 1489–1556

Sermon preached by the Reverend Philip Bradford
Evensong, St James' Church, Sydney, 26th March 2017

One Sunday evening in the autumn of 1968, I attended for the first time in my life a Service of Evensong in an Anglican Church. I was 19 years of age, in my final year of an Arts degree at the University of N.S.W. I had grown up in a conservative Christian family. With my parents and brother and sister I had always attended Baptist churches. I made the decision to 'try the Anglicans' for a number of reasons. I was rather dissatisfied with the Baptist Church we were attending—it was very conservative and generally hostile towards other churches. At University I had met a lot of Anglicans through the Evangelical Union. A number of them attended St.Philip's Eastwood which was close to where I lived, so it was an obvious choice. What's more, there was the added attraction of meeting more girls there than in my own church.

I had little knowledge of Anglicanism in those early days and didn't know High Church from Low Church, although I had heard that High Church was bad. However in the sixties, St. Philip's—a low church—had a robed choir, robed clergy, the Psalms were chanted and many of the responses sung. How things have changed in 40 or so years! I was a very easy convert to the Anglican Church. I thought the service was wonderful—I had discovered Anglican liturgy and I never looked back. And yes, as well as falling in love with the liturgy, I later fell in love with one of those young Anglican women, who eventually became my wife. As I learnt more about the Anglican Church I started to realise the significance of the man whose life and work we are celebrating this evening, Thomas Cranmer.

A brief biography of Cranmer is included in your Order of Service this evening. Cranmer came to prominence in England during a very turbulent time in English History—the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Thomas' parents were minor gentry, so he was educated at Jesus College Cambridge and given a fellowship in 1510 which he promptly lost when he married the daughter of a local inn keeper. But a year after the marriage, his wife died in childbirth and his fellowship was then restored. He was ordained in 1523. He came to the attention of King Henry when he heard that Cranmer was suggesting that theologians in the universities of Europe should be consulted in order to resolve the king's great matter, namely how to legally divorce Queen Catherine.

Thomas Cranmer

So in January 1532, Cranmer found himself appointed as the resident ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. As the Emperor travelled throughout his realm, Cranmer had to follow him to his residence in Ratisbon. Passing through the Lutheran city of Nuremberg he had the opportunity of observing at first hand the effects of the Reformation on the life of both the church and the city. On a later visit he became friends with the leading architect of the Nuremberg reforms, Andreas Osiander. He also became very good friends with Andreas' niece, Margarete, and married her. At this point Cranmer would not have called himself a Lutheran but he was clearly identifying with some important Lutheran principles. Back home things were moving quickly: Henry's lover, Anne Boleyn was with child so King Henry abandoned the idea of getting papal approval for his re-marriage and determined to push through parliament the Act of Supremacy. The purpose of which was to declare that the King not the Pope was the real head of the Church in England. He needed an astute and sympathetic Archbishop of Canterbury if this plan was to succeed so when Archbishop William Warham died, Henry sent word to Cranmer to return home because he had a new job for him.

Cranmer was a reluctant Archbishop because he knew that this would be a difficult task fraught with all kinds of problems. He wrote: "My conscience rebels against this call. Wretch that I am! I see nothing but troubles and conflicts and insurmountable dangers in my path." His fears were to be fully justified but Henry was not a man one could easily deny and finally Cranmer was persuaded. He was consecrated in 1533 and soon after he declared Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, leaving the path clear for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn in a private ceremony. Anne was a major promoter of the evangelical cause and imported evangelical literature into the country. With the full support of Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer was able to bring about some moderate doctrinal reform in the church, notably in the Ten Articles and the Bishops' Book. He also wrote the preface to the first official English translation of the Bible, a copy of which was placed in every church and chained to the lectern. Such a radical move was only possible because it had the King's approval. Henry believed that the translation was largely the work of Miles Coverdale but in fact Coverdale relied heavily on the translation produced by the recently martyred, William Tyndale.

Cranmer's position in the court was precarious because he was closely aligned with Thomas Cromwell who had plenty of enemies. When Cromwell fell out of favour and was executed, Cranmer's enemies plotted against him but fortunately for Cranmer, King Henry trusted him and liked him. Cranmer survived but the conservative Catholic faction in Court worked hard to undermine him and undo the religious reforms already undertaken.

However, in the final years of Henry's reign the influence of the conservatives waned and Cranmer was able to begin the task of liturgical reform. In 1543 the Archbishop told Convocation that it was the King's will 'that all mass-books and antiphoners in the Church of England should be newly examined, reformed and castigated from all manner of mention of the Bishop of Rome's name, from all apocryphas, feigned legends and superstitious oraisons...and that the names and memories of all saints which be not mentioned in the Scripture or authentical doctors should be abolished.'

The following year Cranmer produced the first of his vernacular services, the English litany, which is essentially still preserved in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Cranmer remained in favour with the King to the very end—Henry died in January 1547 and on his death bed he called for his Archbishop, who was the last person to speak to him.

On the accession of Edward VI in 1547, the reformers were in the ascendancy so Cranmer had greater freedom to continue his work of producing a Service book in English that drew on the best of the old Service Books such as the Sarum use, but also borrowed material from the Continental reformers like Bucer, Melancthon and Osiander.

In December 1548, the First Prayer Book was brought before the Commons and passed into law in January 1549. The Act enforcing the use of this book was the first of the four Acts of Uniformity in English history. The new Book struggled to gain widespread usage in the three years of its existence as the authorised liturgy, but none the less it formed the basis for the subsequent revisions including of course the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

In 1550 Cranmer published his famous Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ and began work on Articles to refute the decisions of the Council of Trent. He also worked on a revision of the Prayer Book which was published in 1552, his Forty Two Articles were published the following year. He also published a Book of Homilies to be used by Priests who lacked the education to write their own.

With the untimely death of Edward VI in 1553 and the failed attempt to have Lady Jane Grey made queen, Mary came to the throne and Cranmer's fortunes changed dramatically. He was arrested and condemned to death for treason but the sentence was not carried out. Mary preferred to have him tried for heresy so Cranmer languished in prison for two years until new heresy laws were passed in 1555.

Cranmer was taken to Oxford for trial and was forced to watch the burning of Bishops Latimer and Ridley. After much pressure he signed a number of recantations but on the eve of his execution he publicly renounced his recantations and declared that as his right hand had offended by signing them this would be offered to the fire first.

Cranmer was a man of his time, often torn between loyalty to his monarch and loyalty to his God. We can scarcely imagine the challenges and conflicts he had to deal with in his role as Archbishop in such an explosive period of history. We honour his courage.

But his greatest legacy is his contribution to our liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. The Service of Evensong we are sharing this evening was an important part of that book. It was compiled by marrying materials from the ancient services of Vespers and Compline. Cranmer was responsible for many of the collects used in both this service and in Morning Prayer. Let me quote the Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch:

The unity of the book and the subtle ways in which it draws on and transforms an astonishing variety of earlier texts in Latin, German and English, indicate that Cranmer was very much more than simply the chairman of a drafting committee. His particular literary genius was for formal prose...which can be spoken generation on generation without seeming trite or tired—words now worn as smooth and strong as a pebble on the beach. The Archbishop bequeathed first to England and then to the whole world a liturgical drama which he wished to be enacted by all those present as an act of worship and so it has proved.

Cranmer's prayers still speak to us powerfully today and continue to aid us in our worship of God. I conclude with my favourite.

Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen