The enigma of Thomas Cranmer

Published December 1, 2003

Heroic defender of Reformed Protestantism or villainous betrayer of the Catholic Church? Disobedient schismatic or unifying symbol of resistance? Emblem of an immutable liturgy or one that changes with the times?

Who was Thomas Cranmer?

Anglicans will recognize the great 16th century English theologian as the author of the Book of Common Prayer , but according to his definitive biographer, Cranmer was all of the above, and more.

“He was a confusing man,” Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch told a packed chapel in the annual Erasmus lecture at Trinity College, University of Toronto, Oct. 28. “But Anglicanism is confusing. That, perhaps, is its chief virtue.”

Thus, Cranmer remains “the symbol of the eternal conflict within Anglicanism, [which] constantly needs to think about itself.”

Mr. MacCulloch, author of the 700-page Thomas Cranmer: A Life, published in 1996, painted the cleric, liturgist and scholar as a bundle of contradictions who came to his beliefs gradually, and as a key figure in the English Reformation. He had earned his stripes by the time King Henry VIII appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. In the preceding years, Cranmer supported Henry in his drive to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and Cranmer declared the marriage null and void in 1533.

Believing it is the King, not the Pope, who is head of the church, Cranmer came to see papal authority as false. “He thought God was clearly on Henry’s side,” Mr. MacCulloch said. “That meant the Pope was not the Holy Father. Sometime around 1529 or 1530, Cranmer turned away from the Pope. The Pope was now the enemy of the church.”

Cranmer did something else that was considered shocking: Although he had been married before, in secret, he openly wed the niece of a prominent Lutheran theologian he had met while visiting Nuremberg in 1532.

“He could have done what many others did: Take a mistress. But Cranmer challenged every presupposition of the world in which he grew up,” Mr. Mac-Culloch said.

It is inaccurate to label Cranmer a Protestant. Rather, he was an “evolving evangelical” along Lutheran lines. And like fellow reformer John Calvin, said Mr. MacCulloch, he believed in predestination and in the need to rid the church of its corruption and opulent excesses.

“He had no concept of a Church of England, but of an international Protestantism. He was the reverse of an Anglican.”

He also altered his view of the eucharist, from belief in the real or true presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, to its spiritual presence experienced only by the believer.

This had wide implications for Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer , first introduced in 1549 with an altered version appearing three years later (in turn modified to conform to the earlier version – and virtually unchanged from today’s).

Besides translating liturgy into the vernacular and abolishing superfluous saints’ days, Cranmer reduced the Offices of the Church from eight to two: Mattins and Evensong.

But ultimately, he backed the wrong queen, encouraging the ascension of the doomed Lady Jane Grey in 1553 and earning the wrath of the Roman Catholic Mary I. Cranmer was tried for heresy and treason and signed six recantations – only to withdraw them all. He was burned at the stake March 21, 1556 , thrusting the hand that had signed the recantations into the flames first, uttering the now-famous words: “This was the hand that wrote it, therefore it shall suffer punishment.”

In the end, said Mr. MacCulloch, Cranmer had soured on royalty, believing that “ultimately, we are the custodians of our own conscience.”

Ron Csillag is a Toronto freelance writer.


Keep on reading

Skip to content