Saturday, March 16, 2013
Why was Cranmer Burnt?
Writing an article about Thomas Cranmer when many cities are having their St Patrick's Day parades will confirm my reputation for being 'the so-and-so that wears orange on the 17th of Old Ireland' but that's the way it goes. March 21st, which is coming up in a few days, is the 457th anniversary of Cranmer's execution in Oxford in 1556. Now, one thing I think Anglicans today are very unclear about is why Cranmer was burnt. I would not be surprised if some folks think he was burnt for wearing a Gothic Chasuble in a Fiddleback parish - which seems to be the only heresy left for some of my Affirming Catholic friends - but no, he was burnt for professing the Reformed faith.
Cranmer was very much a slow developer as a theologian, but as MacCulloch's biography shows, Cranmer actually underwent only two serious changes in his point of view. The first occurs somewhere around 1530, when Cranmer moves away from the humanist Catholicism of Erasmus towards Lutheranism. This committed Cranmer to the 'Five Solas' and the sort of mildly Predestinarian position that you see expressed in Articles 6-17 of the 39. Given Henry VIII's stated theological opinions, it must have been a relief to him to be sent as England's ambassador to Nuremberg, a thoroughly Lutheran City-State. Whilst there he married a niece of Johannes Osiander, the principal Luther minister and reformer there, so when he was brought back to England to become Henry's Archbishop, he was not exactly enthusiastic. However, he saw it as an opportunity to push for reform, but he also knew Henry VIII well enough not to push the pace. Small reforming measures came out one by one in the 1530s, suffering only a temporary check from the "whip with six strings" - the Six Articles Act of 1539 - which halted Cranmer's reforms for some years.
However, whilst Cranmer was surviving the vicious court politics of Henry's Court, and also administering his diocese, he found time to read and to write. It is evident that he managed to keep up an extensive correspondance with the best reformed minds on the continent, including Bullinger in Zurich, and Bucer in Strassburg. However, it was a local influence - Nicolas Ridley - that finally moved Cranmer from the Lutheran to the Reformed position. He did so by lending Cranmer a tract by an eighth century theologian Ratramnus of Corbie, who argued that Christ was present spiritually, not corporally, in the Eucharist. In his controversy with Gardiner (1549-1551,) Cranmer came to articulate his position as 'the True Presence' which to me reads an awful lot like the Receptionism of the next generation. Cranmer argues that Christ is present in the celebration, not the elements specifically, and that we receive the spiritual benefit, not the actual, Body and Blood of Christ when we receive Communion.
This theology of the Eucharist animated his reforms to the liturgy in both 1549 and 1552, though it has to be said that Cranmer was more subtle in expressing his Reformed theology in the former than the latter. One suspects that 1549 was very much a committee production, with a range of reforming opinions from the mild to the Reformed having to be accomodated, whilst the 1552 reflects the temporary victory of the Reformed wing under Edward VI's second Lord Protector.
The high watermark of Cranmer's programme of reform comes in 1552/3 when a new BCP and the Forty-two Articles are published. Both reflect a Reformed position not a million miles from that of Bucer and the Second Helvetian Confession. The Articles are less sharply Predestinarian than the writings of Calvin's followers a generation later, but their Biblical basis and Augustinian emphasis is clear. Like Bucer, he seems to have been essentially Lutheran on issues such as Baptismal Regeneration and Predestination, but on the Eucharist he joins Bucer, Bullinger, etc., as an advocate of the True Presence. The 1552 BCP's Order of the Lord's Supper gives liturgical voice to Cranmer's convictions on both the nature of the Eucharist and the nature of Justification and Sanctification by putting Communion into the middle of the Eucharist Canon. All of this, along with his complicity in Henry's annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, made him a marked man in Mary I's book.
Cranmer was fairly swiftly arrested after the accession of Mary, though there is some evidence to suggest that Mary did hesitate long enough to allow him to escape to Germany had he really wanted. Instead, he remained in England, and was arrested and imprisoned first in London, then in Oxford where he heard of the trial of his friends Latimer and Ridley, and witnessed their execution by fire on 16th October 1555. By this point, Cranmer's captors had decided that he had been left to stew long enough, and he was worked on to produce an abject recantation of his Reformed opinions. However, Mary had one last trick up her sleeve. Rather than remit Cranmer's sentence as was the custom in the case of a heretic who had recanted, she decided that Cranmer must be burnt anyway. This stiffened Cranmer's resolve, and he recanted his recantation, thrusting his unworthy right hand into the fire first.
Although Cranmer was not a simple, heroic martyr, he did, in the end, die professing the Reformed Faith. Historically speaking, it was Cranmer's moderate Reformed theology that dominated the Church of England in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as much as Calvin's. His opinions were also received favourably by eighteenth century Evangelicals in England, by the Virginia Churchmen of the nineteenth century, and by folks like J I Packer today. To say that Reformed Theology has no place in Anglicanism is a gross misreading of history, and a disservice to the English Reformers who died professing the Reformed Faith, and left us the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles. Personally I believe that Anglicanism is a broad tradition that can emcompass both Reformed Anglicans and Prayer Book Catholics. To try and remove either position from the Anglican Church in this country would be a grave mistake, as much of the genius of Anglicanism comes from the interplay between the Reformed and the Catholic elements within it. Above all things, though, we need to avoid unneccessary strife and remember that we are 'all one in Christ Jesus.'