Saturday, March 21

Thomas Cranmer: Reformer, Coward, Martyr

This day marks the anniversary of the death of Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. He is a hugely important figure in the development of Anglicanism, and I believe he should also share the gratitude of any who ventures to call themselves Protestant; especially if one is an English-speaking Protestant.

Thomas Cranmer came from a rather humble beginning. He was born in Nottinghamshire in 1489 and at the age of 14 he started attending Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1510 he was ordained a priest. Cambridge become the focal point in England of discussion about the Reformation and in 1520 Cranmer joined a group that would meet to discuss Luther's ideas.

It was an accident (or act of Providence) that set Cranmer on the course of becoming the genius behind the English Reformation. He happened to meet the King in a neighborhood he was visiting and spoke with Henry about his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a devout Spanish woman who had "failed" to produce a male heir for King Henry. (She did, however, have a daughter; the future Queen Mary who would be known to the Protestants as "Bloody Mary.") Henry was impressed with Cranmer's reasoning on how he could best divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was quickly appointed as an ambassador and charged with writing a treatise arguing in favor of the divorce.

In 1533 Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical position in England. Interestingly enough, the Pope actually signed off on the appointment thinking it would placate Henry after the Vatican had refused to annul the King's marriage to Catherine. This backfired. Immediately the new Archbishop declared Henry's marriage to the Queen null and void, and on top of that, validated the King's secret marriage to Anne Boleyn that had already taken place.

Over and over, as King Henry VIII changed wives only slightly less often than codpieces, Archbishop Cranmer would back the King's wishes and grant yet another annulment. In all this he was a coward, refusing to hold Henry accountable to sacred Scripture and its views on divorce and remarriage.

Where Thomas Cranmer's better colors shine however is in the reforms he undertook under Henry's son, King Edward VI. The monarch was a boy when his father died, and so much of the power was in the hands of decidedly pro-Reformation advisers, including the Archbishop. Cranmer was therefore able to take the Church of England in a staunchly Protestant direction during Edward's reign. Until....

Edward died six years after taking the throne and despite a nine-day rule by Lady Jane Grey, the Catholic Mary (daughter of Catherine) entered London and assumed the throne. She made short work of weeding out the Protestants and taking England back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Cranmer was among the victims.

In 1556, after a three year trial, Thomas Cranmer was convicted of treason and sentenced to burn at the stake. He was humiliatingly defrocked in a ceremony stripping him of his episcopal and priestly vestments. In an effort to save his life, he signed a recantation of his Reformed views and submitted himself to the Pope as supreme head of the church. Mary decided to burn him anyway.

Supposed to read his recantation in church the day of his execution, Cranmer instead shouted out, "All such bills which I have written or signed with my own hand [are] untrue." He continued, "As for the pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine. As for the sacrament..."

Dragged off before he could finish his speech. When the fire was lit, he put out his right hand directly into the flame and declared, "This hand has offended."

Though Thomas Cranmer died as a martyr, when Elizabeth came to the throne two years later her reforms of the Anglican Church were really Cranmer's, with a few compromises. His forty-two points of doctrine were reduced and became The Thrity-Nine Articles of Religion, still the foundational doctrinal statement for Anglicans worldwide. His Book of Common Prayer is still the liturgical guide used in Anglican worship services, and parts of it have seeped into other Protestant churches' worship. For example, the traditional wedding ceremony that most English speakers are used to is either taken directly or slightly modified from Cranmer's Common Prayer.

All Protestants in the English speaking world should thank God for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He was by no means perfect, but without him there would have been no Reformation in England; and without that those giants of biblical theology we call the Puritans would never have been able to edify the English church as they did. May Cranmer's memory serve to magnify God's faithfulness to His church.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, I don't really know what to think of Cranmer as this is the only thing I know about him. But I guess he's pretty cool since he helped bring about the Reformation and all. Nice post. :)