A brief outline of the life and ministry of Archbishop Cranmer.

“The man that executeth my counsel”

“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Cowper’s statement is illustrated by the way the Reformation took root and grew to a large tree in the United Kingdom. The way things happened were of quite a different shape and course to that on the Continent. The “Back to the Bible” movement was of a political rather than a religious movement, so much so that many unlearned men today still assert that England turned Protestant because of a monarch’s whim who wanted to divorce his wife!

The ferment for reform, though, was felt in England at least two centuries before the birth of Henry VIII. Wycliffe, with a rare evangelical spirit, had been outspoken for the truth of God and the Lollards had bravely taken the torch of the gospel and carried it from one generation to another.

But in bursting the doors open, God is sometimes pleased to use even purely political intrigues that only indirectly impinge upon the kingdom of His Son. In this He manifests Himself and glorifies His name in, through, and above the kings of the earth who, while seeking their own pleasure, unwittingly perform all God’s plan for the advance of the gospel.

A man fitted for the Master’s use

Prominent in all this turbulent setting, Thomas Cranmer holds a prominent place. He was instrumental in giving to his people a modified version of the Reformation. But this did not happen without a heart-breaking tug-of-war between radically differing parties.

In fact, from 1521-1571, a full fifty years, the country was all in turmoil by the thrust and counter-thrust of its leaders. Over twelve hundred pastors were deposed by Queen Mary and some three hundred Protestants experienced a gruesome end at the stake because of their stand for the truth.

It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that there emerged a more stable and united Anglican Church. During this period one of the foremost architects of the English Reformation was Cranmer, the first Archbishop of the new Church of England. It was his ideas, his philosophy and biblical guidance that by several steady and inexorable steps the spiritual climate of the land was changed.

Ancestry and early education

Thomas Cranmer was born at Aslacton, in Nottinghamshire on the 2nd of July, 1489. The Cranmers were of good stock, their ancestor had come over with William the Conqueror. Descendants of the French line of the family were still living during the reign of Henry VIII.

Young Cranmer received his education from a parish-clerk, Ralph Morice. In his early youth Thomas was keen on sports and was well instructed in all manly exercises. Even after he became archbishop he was able to subdue the roughest horse in his stables.

His mother (his father having died by then) sent him to Cambridge at the age of fourteen, from where he graduated with a B.A. and was elected fellow of Jesus College.

At that time Erasmus was lecturing at Cambridge. The young university-don found the golden opportunity to study the Greek as well as Latin New Testament of the Dutch scholar for three full years. This kind of preparation was of inestimable value for the budding leader; not only for his mind but also for other English Reformers of note. If leaders are to be followed they must have a thorough grounding in the Word of Truth, and Cranmer was not lacking in this respect.

His intellectual acumen reached a higher level when he became a Doctor of Divinity in 1523. Having married, he forfeited his fellowship at Jesus College according to the prevailing regulations of the times. But having lost his wife and child the next year by death, he was elected once again and held the post for several years.

Getting involved

While he held the post of examiner for various degrees at Cambridge, Cranmer was approached with the subject of the king’s divorce, which was agitating not only England but also Europe. The king was anxious to have a male heir to the throne, which Catherine had not given him. The way out for him was to divorce her on the ground of being an illegitimate marriage, Catherine being the wife of his deceased brother. The whole matter was a complete tangle.

Cranmer suggested to the king’s companions that the might resolve the difficulty is they sought the opinion of all the European universities concerning the legality of the king’s marriage.

This incident, as already intimated, was only an incident; the prologue and plot of the English Reformation lay elsewhere. But Cranmer’s suggestion was well received of the king. He thought it was a wise and prudent course of action. In the quaint language of those days, Cranmer had “gotten the right sow by the ear.”

Cranmer the scholar was granted a new occupation. The king requested him to see the case of his divorce come to a fitting conclusion. At the same time Cranmer became chaplain of the Earl of Wiltshire, the father of Anne Boleyn, who was to become Henry VIII’s second wife. During the years 1529 to 1531 Cranmer fulfilled his office by acting as a king of English ambassador to Germany. He also paid an official visit to the Vatican where he met and interviewed Clement VII on the divorce question.

In 1532, on the demise of Archbishop Warham, Cranmer was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Similar to Calvin’s character, Cranmer preferred the seclusion of a private life in study and meditation. His appointment was really against his deeper wishes.

So it came about that when Henry divorced Catherine, Cranmer was responsible to announce the decision of the court.

A child was born some time later to Anne Boleyn. She was to become a queen, Elizabeth I; the good Archbishop stood godfather to her.

Henry VIII’s religion

Throughout his lifetime Henry always claimed to be a “Catholic.” But, for political convenience, he desired to rule out the pope from home affairs, whether political or religious. Nevertheless he insisted on retaining all the old doctrines, without caring to examine them in the light of Scripture. He was proud to think of himself as a Defensor Fidei (a defender of the Faith) but had no criteria to discern the false from the true. With the help of Sir Thomas More he had written an attack on the writings of Luther.

Still, he hanged a number of Roman Catholics who would not agree to his opposition to the papacy. At the same time he burned certain Protestants at the stake for denying transubstantiation.

Unwittingly Henry forwarded the cause of the Reformation chiefly in three ways:

1. He threw off the papal yoke from England’s shoulders. It was a usurped power, and in this respect he should have the credit.

2. He was shrewd enough to realise that as long as the monasteries functioned in his domain his independence from Rome would be short-lived. So he abolished them all in his controversy with the pope, regarding that as ‘papal garrisons.’

3. He obtained for the common people an open Bible. This we believe was an answer to Tyndale’s prayer before his martyrdom, “Lord, open the eyes of the king of England.” Henry felt that the popular sentiment was in favour of the Bible, and his subjects were demanding liberty in this vital matter.

Cranmer coming to his own

When Henry VIII passed away, Cranmer found ampler space to voice his convictions without fear of having to pay an immediate price. Cranmer was cautious and discreet; with the accession of King Edward, Cranmer became to the young king a wise counsellor and guide, having been his godfather. The king availed himself of his counsellor’s advice.

During the coronation sermon Cranmer referred to the boy-king as “a new Josiah who was to reform the worship of God, destroy idolatry, banish the Bishop of Rome and remove images from the land.”

During the brief reign of Edward, England breathed more freely. The legislation against the burning of non-conformists was swept away. The atmosphere became by far more tolerant.

Reforming the worship of God

Cranmer’s deep desire now reached a stage where it would become reality. His godly ambition was to give to his fellow Englishmen a revised and more biblical mode of worship, cleansed from the foreign growth of Romish superstitions.

Thus Cranmer’s outstanding contribution to Anglican liturgy was his publication of his revised Breviary in 1538. Whereas formerly the worship service was held in Latin, now, with the appearance in 1537 of Matthew’s Bible and the Great Bible two years later, the services were thought to be led in English. This was one of the most profound and significant moves in the development of Anglican worship.

Cranmer’s preliminary steps were the publication of the Book of Homilies on 31st July 1547 together with The Order of Communion on March 1548. This was crowned in due course with the issue by Cranmer and his colleagues of The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments. Thus all the church services were available in one volume.

Cranmer and his fellow-labourers had it in mind to preserve as much as possible of Catholic liturgy. They were careful not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” But this consideration did not stop them from omitting liturgical elements and implied doctrines.

As it turned out this literary effort for the advance of the worship of God did not satisfy the expectations of the reformers with a more puritanical turn of mind. Perhaps with good reason. Such disquietude eventually led to the second Edwardian Prayer Book, prepared and published in 1552. Behind its appearance was the untiring efforts of Bucer with his kind criticisms. The Swiss reformer had the English co-workers acquainted with the Strasbourg liturgies.

As a result altars became communion tables, prayers for the dead were exposed as unscriptural and consequently deleted and eucharistic vestments were banned. The whole Communion Service was modified substantially. The confessional-box form of forgiving sins was discontinued, and the plainer manner of remission of sins through gospel-preaching was adopted. Another momentous change was the removal of images of saints and particularly of the virgin Mary. All in all, the common people, as they familiarised themselves with this prayer-book came to be taught the all-important truth that the Lord Jesus and He alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life. As our Mediator, then, all worship must be presented to the Father through Him (cf. John 14:6).

With the passage of time this became the Book of the Elizabethan church in 1559 (in a revised form). With some modifications and editing, it continued to be used by the Anglicans. We must remember that Anglicanism owes this great devotional book to the wisdom and sanctified skill of Cranmer and the Reformation scholars who were by his side to help him.

Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper

Cranmer’s great topics were “The True doctrine of the Holy Communion” and the construction of the “English Liturgy.” He was constrained to study tremendously to obtain the success which became his.

It is most interesting to know how he came to grasp the truth about the Lord’s Supper. Ridley, a dear friend of his, placed a book by a learned monk Bertram in his hands. He urged him to master its contents. It turned out that Bertram lived at the Abbey of Corbie in France in the mid-ninth century. The monk was requested to write the facts and the significance of the Holy Communion which even at his time was being corrupted to a large extent.

Dr. Ridley was much impressed by Bertram’s volume, solidly grounded on scriptural facts; Cranmer was not less so. His conclusions are expressed in Articles 28 to 31 of the “Articles of Religion.”

Here they are:

Articles XXVIII: Of the Lord’s Supper.

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death; insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation, of the change of the substance of Bread and Wine in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the man whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

Article XXIX: Of the Wicked which do not eat the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper.

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth, as Saint Augustine saith, the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign, or Sacrament, of so great a thing.

Article XXX: Of both kinds.

The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

Article XXXI: Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross.

The offering of Christ once made, is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifice of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.

Such a confession of faith would have pleased Calvin and all those who desire to conform to the Scriptural doctrine. It is sound and balanced, avoiding on the one hand the extreme Zwinglian view (a mere sign and nothing more) and on the other hand the superstitious and idolatrous notion of transubstantiation (or even consubstantiation).

This is the faith for which chiefly Cranmer was deposed under Mary Tudor and burned at Oxford as a heretic. The charges brought against him were based chiefly on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as he expounded them bravely in his book, A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament.

Whereas in the Germany of Luther’s day the hottest issue was the way of salvation (or justification by faith alone), in England the real controversy centred around the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The core of Cranmer’s teaching was that the sacrament was essentially of a spiritual character. He based his position on Scripture, in particular John’s Gospel, where he showed, Christ meant eating and drinking His body and blood to be understood as receiving by faith the benefits of His death for sins. To think of eating and drinking Christ’s actual body and blood with the mouth is, he argued, a gross misunderstanding; the purpose of the sacrament is to satisfy spiritual hunger.

The Roman doctrine, he maintained, was also contrary to the true Catholic teaching of the two natures of Christ, His humanity and His divinity. In the creeds we confess that Christ has ascended bodily into heaven, not to return to earth in that manner until the last day. The true Catholic faith, therefore, requires us to believe that He is not present with us ‘in the nature of His humanity’ but that He is present ‘in the nature of His deity.’

To teach, as Rome does, that He is present bodily in the sacrament is to deny this teaching of the creeds, to assert a heretical doctrine of the one nature of Christ and to deny His real humanity.

The errors of Rome also extended to the notion that the sacrament was a sacrifice offered by the priest to take away sins. Cranmer refuted this from the Scriptures and the ancient Fathers.

The turn of the tide

King Edward VI reigned only for six years. He died praying for the prosperity of England and the expansion of true religion within his realm.

After a brief nine days reign of Lady Jane Grey as queen, Mary, the daughter of Henry and Catherine, came to the throne. Her beginning augured well with many promises...which she broke at the earliest possible opportunity, so much so that she earned for herself the unenviable title of “Bloody Mary.” With fierceness and bigotry, she turned on the Protestants and desired to extirpate them from the land.

Among her victims was good Archbishop Cranmer. He was eventually deposed and cast into a dreary prison for two and a half years. All sorts of false promises were made to him if only he would renounce his teaching. He adamantly refused to deny Christ.

Admittedly, because of the constant intimidation and threats, he wavered rather badly once or twice. “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” One day he was actually taken up to the roof of his prison at Oxford that he might behold the painful death of Latimer and Ridley, in the hope of hearing his recantation.

Brave at the end

Being degraded and treated with all manner of disrespect, Cranmer was finally taken from prison and made to sit for a two hour sermon against him. He was then called upon to confess that his doctrine was heretical.

Indeed he arose and spoke, declaring his faith in Christ, his upholding of Scripture as the sole authority for his faith, and proceeded to speak, to the amazement of his numerous foes, against the pope as the Antichrist.

Cranmer had signed certain false declarations in order to save his life. Now he repented of his weakness. “Because my right hand hath offended, it shall first be burned.” As he was taken to the place of execution, and the fire lighted, he held his hand to be consumed by the flames and soon afterwards succumbed. Being in torment he was often heard to repeat, “This unworthy hand, this unworthy hand.”

Indeed, God uses different men of different gifts and calibres. Unlike many other martyrs and confessors, Cranmer was cautious and conciliatory. If he had not been so, perhaps he would not have advanced Gospel truth as far as he did.