Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: Christian History Interview - The Tradition Continues
Thomas Cranmer helped bring about the English Reformation, which in turn produced the Anglican church—a church that believes it combines the best of Protestantism and Catholicism. To discuss Cranmer’s legacy in the modern world, Christian History talked with Anglican Alister McGrath, professor of theology at Oxford University. He is author of many books, including The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Blackwell, 1993).
Christian History: If Cranmer hadn’t lived, or if he had been martyred earlier, how might the English Reformation have been different?
Alister McGrath: It may have taken longer to achieve. Cranmer was a diplomat. He was prepared to give Henry what he wanted while he tried to accomplish his Reformation agenda. Sometimes he did things against his own will—like enforcing Henry’s Six Articles, especially the article requiring priestly celibacy. But Cranmer realized that if he didn’t go along, the Reformation wouldn’t continue.
In Henry’s reign, people in high positions tended to have short lives because Henry was determined to get his way. Cranmer managed to stay alive and made at least some headway for the Reformation.
Having survived Henry’s reign, Cranmer was in a position to push the Reformation forward much more speedily under Edward VI. That, in fact, is when he made his greatest contributions, the Book of Common Prayer and the Forty-Two Articles.
Considering he recanted several times, how much impact did his martyrdom have?
It excited a lot of reaction. Some scholars argue that the popular rise against Queen Mary was partly due to his dramatic recantation of his recantations, and of his holding forth his right hand into the fire.
Clearly the recantations were a problem. Cranmer was a fallible and weak man, yet he showed strength when strength really needed to be shown. Consequently, in his death, Cranmer may have had as great an influence as he had in his life.
Is Cranmer a household name in England today?
No. The English Reformation has no major name associated with it. It was pushed forward by a collection of people, and none of them are in the same league as Luther or Calvin.
Of the English Reformers, Cranmer would probably be the most familiar. But most English people tend to remember Cranmer either for his Book of Common Prayer or for his martyrdom. But I don’t think there’s any great popular understanding of what Cranmer stood for theologically.
What is distinctive about the Anglican Christianity Cranmer and others carved out?
First, like the Reformation in general, it puts a major emphasis on Scripture and the importance of doctrines such as justification by faith.
But this is supplemented by a strong emphasis on historical continuity. Tradition mattered to Cranmer, and he was particularly interested in patristics, the writings of the early church fathers. To Anglicans, the early church is seen as a defining moment in the interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, writers like Augustine, Athanasius, and others are of major importance.
That carries through to this day. If you look at the writings of Anglican evangelicals like James Packer and John Stott, they constantly refer to those who have interpreted Scripture before us.
Obviously one Anglican distinctive would be the use of the Book of Common Prayer.
For Anglicans, having a set public liturgy is extremely important. Liturgy does many things, one of which is to encourage doctrinal correctness. The words of the liturgy embody an orthodox Christianity, so that a priest or parishioner who is theologically unorthodox is still required to use an orthodox liturgy.
A public liturgy also keeps in check the radical individualism of preachers who want to preach only their favorite biblical texts. The Book of Common Prayer (BOC) obliges Anglicans to hear all of Scripture read in worship over a three-year cycle. Though we’ve always had mavericks, the liturgy discourages such.
In some sense, then, the BOC is Anglicanism’s teaching office. Methodists use hymns in much the same way. Other traditions use preaching. For Anglicans, traditionally it’s been the liturgy.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Anglicanism is its emphasis on the via media, the middle way. Is that still important?
Historically it’s been very important. Though it is implicit in Cranmer, it doesn’t become articulated as such until Richard Hooker (c. 1544–1600), in his Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. He argues that Anglicanism follows a middle way, retaining the best of Roman Catholicism (liturgy and tradition) and Protestantism (authority of Scripture and justification by faith).
Recently, in a book called The Renewal of Anglicanism, I argue that a more helpful middle way today would run between fundamentalism and liberalism. Anglicanism at its best avoids fundamentalism, which rejects culture, and liberalism, which accommodates itself too much to culture.
For both Episcopalians in the United States and Anglicans in Britain, the real opponents are no longer other Protestants or Roman Catholics but unbelievers, and these unbelievers are looking for a Christian faith that is distinctive but not culture rejecting.
What is the state of Anglicanism in England today? Some reports suggest that only 2 percent of Anglicans attend church.
It varies from one region to another, and certainly, the horror story of the 2 percent would apply in some inner-city areas. But in general, church attendance is much higher than that, perhaps averaging between 15 and 20 percent. The Church of England, because it is a state church, has always had this gap between official membership and the committed.
There is much evidence that Anglicanism is being renewed by various evangelical and charismatic groups. On the other hand, we seem to have a reluctance to recognize that certain beliefs and practices are simply non-Christian or anti-Christian. Some bishops have argued publicly for the ordination of homosexuals or against the bodily resurrection of Jesus. When a bishop is consecrated, the bishop is asked to defend the orthodox faith. Though we have the ability to enforce more theological conformity, we don’t seem to be doing that.
What about internationally? Today there are more Anglicans worshipping in Africa than in America, Canada, and Australia combined.
The big growth area for Anglicanism is in Africa and Asia, where Anglicanism has not been tainted by the Enlightenment and Western culture. In Africa, Anglicanism is dynamic and vibrant, not cerebral and reserved. It’s not a western form of Anglicanism at all. The western form of Anglicanism has accommodated itself to western culture. Maybe the time has come for Africans to send missionaries to North America and to Europe.
Is it time to update the liturgy again? Is there a need for a new Thomas Cranmer, a new Book of Common Prayer?
In 1980, we updated our liturgy by adding a supplementary book called Alternative Service Book, which includes updated liturgies. So there has been a move toward liturgical renewal.
But that’s been going on for over 15 years now, and in many quarters there’s a certain weariness with liturgical innovation. Many people find innovation quite unsettling. They do like some guidelines, some norms regarding public worship. But who knows what the future holds?
In your study of Cranmer and the English Reformation, what are you especially thankful for?
Cranmer has helped me put into words what I feel about Communion. In his Book of Common Prayer, he used some very powerful phrases to describe the meaning of the death of Christ and its importance to us. His phrases tend to stick in the mind and act as triggers to theological reflection.
Let me give you one small example. In the service, we thank God that in Communion he is “assuring us of thy gracious favor.” To me, that is a very helpful phrase, and it triggers a Lutheran turn of thought in me. It reminds me that one of the functions of the sacrament is to reassure me of the total trustworthiness of God and his love for us in Christ.
There are many such phrases throughout the liturgy that act in this way on me. I’m thankful for Cranmer’s ability to express the wonders of the gospel in such memorable words.
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