In a recent listing of ‘My Favorite Anglican Theologians’, several respondents mentioned Thomas Cranmer. While I cannot say I was surprised, I had, as always when people speak about Cranmer, questions. What do these people mean by ‘Cranmer’? In particular, Which Cranmer do they mean?
Often, I suspect, what is really meant is not Cranmer’s personal or private theology as found in his theological writings (published and unpublished in his lifetime), but rather his best known and most public work, the Book of Common Prayer. Even if ‘Cranmer’ is understood as a brief synonym for ‘the Prayer Books of Edward VI’, however, questions remain. Cranmer was closely associated with two very different Prayer Books, 1549 and 1552, and while they contain much common material, they also have major differences and show definite and doctrinally significant changes. If ‘Cranmer’ means ‘the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books’, one still would need to ask, ‘Which one of the two?’
Cranmer began his life (born 1489) as a presumably rather conventional, though undoubtedly bright, English Catholic. In many ways Cranmer was a typical product of the late medieval Western Catholic Church. The Renaissance came comparatively late to England and was in full swing at the time of Cranmer’s schooling and intellectual and religious formation. More locally, the English Church in the 15th and early 16th centuries was engaged in a strong and officially led reaction to the Wycliffite and Lollard challenges. That reaction included well-known forms of repression (for example the attempt to suppress English bibles), but also a less well-known but nonetheless impressive program of vernacular preaching, teaching, and writing by the official Church to counter Lollardy and then the early Lutheranism into which Lollardy flowed after 1517.
At some point it seems Cranmer encountered Lutheranism, even as he climbed the ladder of Church preferment in his chosen fields as a canon lawyer, diplomat, and servant to the great. Cambridge was an early center of Lutheran influence, and Cranmer was a product of Jesus College at that university. Cranmer claimed never personally to have embraced Lutheranism as such, but that does not mean it did not influence his movement from late medieval views.
Cranmer was with Thomas Cromwell the architect of the eventual break with Rome and was with the king the architect of the alternative one might call ‘Henrician Catholicism’. The nature of Henry’s later Catholicism was somewhat shifting as the prospects of an alliance with the German Lutheran princes waxed and waned and as Henry’s matrimonial affairs caused the rise and fall of wives and their families and promoters. While Wolsey and More and Cromwell and the Howards fell from favor, Cranmer was a notable survivor. The price of that survival was a prudent reticence about Cranmer’s real religious views, which seem over time to have been influenced increasingly by the Rhineland reformers. Nonetheless, as the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry’s last years, Cranmer was officially tied to Henrician Catholicism. Henricianism, then, was Cranmer’s third nominal major religious position, after his original Catholicism and his clandestine rejection of Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.[i]
After Henry’s death, Cranmer and the new king’s uncles and others eventually brought in increasingly radical forms of Protestantism, represented by the two Prayer Books. In this period, Cranmer produced A defence of the true and Catholike doctrine of the sacrament of the body and bloud of our saviour (1550) and a defense in 1551 of this publication against the criticism of Stephen Gardiner. The 1551 work has a lengthy Tudor title that may be abbreviated as An Answer of the Most Reverend Father in God Thomas Archebyshop of Canterburye…unto a A crafty and sophisticall cavillation devised by Stephen Gardiner doctour of law, late byshop of Winchester. These works, with some published sermons and five or six of the ‘First Book’ of the Tudor Homilies, are among the most significant works published by Cranmer. A number of the Cranmerian homilies do date from the reign of Henry, but they were not published until Edward’s reign.
During the reign of Edward, Cranmer’s true views at the time probably are suggested not only by his publications, but also by his patronage of various continental and Scots theologians and by his encouragement and discouragement of various proposals and policies that were debated within the Protestant parties in the Council and the Church.[ii]
One of Cranmer’s biographers suggests that if Edward had lived and Cranmer had retained authority over liturgical development, he might well have ‘developed’ further than the 1552 Prayer Book.[iii] It is possible Cranmer would have eventually abandoned the structure and fixed liturgies of even 1552 in favor of something more like the Psalm-singing and worship ‘directories’ of various Swiss and (later) Scots churches. If this speculation is correct, then to Cranmer’s original, conventional Catholicism, his early Protestantism, and his Henrician Catholicism, one should add increasingly radical stages of Protestantism, moving in a generally Reformed direction, with an unknown endpoint in the theology of Bucer, Osiander (his uncle by marriage), Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, or some combination of these and other continental influences.
Finally, after the death of Edward, Cranmer’s views underwent further challenge and at least apparent alteration. After Edward’s death, Cranmer fell from office almost immediately due to his role in effecting Henry’s divorce from Mary’s mother. Cranmer also signed the Council’s proclamation of Lady Jane Grey as queen, though he claimed later to Queen Mary that his assent was late and reluctant.
In any case, during Cranmer’s inquisition and trial, his theoretical Erastianism was famously turned against him. Cranmer and his supporters used Erastian theory to implement the break with Rome and to assert considerable royal authority over religious matters. But if Mary was rightfully queen, and therefore rightfully the supreme governor of the Church in England, then Cranmer was bound to follow her lead, which eventually led her subjects back into the Roman obedience. The quandary posed for an Erastian Protestant by a Roman Catholic monarch was only resolved by Cranmer, in an obviously sincere manner, as he burnt at the stake. Meanwhile, in the period between Edward’s last illness and death and Cranmer’s own death, there came a period of shifts, recantations, and counter-recantations. While these various positions and evasions call forth sympathy on the human level, and cannot be taken too seriously as sincere theological positions, they do indicate the degree to which Cranmer’s opinions could appear to be in, and even could actually produce, constant flux. Even if one isolates a particular year, a particular writing, or a particular policy, one has to reckon with the possibility that Cranmer even then was considering alternatives, refinements, and further developments, as well as hedging his views in light of shifting royal opinions and persons.
Given this constant change and pattern of development, to speak of ‘Cranmer’ or ‘Cranmer’s theology’ requires strict periodization, and then tentativeness because of the constant ferment in his thinking and the instability and danger in his external context.
In addition to these considerations about period and the ferment of development, one final factor must be mentioned. Modern readers, when considering religious writings in the 16th (and 17th) century, also must reckon with the problem posed by deadly religious passions. In the 16th century, including manifestly in the England of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Mary, the wrong religious position could lead to death. In an era, such as that ushered in by Henry VIII, of major religious changes, this potential danger called for nimbleness, reticence, and care in expressing one’s true beliefs.
One tends to assume that Cranmer was relatively frank and sincere in expressing his true religious views when he was himself in power under a young, apparently secure, and religiously sincere king. At that point the machinery of government was in the hands of Cranmer’s religious allies. It is, nonetheless, even then unwise simply and without qualification or care to assume that what Cranmer says or writes at any given moment is what Cranmer truly believed. In any case, however, certainly such an assumption is unjustified when examining Cranmer’s position under Henry VIII or Mary. Everyone understands this when reading Cranmer’s words to Mary or to the inquisitors she appointed. But the same qualification is almost always appropriate. One cannot assume sincerity and frankness in this period.
This last observation is not a criticism, much less an attack. Even a century later, after the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil Wars, some religious opinions could not be voiced plainly, even in England. In 1683 the Convocation of the University of Oxford condemned as blasphemous and heretical and had publicly burnt by the public executioner books by Thomas Hobbes and others. John Locke, who died in 1704, regularly dissembled his real religious skepticism and anti-theological ire. If Deists even in the 18th century found it prudent to dissemble their hostility to orthodox Christianity, much more can one hardly blame any Tudor subject for exercising extreme care when stating almost any theological position.
In short, ‘Cranmer’s theology’ refers to half a dozen very different and constantly shifting forms of late medieval and early Protestant Western theology. Discerning what ‘Cranmer’ believed requires attention to the period and even year in question. Such discernment also requires attention to the nature of the statement in question: was it public or private? clear or qualified? made under pressure or seemingly uncoerced?, and so forth. Finally, even with such considerations made, some doubt and obscurity will remain.
If, on the one hand, by ‘Cranmer’ one means the Prayer Book, then it is certainly appropriate to note Cranmer’s literary genius. While Cranmer had no talent as a poet, he had an undoubted and, in English, unparalleled genius as a writer and translator of religious prose. The English-speaking world, and Anglicans in particular, owe Cranmer an unending debt for the literary treasures of the Prayer Book tradition.
But if reference to ‘Cranmer’ or ‘Cranmer’s theology’ is meant to help determine the normative meaning or interpretation of the Prayer Book texts, by reference to the subjective theological views of their compiler and translator, then it is unhelpful. The sense of an obscure or archaic word or of a theological term of art in the Prayer Books may be illuminated by considering contemporary Tudor sources. But Cranmer’s shifting and sometimes dissembled views do not helpfully illuminate the lapidary prose of the Prayer Book. The ‘author’ of the Prayer Book is the Church in England, whoever wielded the pen, and the subjective opinions of the ‘whoever’ are simply not determinative for interpreting the liturgy in question.
Stephen Gardiner, ‘wily Winchester’, Cranmer’s great ecclesiastical and political opponent, was happy to use the language of the 1549 Prayer Book to defend Catholic Eucharistic doctrine. Whatever Cranmer intended, the Prayer Book’s meaning is not determined by his private theology, doctrinal preferences, or subjective interpretation. The text is what it is. Regarding the Book of Common Prayer and Thomas Cranmer, we all should follow the New Criticism and forget the biography, ‘influences’, and even subjective intentions of the author.
If, on the other hand, by ‘Cranmer’s theology’ one means something other than the Prayer Book, such as his writings of 1550 and 1551 on the Eucharist, then in truth they are little read now and are not very significant for modern Anglicanism. By all means some historians and theologians should read Cranmer’s theological writings. That those writings are really what people mean by saying they think Cranmer one of the great Anglican theologians would, however, be most surprising.
[i] ‘Henricianism’ or ‘Henrician Catholicism’ has statutory definition in the English legislation that effected the break with the papacy (1534, 1543) and in such official publications as the Six Articles (1539), The Great Bible (1540), and The King’s Book (1543). In brief, the Church’s hierarchy was asserted to end at the nation’s borders, the religious communities were largely suppressed in practice, and the cults of saints and pilgrimage shrines were greatly pruned. The liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, however, remained largely unchanged.
[ii] But such suggestions are not certainties, for reasons noted elsewhere in this paper.
[iii] So suggests Diarmaid MacCulloch in Thomas Cranmer: A Life. New Haven & London: Yale, 1996. Pages 618-20.