Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Thomas Cranmer

April 2, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Thomas Cranmer is something of an icon for the crazy-quilt nature of Anglicanism.  The collect we prayed gives thanks for the beauty of his liturgical language and notes that his death was revelatory of God’s power in human weakness.  His history is a striking mix of deep theological wrestling and expedient action, both personal and political.  One writer describes his journey as a move “from a champion of the faith to a compromising sycophant and vows-breaker.”[1]

Cranmer was in his mid-20s and had a fairly cushy academic job at Cambridge when he married the daughter of the local tavern-keeper.  Academics were expected to be celibate, so he had to resign.  Within a year, his wife died in childbirth, and the child with her, and he quickly got reappointed.  Five years later, in 1523, he was ordained priest in the Roman tradition.  This ‘champion of the faith’ was soon sent by Cardinal Wolsey to Spain on a diplomatic mission.  When he returned, he met King Henry VIII and soon took up his cause for a divorce, eventually traveling the universities of Europe to rustle up support.  He began to meet the Continental reformers and when he returned to court as Henry’s chaplain he wrote a piece on royal autonomy and independence from papal authority.  Sent again to Europe, he met a prominent Lutheran theologian and married his daughter.

In the next year the Archbishop of Canterbury (Warham) dies, and Henry decides Cranmer would be a good candidate.  He appeals to Rome for the necessary consents, in spite of his married state, gets them, and Cranmer is consecrated 30 March 1533.  He swears an oath of loyalty to the pope, with his own list of exceptions.[2]

Most of us know the outline of the next chapters – Cranmer declares Henry’s marriage to Catherine invalid, validates the marriage to Anne Boleyn, acts as godfather to her child Elizabeth, and permits the execution of protestors like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher.  He repeatedly does the king’s bidding in ending his marriages, acquiescing to execution of the former wives, and validating the successive marriages.  When Henry dissolves the monasteries, he soon refounds three of them, in one of which Cranmer’s sister Alice becomes Prioress.  Henry insists on clerical celibacy and Cranmer sends his wife abroad.

The great and glorious magnum opus of the Book of Common Prayer begins with publication of the Litany, which is required across the land in place of all

other litanies – most of which he thinks are too catholic.  Henry’s death sets Cranmer free to continue his reforms.  When the full BCP is adopted it is soon required across the land, and protestors are executed by the thousands.  Cranmer announces his own marriage publicly and brings his wife back.  He begins to implement liturgical reforms that move in a far more protestant direction – sacramentals are banned:  ashes, palms, candles, images and crucifixes, prayers for the dead, stone altars and most vestments.  A Lutheran catechism is promulgated in English, and Cranmer moves toward a memorialist understanding of Eucharist.  The radically reformed 1552 BCP is the result.

When Henry’s son Edward VI dies, Cranmer is soon caught up in the aftermath of the succession controversy, imprisoned and charged with both treason and heresy.  Eventually convicted, he recants numerous times before being burned at the stake in 1556.  At the last, an aged and broken man, he puts his hand into the fire first, acknowledging his own weakness in signing those statements.[3]  Queen Mary’s comment gives a sense of the vicious realities on all sides:  “As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be burning eternally in hell; there can be nothing more proper for me than to imitate Divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”

In the life and ministry of one man, we can read the breadth and challenge of Anglicanism – from the grace and beauty of language in context to a questing after certainty that results in death and destruction.  Cranmer himself spanned a theological diversity a good deal broader than is contained in the Anglican Communion today.  He alternately challenged principalities and sided with powers.  He flouted doctrine and discipline about marriage and lusted after theological purity.  And yet he laid the framework for what is today’s Anglican Communion – by turns fractious and faithful, transformative and timid.  The words of the collect, that God’s power is revealed in human weakness, can only be a challenging reminder to us all that sometimes our failures and uncertainties become the buried grain, springing green.

Simeon’s encounter with the Anointed One was a revelation of far greater certainty and immediacy.  Most of us don’t get that kind of clarity about Truth very often.  Our struggles are more like Cranmer’s, doing what we can with the evidence before us.  In this Church we don’t often live in fear of our lives, although our clergy may live in fear of their livelihoods.  We have sisters and brothers across the Communion who do live with daily mortal threat.  Rule by fiat and armed force no longer works in this Church, thanks be to God, yet some churches actively resist that kind of rule – look at the mess in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Syria, Egypt.  We wrestle with raw and uncontained violence in our streets and schools and prisons.  All of us are challenged to seek the way of Jesus in the midst of shifting sands and changing landscapes, and power structures that deal death more subtly, through budgetary and legislative moves and covert operations.

We continue to be confronted with the challenge of clarity, whether it’s about sexual morality, armed violence, the character of the God we worship, or the plight of the poorest.  We struggle to take Cranmer’s language into new contexts, learning to tell the old story in new song.  Will we lead by accommodating to the politically powerful, or through faithfulness to the one who repudiated that kind of power?  Do we encourage the quailing members of this body at the point of a sword or with the promise of God’s faithfulness in the valley of the shadow of death?  When our own hearts are muddled and uncertain, do we dispose of inconvenient friends or stand in solidarity with the persecuted?  And at our departing, what will be our song of thanksgiving?

[1] John-Julian, Stars in a Dark World, p 613

[2] “that the oath did not override the law of God, his loyalty to the king, or the ‘reformation of the Christian religion, the government of the English Church, or the prerogative of the crown.”


[3] “Forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, there my hand shall first be punished; for if I may come to the fire, it shall first be burned.”



Bishop Jefferts Schori


Click here