Right Desire and True Gospel

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Necessary or Expedient?

By Ashley Null

As the Episcopal Church approaches the daunting task of liturgical revision, it would be good beforehand to revisit the theological vision that birthed our prayer book tradition as a distinctive branch of Christian worship. While Thomas Cranmer insisted that Anglican liturgy must be regularly renewed so as always to speak to contemporary society, he was equally adamant that the gospel message transcended any specific cultural moment, remaining consistent through the many centuries after Jesus’ initial proclamation of it. Hence, Cranmer believed that he and other liturgical revisers had much to learn from how previous generations used worship to proclaim the mission of the Church to the people of their day. As we continue to adapt his handiwork to contemporary needs, we would be well advised to follow his example in learning from the past to better lead the present into the future.

The heart of Tudor Protestantism was not right doctrine but right desire. Undoubtedly, Cranmer and his fellow English Reformers thought the two were closely connected. Truth about God would draw humanity homeward. Right desire could only be formed by right knowledge of both God and fallen human nature. Nevertheless, saving truth by itself was insufficient to move a self-centered humanity to return to the Creator through repentance and amendment of life. The Church’s mission was to proclaim the unchanging message of the gospel to each generation in ways that would move the hearts of hearers to embrace it. Here is the raison d’être of Cranmer’s liturgical revision.

The mystical and mixed-life writings of Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton had trained devout early Tudor Christians to embrace affective piety as the hallmark of true faith. Rolle, the most popular devotional writer for 15th-century England, encouraged his readers to embrace celibacy and to ruminate on Scripture so that they would experience a sensible burning love for Christ.

Hilton also stressed the supernatural power of the Bible to transform human affections, but he was of a more practical mind than Rolle. Rather than seeing contemplation as a gateway to God-given physical sensations of ecstasy, Hilton encouraged his readers to channel their newly received divine love into a striving for moral perfection. As a result, unlike Rolle, he encouraged devout lay people to stay in their current secular spheres of responsibility to better serve their fellow Christians, but to cultivate a rich contemplative life in private to sustain their work in the world as well.

Thoroughly embracing this “mixed-life” tradition, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, promoted its piety as part of her highly influential humanist education program for the English church, since continental humanism also stressed that Scripture’s power to transform the affections would lead to moral reformation. Indeed, the great humanist scholar Erasmus insisted that the gospel was the living mind of Christ whose words had the power to reprogram the human heart and mind so that people could lead godly lives.

As a Tudor humanist, Cranmer was committed to using the liturgy to move the affections of the English people through Scripture. He said as much in his preface to the Book of Common Prayer. According to Cranmer, the “ancient fathers” originally devised “divine service” so “that the people (by daily hearing of holy scripture read in the Church) should … be the more inflamed with the love of [God’s] true religion.” Cranmer reinforced the necessity of godly affections for true worship in the opening Collect of Purity in his service for Holy Communion: “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit: that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name.”[1] The Holy Spirit, working through the Word, first moves worshipers to love God with all their heart, which in turn enables them to give him his proper praise. Here is Cranmer’s liturgical order at its most basic.

Yet, Cranmer was not just a Tudor humanist. He was also a first-generation Protestant clearly committed to its defining doctrine of justification by faith. But the two were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, for Cranmer, they were very much intertwined, since he became convinced that the only way Christians could have their hearts inflamed with love for God was first knowing that God loved them enough to assure them of their salvation as a free gift. Writing to Henry VIII in 1538, Cranmer summed up the connection between Protestant saving faith and the medieval emphasis on a love-filled human heart:

But, if the profession of our faith of the remission of our own sins enter within us into the deepness of our hearts, then it must needs kindle a warm fire of love in our hearts towards God, and towards all other for the love of God,—a fervent mind to seek and procure God’s honour, will, and pleasure in all things,—a good will and mind to help every man and to do good unto them, so far as our might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength, and all other gifts which we have received of God, will extend,—and, in summa, a firm intent and purpose to do all that is good, and leave all that is evil.[2]

Here is the doctrinal basis for Cranmer’s understanding of human nature, derived from Philipp Melanchthon’s Theological Commonplaces (1521): what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

As a Protestant Tudor humanist, Cranmer wanted the English people to ruminate not merely on the moral examples of Scripture like his medieval predecessors but particularly on the saving message of Paul’s epistles. Only meditating on God’s unconditional love made known in salvation by grace alone through faith alone had the power to birth grateful love for God in the saved. That’s why Cranmer’s 1545 portrait shows him looking up from reading the book of Paul’s epistles that he is holding in his pale scholar’s hands. He wanted rumination on justification by faith to be remembered as his most characteristic act.

In addition, however, Cranmer’s firm adherence to the medieval English emphasis on cultivating a burning love for God through Scripture had a second important Protestant twist. The medieval Church had understood apostolic succession as the transmission of the Holy Spirit through an unbroken human pipeline, from Jesus to the apostles to their successors the bishops through the centuries and through them to the priests whose sacraments passed on the grace of the Spirit to the people.

Cranmer, as a Protestant humanist, believed that the special measure of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles was only for the confirmation of the gospel and did not pass down to their successors.[3] Consequently, he understood apostolic succession as the handing on of apostolic teaching via the Holy Scriptures alone. No Church authority could add or subtract from its saving message. As Cranmer wrote in his private theological notebooks: “Is not the church a creature? Is not the Gospel the voice of God? Why, therefore, should one believe in a creature rather than the Creator?”[4] The Bible alone was to be trusted in matters of salvation. Equally important, however, Scripture was also the primary source for the Holy Spirit. Since divine speech was like human speech, God’s breathe went with God’s Word. Hence, in his notebooks Cranmer attributed conversion and spiritual growth to the “power of the Word,” a conclusion with which he thought Paul, Origen, and Augustine all concurred.[5]

The Christian community was the result of proclaiming the biblical message, not the other way around. Moreover, the supernatural power of the Sacraments came from their biblical words of institution spoken during their administration, not from a special anointing of the priesthood. In fact, for Cranmer, the sacraments were a highly effective form of preaching, since their use of creaturely elements enabled the human senses to better grasp the sacraments’ gospel significance. In short, “Word and Sacrament” were two sides of the same coin — both biblical preaching and dominical rites were means by which the Holy Spirit worked through Scripture to transform the hearts of God’s people. Thus, the common understanding that Anglicanism follows the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (praying shapes believing) is only two-thirds accurate when it comes to 16th-century prayer books. Cranmer’s fundamental liturgical principle was lex praedicandi, lex orandi, lex credendi (preaching and prayer shape believing).

We should not be surprised then that even before Cranmer began revising liturgical ceremonies and Latin texts for Edward VI, his first major change to divine service was the introduction on July 31, 1547, of the Book of Homilies, a collection of 12 sermons in English that were required to be read repeatedly, in order, every Sunday, in every parish church in the land. Here was Cranmer’s doctrinal agenda fully mandated for all of England. The very first homily was on Scripture, both its unique authority in matters of salvation and its power to transform the hearts and minds of those who would meditate on it day and night. The third homily addressed salvation by clearly proclaiming both justification by faith and the pursuit of godliness that arises from it, since “a loving heart to obey his commandments” flows from the assurance of salvation.[6] Together these homilies explicitly enshrined Cranmer’s affective theology as the goal of English public worship.

Therefore, first and foremost, the church’s liturgical texts also had to faithfully proclaim the saving message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Writing in the prayer book essay “Of Ceremonies,” Cranmer made clear that the plumb line for any liturgical practice was whether it accurately and effectively conveyed the gospel, both its benefits and its responsibilities, to contemporary society. Any inherited ceremony that limited the missional effectiveness of the Church needed to be removed. Any inherited ceremony that still was useful in proclaiming the Church’s message should be retained out of respect for antiquity. As a result, elevation of the host was banned (1548) and any reference to human merit for salvation or the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice was removed from the new English prayer book (1549). In their place was a restored systematic reading of Scripture that went even further than the 15th-century mixed-life movement of the elite.

Influenced by Basil’s example of encouraging workers to attend Bible expositions at daily morning and evening church services,[7] Cranmer adapted the seven offices of the monastic daily routine into two services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. A new lectionary was appointed for these daily offices that read through most of the Bible in one year. Thus, the first prayer book made the traditional monastic rumination on Scripture the new norm for every English parish. Everyone living in England now had the opportunity to practice a mixed-life piety.

The importance of Scripture in the English liturgy did not stop there. It is a commonplace of Anglican liturgical studies that Cranmer’s prayers were stitched together from countless borrowings reflecting the whole treasury of the Bible. Indeed, what one commentary said of Rolle applies equally to Cranmer: “the full extent of his enormous debt to Scripture has escaped most readers simply because he was able to adapt the language of Scripture so perfectly and naturally to his own expression.”[8]

Moreover, Cranmer’s luxurious prose habitually heaped up linguistic doublets: “erred and strayed,” “devices and desires,” “acknowledge and bewail,” “sins and wickedness,” “wrath and indignation,” “do earnestly repent and be heartily sorry”; not to mention his extravagant piling on of synonyms like “succour, help and comfort, all that be in danger, necessity, and tribulation” or “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction.” The sheer abundance of Cranmer’s words is a mouthful, preventing readers from too quickly passing through prayer, presenting them the opportunity to ruminate on the biblical implications of each phrase, providing the Holy Spirit more time to write his truth on their hearts.

Of course, changes in the English liturgy continued under Cranmer after 1549. Most controversial of all, stone altars were replaced by wooden tables (1550), a revised Communion service (1552) invoked a prayer over the recipients, rather than the elements, and new words of administration made plain that Christ’s eucharistic presence was spiritual in nature, a holy communion in the heart of the believer through personal faith. Finally, in keeping with Cranmer’s Protestant affective theology, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving now came after reception, rather than before, for only after God had inflamed their hearts with a fresh love because of supernaturally remembering Christ’s sacrifice could communicants begin to worthily praise him from the bottom of their hearts.

With these changes we see the apex of Cranmer’s liturgical revision. Divine gracious love, constantly communicated by the Holy Spirit in the regular repetition of Scripture’s promises through Word and Sacrament, inspires grateful human love, gently drawing believers toward God and their fellow human beings in the pursuit of lifelong godliness.

Thus, deeply embedded in the Anglican prayer book tradition as our missional DNA is the gospel of Christ’s unconditional love for humanity, made known through the full breadth of Holy Scripture and proclaimed through all aspects of our worship, so that we might be freed up and empowered to grow in loving Jesus and one another as unconditionally as we are loved by him. May God give our liturgical revisers the wisdom and words to carry forward this biblical mandate in an affectively compelling way for our day. Amen.

The Rev. Ashley Null is a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, where he is editing Thomas Cranmer’s private theological notebooks for Oxford University Press.


[1] Joseph Ketley, Two Liturgies … in the Reign of King Edward the Sixth (Parker Society, 1844), pp. 17, 77.

[2]J.E. Cox, ed., Miscellaneous Writings of Thomas Cranmer (Parker Society, 1846) p. 86.

[3] Cox, Cranmer’s Miscellaneous Writings, p. 80.

[4] British Library, Royal MS 7.B.XI, fols 32v-33r.

[5] Ibid., fols 33v-34r, citing Romans 10:17 and 1 Cor. 3:4-6; Origen, Against Celsus, Book I, chapter 17; Augustine, Concerning the Usefulness of Believing, chapter 17.

[6] Cox, Cranmer’s Miscellaneous Writings, p. 133.

[7] “He encourages workers to attend church services daily,” translated from Cranmer’s Latin annotation in his copy of D. Erasmus, ed., En amice lector thesaurum damus D. Basilium sua lingua loquentem. (H. Froben, 1532), p. 18, now held in the John Rylands Library, Manchester University, Catalogue Number 18173.

[8] John A. Alford, ‘Biblical Imitatio in the Writings of Richard Rolle, ELH 40 (1973), pp. 1-23, at p. 8.


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