Cranmer’s Gospel Center

Review by Drew Nathaniel Keane

Worship by Faith Alone is an important contribution to the study of the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer and its principal redactor. Though primarily targeting an evangelical audience, it will interest readers well beyond that target.

Since the Liturgical Movement of the mid-20th century, Thomas Cranmer had been typically damned with faint praise. But the tide has turned, and many scholars now recognize that the once-standard line rests on misunderstanding. Zac Hicks builds on the reassessment of Cranmer advanced by Colin Buchanan, Ashley Null, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Bryan Spinks, and others to argue that the evangelical doctrine of justification governed his liturgical reform and that his prayer book “provides, among all sixteenth-century Reformers English and Continental, a most exemplary model of what it might mean to be gospel-centered in our worship today.”

Hicks argues that Cranmer was motivated by a “gospel-centered” theology, that is, a theology governed by sola fide like grammar governs a language — an analogy borrowed from Jonathan Linebaugh’s Pauline scholarship.

Hicks traces the use of heart, promise, and comfort as keywords woven throughout the prayer book that unlock its theology. An incisive account of the redaction of sources illustrates — with helpful comparative charts — how Cranmer’s respect for antiquity interacted with his higher commitment to sola fide.

The notion that Cranmer rejected ceremonial is exploded; instead, Hicks highlights his deep understanding of how the visible, physical, and sensual dimensions of worship interact with words and can entirely mute them through misalignment. The amplification of the meaning of the scripted words through a redesigned, simplified ceremonial is illustrated through perceptive analysis of baptism, burial, ordination, and the eucharistic prayer and Communion propers.

The study provides a welcome corrective to analysis that neglects the relevance of homiletics and private devotional practices to public worship. Hicks observes that Cranmer’s insistence on crystal clarity regarding sola fide influenced how participants in worship thought about what they were doing and shaped their piety outside of church, helping to eliminate practices like invocation of the saints and prayers for the dead.

To lay a foundation for his case, Hicks advances a Lutheran reading of Paul’s gospel, but lacked the space needed to convince those not already inclined toward this reading (there is, for example, almost no engagement with the New Perspective). That Cranmer read Paul this way is much more convincing.

The implications of this “very ‘Lutheran’ Cranmer” come into focus in chapter three. A law/gospel dichotomy serves as the analytical model; this is, for Hicks, the “Pauline grammar” that dictates Cranmer’s liturgical “syntax.” Hicks mentions J.I. Packer, Gavin Dunbar, and Sylvia Sweeny to confirm the model, but acknowledgment that theirs is in fact a triadic model — “repentance, faith, and charity” — is relegated to a footnote.

One must squint for the charts on pp. 88-89 to fit the dyadic law/gospel model. Three, not two, structural building blocks are visible, but Hicks subsumes the third — “responding faith” — as a secondary aspect of the gospel. He argues that using the decalogue to commence the Communion service shows a “starkly (and grammatically) Lutheran approach of not commingling law and gospel” — in other words, only the pedagogical use of the law is operative, not the normative or civil. What then are the responses “incline our hearts to keep this law” and “write all these thy laws in our hearts we beseech thee” and the prayer for the king doing there on this account?

Hicks insists (echoing the language of BCP 1979, p. 13) “Holy Communion was intended to be the principal Sunday service of the people.” This explains his neglect of ante-Communion as a complete service. Instructions provided in the rubrics and Exhortations, however, do not point to weekly Communion for all confirmed parishioners. Opportunities to commune were announced in advance, and would-be communicants had to prepare and signal their intent to the minister ahead of time, indicating that Communion was not expected every Sunday. Cranmer certainly wanted the laity to commune more often than they hitherto had done — the requirement was increased from once per annum to thrice — but reading the aim of the Parish Communion Movement into his liturgy is misleading.

Hicks’s conclusions tackle the question of “what it might mean to be gospel-centered in our worship today.” Directing these points primarily toward those who do not use the Book of Common Prayer for public worship, he provides advice to “worship leaders” for applying the “grammar” that informed Cranmer’s work. Surprisingly, however, he does not recommend using the prayer book (in any iteration). And, unfortunately, his advice omits a Cranmerian priority. Cranmer replaced “disparate regional liturgies” with “but one use”; he did not free up every parish to continuously redesign worship on its own.

Hicks, by contrast, agrees with the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation that liturgical commonality should be sought in shape, not script (“the shape fallacy” as Samuel Bray called it), though he disagrees with IALC on the critical contours of that shape. Along with uniformity, Cranmer valued liturgical continuity when that was compatible with sola fide. He compiled one of the best liturgical libraries in Europe, and Hicks shows that much of his brilliance lies in redaction, synthesis, and reappropriation, not novelty. It seems a missed opportunity to push against the current normativity of liturgical heterogeneity and novelty.

Worship by Faith Alone is a boon to liturgical scholars and practitioners alike, both within and beyond the Anglican fold. Though not without some lapses, it provides an accessible, compelling account of (in Buchanan’s phrase) what Cranmer thought he was doing. Many Anglican readers will find themselves reconsidering what they thought they knew about him. Hicks will introduce many non-Anglican evangelicals to a neglected reformer in whom they will find a kindred spirit and to liturgics literature they might have assumed had little relevance for them. All readers will find this volume deepens their engagement with the Book of Common Prayer.

Dr. Drew Nathaniel Keane teaches English at Georgia Southern University. He serves on the Diocese of Georgia’s Liturgical Commission and Commission on Ministry.


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