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Wrestling with our past: Cranmer our brother

We do well to recognize as infantile an attitude toward our parents that regards them as all-wise or all-powerful and that is blind to their human foibles. … but we must recognize no less that it is adolescent, once we have discovered those foibles, to deny our parents the respect and reverence that is their due for having been, under God, the means through which has come the only life we have. —Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition

This is the last of three reflections on how to engage and and draw on the resources of the reformations of the 16th century. In the first post, I outlined the pitfalls of primitivism, how we can romanticize the past, create a Golden Age, and treat the concerns, assumptions, fears, and hopes of women and men from centuries ago as simply our own. But, likewise, we fail in an epic way if we look to the past as a foreign country whose language we can never learn and whose people are fundamentally disconnected from us. We fail if we see Christians of the past as somehow saved by another Christ and inhabiting another Church.

Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen, my neighbor across the street, a child in Uganda, and I all inhabit the same body of Christ, a body that pushes every boundary not only in space but also in time. We share a familial relationship grounded in the blood of Jesus. This includes women and men in contexts very different from our own, people on the other side of the globe at this very moment, and people who have been at rest with Christ for centuries.

So what do we do when we face parts of the past — or even among brothers and sisters today from far away — that strike us as uncomfortably strange? Our life is no less common because of this tension. For example, in the second post I outlined Cranmer’s core theological conviction that God appoints “secular” rulers to govern the Church and, with more detail, I demonstrated Cranmer’s parallelist eucharistic theology (as opposed to the Calvinist instrumentalism of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer).[1]

What do we do with all this? What is our response to meeting Cranmer?

Unhealthy response 1

Soften the edges and create a “canon within a canon”: Here we succumb to romanticism, making Cranmer the ultimate arbiter of authentic Anglicanism. Yet, when we inevitably discover things we find jarring in his writings, we simply dismiss those parts as secondary or incidental to his overall project, which we then equate to our vision for the contemporary Church. For example, we could say that the main event is his theology of justification, but his beliefs about the godly magistrate are just circumstantial and not all that important. Far worse examples are some Anglo-Catholic recastings of Cranmer without any supporting evidence. In either case, we ignore the real Cranmer and make him a puppet for our agenda. He ceases to be a real man and becomes a toy we march around.

Unhealthy Response 2

Dismiss Cranmer outright and locate authentic Anglicanism somewhere else: Perhaps we have a vision for Anglicanism, and Cranmer’s Reformed sensibilities are simply too much for us to accept. The solution is to write him out of the tradition entirely. While we’re at it, we’ll throw out both sets of Articles of Religion (42 and 39). In this response, we make ourselves the arbiters of the tradition, meaning that we have no obedience to the family or responsibility for those treasures that others have handed down to us. Here, tradition and responsibility to each other evaporates into a plastic toy box. Now all our predecessors are objects rather than brothers and sisters. One toy has displeased us: we built a Lego house called Anglicanism, and the toy called Cranmer doesn’t fit in our construction. We throw him across the room. Perhaps he belongs to someone else.

Unhealthy Response 3

Go nuclear: Faced with all this history, we force ourselves into some sort of conversion to Cranmer’s vision and anathematize 90 percent of Anglicanism since the 17th century (including Calvinist Anglicans). Yes, everybody has had it wrong — but we have rediscovered Cranmer and by extension authentic Anglicanism! Now we are the toys serving the idol.

A Healthy Response

I suggest we approach Cranmer neither as a toy nor an idol, neither as stranger nor ruling patriarch, neither as a foreigner nor as the judge of our tradition. Instead, let us see him as our brother in Christ. In other words, Thomas Cranmer is a legitimate partner in the conversation; his voice challenges and enriches but does not define.

First, he is no toy belonging to another. We have an obligation to Cranmer. We owe it to him to hear his Zurich-style Reformed sensibilities, his parallelist eucharistic theology, and his ecclesiology built on a divinely anointed sovereign. And we must recognize these contributions as phenomena within our household. He has a place at the table and a voice that must be heard, however challenging.

Second, he is no idol. While he has a rightful place at the table, Thomas Cranmer is not the final word on Anglicanism. His 1552 prayer book was formally used for less than a year and key elements were challenged within a generation. By 1662 there was a new vision of what constituted right practice; granted, it was organic, but it was different. And others would come after that too. As Diarmaid MaCulloch often delights in pointing out, Cranmer would have been underwhelmed and even irritated by something as seemingly traditional to Anglicanism as choral Evensong. In short, Anglicanism is much larger and more variegated than an imagined Golden Age in 1552 (when Cranmer wasn’t finished, his projects stopped short only by Mary).

I implore readers, do not go searching for others to sit on the throne: Hooker, the Caroline Divines, J.C. Ryle, the Tractarians, F.D. Maurice, Michael Ramsey, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Tom Wright, Rowan Williams. They do not define us or authenticate the Anglican tradition. They are rather voices within it, conversation partners to whom we have obligations but not obedience.

Sometimes we hear a harmony, other times a cacophony. But behold our vulnerability and obedience to one another, living and dead, as a family formed by the Holy Spirit and possessing (however feebly) the treasure of the apostolic witness, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This, more than ever, may be the great gift Anglicanism can offer the rest of the Church. We Anglicans fail so often in healthy disagreements (as I believe the sorry situation involving Bishop Philip North only weeks ago illustrated). But this vulnerable harmony may still be our charism as Anglicans, one we can share.


[1] Let me say here, as an aside, that I believe the 1552 Communion order to be a work of genius even if I disagree with significant aspects of its eucharistic theology.


  1. Superb series, Fr Lane. Thank you. This third is a fine homily on the Body of Christ through space and time, and it includes good chastising words for all schools of what Cranmer surely would have been puzzled to hear being called Anglicanism.

    • Many thanks, Josh, and to your question, certainly, yes. We are able to create a “classical” period out of any moment in our past. The irony of course is that early modern reformers have become in contemporary imagination primitive classical figures (something many would have loathed; Calvin intentionally wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave). And there were late medieval movements also committed to the “vita apostolica,” cf Franciscan poverty. The challenge ultimately is an ecclesiological one: to see all these figures as brothers and sisters, at once strange and familiar. That’s much harder than simply creating a halcyon glow around a rather plastic “classical age.”


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