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Thomas Who?

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition of the Christian faith, what comes to mind when we hear the name Thomas Cranmer? If we know our church history, perhaps we think of him as the waffling Archbishop of Canterbury who even at his death at the stake seemed torn between Protestant and Roman Catholic identities. If we know our political history, perhaps we recall him as a shrewd and wily public servant who managed to successfully tango with the volatile whims of Henry VIII. If we know our liturgical history, we herald him as the architect of the original Anglican Book of Common Prayer. However, the more I have studied Thomas Cranmer, the more I think a lot of our conceptions of him range from being mildly distorted to flat out-wrong, and, in our error, may be overlooking an important early tributary which feeds into our own doxological stream.

Research scholar Ashley Null has been quite recently engaging in groundbreaking investigation of the work and thought of Thomas Cranmer, the fruit of which has yielded a different picture of the English Reformer than is often painted. Null finds a consistently Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury from the middle of the 1530s up through his untimely death in 1556. Cranmer’s zeal for the Reformational conception of sola fide is evident especially if one studies his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books juxtaposed with the liturgy he was redacting to create them. (One can see this, for instance, in F. E. Brightman’s The English Rite.) Liturgical historian Dom Gregory Dix states that Cranmer’s liturgy was “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.”* But more than this Null finds, in the end, a more consistently Reformed Cranmer, whose Eucharistic doctrine was closer to his friend Martin Bucer (who had a strong influence on Calvin) than either Rome or Luther. Cranmer’s view of predestination (along with his pastoral sensitivity to that hairy theological topic) was solidly Reformed, as well.

My own investigations have yielded a view into a fascinating, forward-thinking, missional “worship leader” who dealt with many of the same problems we are dealing with today in our 21st century Western landscape. Cranmer, as a worship reformer, thought long and hard about a lot of the same things we think about. Here are just five of those many things we could point out to see Cranmer’s relevance for us today.

How Cranmer’s Worship Reforms Can Speak Into Ours

First, Cranmer was a proponent of contextualization. Thinking like a missionary, he wanted the worship service to feel more naturally English. He wanted a captivating liturgy for the common folk. He wanted worship’s accessibility to be met with passionate engagement. He wanted the church’s services to express a robust gospel-centeredness, recapitulating Scripture’s narrative of God’s salvation in Christ. But he wanted all of these things to be expressed the way a 16th-century English person would naturally do so.

Second, Cranmer was reforming (medieval Roman) worship services that had largely become a non-participatory “show” from “up front.” Just as many today lament that worship has become a staged spectacle—whether that spectacle be the choir and organ or a rock band—Cranmer saw churchgoers as a disinterested, passive body, “entertained” by the performance of the priests, who experienced and enacted all the magic up front. When we study his liturgical changes with this in mind, we might pick up on more than a few healthy insights on how to combat similar issues of passivity in worship services today.

Third, Cranmer was also combating the notion that worship was an individualized, privatized experience. He saw that as the priests “did their thing up there” in a foreign tongue, the people’s job was to individually pray and “do their devotions” with God. Many today observe that some of our worship can be characterized similarly: a bunch of individuals having a private devotional experience with God, who all happen to be in the same room together. Cranmer wanted worship to be restored as a more actively corporate enterprise. Studying his liturgical changes would help us today in our present predicament.

Fourth, Cranmer encouraged pastorally sensitive timing for making changes in worship practices. The Archbishop was aware that radical overhaul of worship needed to happen in a staged way. There were moments in time when those changes were accelerated (especially during the short reign of King Edward), but Cranmer recognized that to effect change without losing people involved incremental shifts in small doses, preceded by faithful instruction by the leadership. Before instituting liturgical change, Cranmer prompted nationwide preaching that would establish a doctrinal core into the framework that would eventually be built up around it. Learning how Cranmer dealt with both the politics of change and the pastoring of people through it would offer us helpful practices and correctives for what we do today.

Fifth, Cranmer believed in a strongly Reformed sense of “gospel-centered worship” (to use the term anachronistically). Cranmer was doggedly committed to the biblical, Augustinian principle (perhaps best championed in his day by Philipp Melanchthon) that the gospel of God’s loving justification of the ungodly stood at the center of all true, heart-driven Christian faith, growth, and practice. In other words, Cranmer understood that God’s Love—not Law—birthed the true heart change, which would drive worship as response and good works as an outflow. He was therefore committed to a thoroughly gospel- and Christ-centered worship service. His liturgical reforms drove home the coupling of human inability with Christ’s full righteousness as a divine gift. The way Cranmer redacted his received liturgy through this grid gives us great insight in how to do similar “gospel-editing” of hymns, songs, prayers, and liturgical texts today, spurring us on toward more Spirit-filled, missionally vital, life-giving worship.

Resources to Go Deeper

If any of this is piquing interest, I’d recommend a few resources for further study.

Paul F. M. Zahl, C. Frederick Barbee, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer. This will be an easy entry point into the heart of Cranmer’s liturgical reformation—his edited and composed “collects,” or prayers of gathering. Simple, devotional, with a few insights about what Cranmer was thinking for each collect.

F. E. Brightman, The English Rite. A side-by-side placing of Cranmer’s 1549 and 1552 liturgies, along with the various liturgical resources he drew from, edited, and changed.

Ashley Null, Divine Allurement: Cranmer’s Comfortable Words. A brief, accessible introduction to the bedrock of the theology that drove Cranmer’s worship changes.

Ashley Null, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love. Null’s thorough, convincing investigation into the heart of Cranmer’s theology against the theological backdrop of 16th century Anglo-Roman Christianity. Given the varying opinions about Cranmer’s theology, this book is a must.

*Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (New York: Seabury Press, 1945), p. 672.

Zac Hicks

(D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary; M.Div., Denver Seminary; B.A., Biola University) is Pastor of Worship at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and blogger at zachicks.com and LIBERATE. He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, and trained in philosophy and biblical studies at Denver Seminary. His passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship. Zac is an avid writer and recording artist, most recently having produced The Magnificent Three (EP). He is a contributing author to Doxology & Theology (Nashville: B&H, 2013). Zac has been married for fourteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.