An Archbishop for all Seasons: Thomas Cranmer and the Book of common prayer

Who is Thomas Cranmer and why is he being featured in Reformed Worship? As readers of Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons will recall, it was difficult for Thomas More (1478-1535) to be faithful as Lord Chancellor and as a Catholic Christian during a time when King Henry VIII's attitude and demands about state and church were changing so markedly. Shortly after More died, Thomas Cranmer faced comparable difficulties in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior and powerful bishopric in England. While no play has focused on Cranmer, were one to be written, it might well be called An Archbishop for All Seasons.

Cranmer was a remarkable man— not only a theologian, but also a liturgical scholar, a writer, and the chief pastor of a national church. In trying to guide the Church of England from Catholicism to Protestantism, his main concerns were pastoral: he wanted to reform corporate worship and make it more meaningful for the layperson.

Under the patronage of Henry VIII, Cranmer was elevated to Canterbury with instructions to lead the church. But, since Henry was never quite clear himself about just what the new Church of England should stand for (other than that it was to be out from under the control of Rome and under the control of the monarchy), Cranmer faced a difficult task.

After Henry's death, there were violent actions and reactions to the Reformation in England that were not quieted and resolved until the reign of Elizabeth I. By that time, Cranmer had done his great work, but, like Thomas More before him, he had also paid with his life for his faithfulness. He was executed in 1556, during the brief but violent reign of Henry's Catholic daughter Mary (ever after known in Protestant lore as "Bloody Mary"). Had he been allowed to live three more years, he would have been vindicated by Elizabeth I, whose reign began in 1559.

The Book of Common Prayer

What does an Anglican Archbishop from four hundred and fifty years ago have to say to us who today are trying to formulate and lead Reformed worship? Before we can understand our relationship to Cranmer, we who plan and lead worship must recognize that today in North America we work in the medium of English—not French, German, or Dutch. And in English-language worship, Thomas Cranmer, born just over five hundred years ago, in 1489, is the Protestant forefather who formulated the most articulate and beautiful compendium of Christian prayers, services, and liturgies: The Book of Common Prayer.

With this book Cranmer replaced the several Latin volumes that contained the rituals and worship materials of the Roman Catholic Church. Into a single English book, intended for clergy and laity alike, Cranmer distilled prior Christian experience in worship.

The Book of Common Prayer was introduced on Pentecost Sunday (Whitsun, in English usage), 1549. While preserving the Lord's Supper as the central act of Christian worship, this new book put a Protestant interpretation on things. For example, the sacrifice of Christ, his death and resurrection, was, for Cranmer, always the vital heartbeat of the Christian proclamation. But, instead of focusing on what happened to the substances (although he, with Calvin, believed that Christ was "really present" in the elements), Cranmer focused on the response of believing people to this special revelation of God in Christ (what the Belgic Confession calls "the means of grace").

Cranmer was aware that rote formulations in worship could become deadly to true spirituality. He was conscious, as any Protestant leader would have been, that mere repetition of truths would be deadening on the ear and to the heart. Yet, at the same time he realized that Christianity is only partially a matter of a personal relationship with God; it is also a ceremonial religion—one that consists of acts of remembering the mighty works of God and of reacting in faith to those works. "The Word" of God, Cranmer believed, was both spoken and sacramental, and, thus, it is the union of preaching and the sacraments that give vitality and power to worship that is guided by The Book of Common Prayer.

Prayers for All Seasons

Just as we require high standards in sermons and in music, so we must carefully plan and present the words and phrases that we use in our liturgies. In this regard, we do well to remember the work of Thomas Cranmer. His classic formulations of prayer and praise leave all of us latter-day worship leaders wishing we had written them ourselves. While we cannot simply copy Cranmer's work for our own use (sixteenth-century language is archaic and awkward today), reading him again or anew can inspire us to bring back into worship what is all too often lacking: a sense for the majesty of God and our awe in his presence.

Let's look at some prayers from The Book of Common Prayer, as modernized by the 1980 General Synod of the Church of England. For example, the prayer (collect) appointed for Christmas Eve:

Almighty God,
you make us glad with the yearly
of the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Grant that, as we joyfully receive him for
our redeemer,
we may with sure confidence behold him
when he shall come to be our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

Or, for Good Friday:

Merciful God,
who made all men and hate nothing
that you have made:
you desire not the death of a sinner
but rather that he should be converted
and live.
Have mercy upon all who have not
known you,
or who deny the faith of Christ crucified;
take from them all ignorance, hardness of
heart, and contempt for your word,
and so fetch them home to your fold
that they may be made one flock under
one shepherd;
through fesus Christ our Lord.

For the beginning of a service, the prayer for purity is helpful:

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Some Reformed people, both lay and clergy, have difficulty with frequent celebration of the Lord's Supper, assuming that they haven't adequately examined themselves and are unworthy of the sacrament on such a regular basis. Here Cranmer's "prayer of humble access" gives acknowledgement of that sentiment, while at the same time focusing on God's grace, not on our unworthiness:

We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs
under your table.
But you are the same Lord
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son
fesus Christ
and to drink his blood
that we may evermore dwell in him
and he in us. Amen.

Many prayers of general confession that have come into use recently rightly note our sins of commission and of omission, but few get right down to "our own deliberate faults." Here is the BCP suggestion for a general confession:

Almighty God, our heavenly Lather,
we have sinned against you and against
our fellow men,
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry
and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son fesus Christ,
who died for us,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may serve you in
newness of life;
to the glory of your name. Amen.

Our Broader Heritage

As a practical matter, worship leaders should note that, to be more faithful to Cranmer, I have used the British modernization of his work. While many college and university libraries will have the British book, readers in the U.S. might find it easier to acquire the version of The Book of Common Prayer done recently by the American Episcopal Church. (Available from the Church Hymnal Corporation, 800 Second Ave., New York, NY 10017, (800) 223-6602.) Canadian readers should consult the version done by the Anglican Church of Canada. The North American versions will be slightly different than what I have quoted above.

When the editor of RW asked for a retrospective and practical piece on Cranmer, I readily agreed. But I do not offer these thoughts as an evangelist for the worship style and language of the Anglicans. The message of this piece is not simply that worship in Reformed churches would be better if we mirrored the Anglicans. Not at all. What this piece does suggest is that our Reformed and Christian heritage is broader and deeper than we often acknowledge, and that when we gather together to bring our best words in worship to God, we do well to remember the work of Thomas Cranmer.

Ronald Wells is a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 18 © December 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.