Necessary change

Daily Reading for March 21 • Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, 1556

Cranmer was not only a cautious man but a peaceable man. Faced with the necessity of making great changes, he followed Luther in not making greater ones than he could help; moreover, he made them by stages, not all at once. Thus, the 1552 Communion service was the fourth stage in a process which began with the first introduction of English into the Latin Mass in 1547. Similarly, the 1552 services of Morning and Evening Prayer were the fifth stage in a process which began with the first introduction of English into the Latin offices in 1543 and two draft revisions of the Breviary, before the publication of the two Prayer Books.

His concern in proceeding by stages was not simply the concern of the Tudor monarchy for national political unity (though this was doubtless a factor, and even so the 1549 Book provoked a rebellion in the South West), but also a concern for the spiritual unity of the Church. . . . The same twin motives, together with the threat of private revisions, led to the quest for a national uniformity more complete than the growing influence of the Sarum use had hitherto achieved. The possibility cannot be excluded that, had Edward VI lived longer, there would have been yet another stage of liturgical revision. . . .

One reason for Cranmer’s cautious and conservative leanings was the respect for antiquity which comes to expression in his preface “Of Ceremonies” and his controversial writings. He did not, however, cultivate antiquity for its own sake, as some of his successors in liturgical revision were to do. This would have conflicted with his principle of avoiding unnecessary change. The only points at which Cranmer recognized a necessity for change were points where the liturgy had gone astray from scriptural teaching, or was understood in an unscriptural sense, and there indeed antiquity often provided the best model for change. . . . But the Fathers were no absolute norm for Cranmer: he recognized faults in their teaching which were not to be imitated. . . . The combined evidence of his controversial writings, his library and the parliamentary debate on the 1549 Prayer Book show that he knew the liturgical evidence of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, the De Sacramentis, pseudo-Dionysius, Isidore and other of the Fathers, the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, the Mozarabic Missal and the epicleses from the eastern liturgies. As I have written elsewhere, “he certainly knew enough for us to be sure that if he had made the worship of the early church a model for close imitation he would have got much nearer to it than he did. . . .”

All in all, Cranmer was a child of the Renaissance no less than of the Reformation. He was a scholar, learned in the ancients as well as the moderns, but chiefly concerned to follow the Holy Scriptures, as now known in the original tongues. His greatest gifts became apparent when he took a share in the task of reviving English vernacular literature, by creating an English liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer has an originality and power which are often lacking both in Reformation liturgies and in attempts to restore the worship of the primitive Church. His English liturgical style is not the least part of what he accomplished. Though owing something to its Latin antecedents, and sharing the redundancies and antitheses characteristic of existing religious English, it achieves the difficult art of being contemporary without being colloquial, of having dignity without sacrificing vigour, and of expressing fervour without lapsing into sentimentality.

From “Thomas Cranmer after Five Hundred Years” by Roger Beckwith, in Churchman 104:1 (1990).

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