The evidence analysed in this investigation suggests that Thomas Cranmer established various aims to help further the English Reformation. He met with both successes and failures. The extent to which his successes outweighed his failures will determine how important he was for the progress of the Reformation. A careful analysis will be made of his work regarding introducing the English Bible, helping reform church institutions, doctrine, liturgy. In addition his contributions as a reformed theologian including the durability of his accomplishments will be considered. Other figures also helped spur on the Reformation such as King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and Queen Elizabeth I. To further evaluate the importance of Cranmer’s contributions this investigation will compare his work with these other personas of historical importance.
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Cranmer set out to achieve various goals during his life regarding the English Reformation. Cranmer assumed an important role in the introduction of the English Bible. He endorsed the “Great Bible” in April 1539 was issued to the public for the first time. By late 1541 five more additions of the “Great Bible” had been released. (Dickens 1989, 152) He even contributed a preface to the second edition. Bromiley states in Thomas Cranmer: Theologian “Of all his achievements in the earlier period, the introduction of the English Bible was perhaps the most far-reaching and influential” (xiv)
The archbishop of Canterbury also helped reform the church institutions. He was involved in diplomatic work as he wanted to link England with international Protestantism. Cranmer believed true catholicism (universality) was the unification of the scattered churches of the reformation. Hence catholicity meant unity. He attempted to bring in foreign reformers to England. He successfully brought in Martin Bucer and was helped by English clerics Hooper, Ridley, Holgate ( Dickens 1989, 270) The influence that spread into England came mostly from the followers of Zwingli and Calvin.
Cranmer also made valuable contributions to the reformation of church doctrine. He originally believed in transubstantiation, but then decided that the bread and wine were only symbolic of the body of Christ. King Henry VIII was strongly in favour of transubstantiation and burned people who opposed his view. Cranmer survived due to the King’s protection.
Dickens argues that Cranmer was the English forefront man supporting the “true presence” belief agreed upon by Calvin and Bullinger in the Zurich agreement of 1549. Bullinger believed that transubstantiation was false, but that the bread was sacred, was to be revered, and that the spiritual presence of Christ was there when people took the Eucharist. Like the sun is in the heavens but we can only feel its light and heat, Christ is in heaven but he is working in the hearts of those that believe. (Schaff, I. 471)
Between 1539-1543 there is a turbulent return to Catholicism, heretics burned, and Bible reading prohibited for the laity. Cranmer opposes the 1539 act of six articles, which includes clerical celibacy and as a consequence he has to send his wife away. King Henry VIII wields absolute power and thus Cranmer cannot overtly support great doctrinal changes as long as the King reigned. “It was unfortunate for [Cramner] that he could never persuade Henry VIII to share his enthusiasm [regarding humanist reformation” (MacCulloch 1996, 213) because “The King’s own theology became a moving target during the 1530s” (MacCulloch 1996, 213)
Cranmer’s view of church doctrine was that it be scripturally based, be proclaimed by the monarch in parliament, and be accepted without fighting over minute details. (Dickens 1989, 208) The Ascension of Edward VI in 1547 opens the doors for doctrinal reform. Cranmer issues the “Book of Homilies” a set of 12 official model sermons. He even writes several of the sermons. In 1553 he issues the 42 Articles of Religion, which is a code of doctrine. Under Queen Elizabeth the Homilies are amplified and reissued. The articles lead to the Elizabethan Thirty Nine Articles. Dickens calls these Elizabethan articles “a decisively Protestant interpretation of the faith,” (Dickens 1989, 280)
However, Cranmer also encountered failure in his attempt to advance the English Reformation. Regarding his reforms of Church institutions his diplomatic work in the sense that he failed to bring any Lutheran leaders or Lutheran representatives to England. Cranmer also wanted to rewrite and arrange the canon law into an organized system but failed due to several factors. Many did not favour the canon law because they believed it was too disorganized and needed be replaced by civil law. Cranmer also wrote a plan of reform for the canon law entitled Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. Unfortunately this was not published until well after his death. Ultimately none of his proposed reforms for the canon law were enacted. He had proposed changes such as having annual diocesan conferences attended by clergy and laity, which may well have been beneficial for the church. ( Dickens, 1989, 279-280.)
The Archbishop of Canterbury beginning in 1540 focused on revision of the English church liturgy with a specific emphasis on putting it in language comprehensible by the laity. King Henry VIII showed Cranmer considerable favouritism by endowing him the authority to create and spread his own English litany while he rejected proposals of other bishops such as the 1543 Rationale of Ceremonial. When Henry authorized Cranmer to modify the mass by adding devotional passages in English the King did not anticipate great doctrinal changes. However, this laid the foundation for an extreme change of the aim of the mass, replaced sporadic communion for the laity and private medieval masses with regular congregational services of worship.
The King passed away in 1547 and Cranmer’s first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was released in 1549 under Edward VI. It was conservative but it led to a rebellion in South-Western England. Dyson Hague notes his Story of the English Prayer Book that this rebellion may have occurred due to the introduction of totally foreign concepts for those used to attending the mass such as the “The Supper of the Lord” and “Holy Communion”. (Hague 1949, 133) The 1552 second edition of the Book of Common Prayer was Cranmer’s most explicit Protestant liturgical document. Examples such as the mass became communion, tables were to be removed and altars provided, and surplices replaced Eucharist religious robes reflected Zwinglian influence. This 1552 edition later became the basis for Queen Elizabeth I’s prayer book of 1559 and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Interestingly the 1662 version’s Eucharistic liturgy commits several “catholic” compromises. The 1549 Prayer Book at the beginning of the sacrament states “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”. In contrast the 1552 version states “Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Finally, the 1662 version is a merger of the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books. (Jasper and Cuming 1990, 232-249) MacCulloch argues that Cranmer would have looked at the alteration of his eucharist by the 1662 reviser with strong suspicion and concern. (MacCulloch 1996, 628) In the 1549 Act the Parliament authorized the doctrine and liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer which is of historical significance because this had been the exclusive area of activity of the monarch since 1534. According to Dickens although not very much is known concerning the origins of the second prayer book, it is certain that its literary qualities are based on Cranmer’s book of 1549. (Dickens 1989, 277) The prayer books according to R.T. Beckwith are predominantly the work of Cranmer. (Beckwith 1992, 101-105)
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A significant aspect of Cranmer’s contributions regarding liturgy is the system of canonical hours that were increments of time between prayers specifically for the morning and evening prayer sessions. The canonical hours were no longer to be exclusively controlled and regulated by the clergy. (MacCulloch, 630) MacCulloch states that Cranmer established a strong foundation of liturgy that helped the laity “look beyond the surface of events and say that there is more to human life and creation than the obvious, the everyday.” (630) Cranmer strongly upheld his prayer book in great esteem. He did not heed the Council’s request that he alter the rubric commanding that individuals receive Communion while kneeling. However, he could not stop the introduction of the” black rubric “, which denied any intention to revere the elements.(Dickens 1989, 278.) Cranmer asked for advice from his colleagues as he crafted the 1550 revision of the Ordinal. Its imperfections were later used as grounds for rejection by Rome coming from Anglican demands. The first ordinal was a conservative document, based on medieval sources, though not permitting the social ordering and grouping of bishop, priest and deacon. It maintained the tradition of providing a silver or gold plate for the eucharist bread and chalice to priests recently ordained. Bishops received pastorals staffs. Cranmer also had the priests receive a Bible to represent their purpose of preaching to the congregation. Later an extra amendment of the Ordinal was included in the 1552 prayer book. In this amendment Cranmer reformed the system so that bishops and priests received no items except a Bible. (Dickens 1989, 270)
Cranmer eased access to the liturgy, collecting everything that was indispensable in one book in the common tongue. He likely did not plan on his services being used for 400 years. However, his services were intended for repeated and frequent use. Cranmer’s text has been long revered as originating from an author sensitive providing formal English prose. Contemporary learning demonstrates the indispensable reputation of the structure of language to greater culture.. If, as MacCulloch states, “Cranmer’s language lies at the heart of our English-speaking culture”, (632.) Cranmer’s work towards the English language is likely his most important tribute. There are those that oppose this conclusion. A view is that Cranmer’s liturgies have become ingrained in English literary identity and have predisposed the religious rationale of English-speaking people. In contrast, Donald Gray states it is far too simple to romanticize the historic links between Anglican society and liturgy. Often claims made regarding the importance of the Book of Common Prayer are exaggerated elitist claims stated by and for a segment of society that possessed the time and opportunity for worship. Many enormous areas of England were not significantly influenced by the Book of Common Prayer and possessed very limited knowledge of its contents. (Gray 1991, 135-143) In addition, one may argue that contributions to English religious literature are not necessarily contributions to religious reformation. When Edward VI rose to power as a youth, the opportunity for positive change was met with rapid reformation in the church. MacCulloch demonstrates that as “as the truth liberated the populace, many came to love the Bible.” (613-614) The attacking and rejecting of orthodox beliefs such as religious processions and destroying Latin service books was received well. The walls of churches began to display Biblical messages such as The Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, and the beatitudes. When Mary ascended to the throne Cranmer was put in prison and threatened violently to sign recantations accepting fundamental Catholic doctrines. He signed the documents. However, he publicly withdrew the recantations right before he was incinerated as a heretic on 21 March 1556.
In conclusion, Cranmer was indispensable to the progress of the English Reformation. His work had impacts on events of the reformation during the reigns of King Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. The evidence demonstrates that he is among the most if not the most important figure in the English Reformation. Cranmer’s most important reforming achievements are demonstrated by the great documents he created. The access to the Bible and obedience to it that he helped establish was also significant. Cranmer did a great deal more than simply write liturgy and doctrine. The sources demonstrate if had not accomplished his aims at the level of excellence that he did, the efforts of the sixteenth century English reformation would likely have been far less effective and much more short lived.
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