The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cranmer In My Heart....

Father of all mercies,who through the work of thy servant Thomas Cranmer didst renew the worship of thy Church and through his death didst reveal thy strength in human weakness: strengthen us by thy grace so to worship thee in spirit and in truth that we may come to the joys of thine everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

It is unpleasant to think that in history we have to take sides. Since we think we have so much more insight now than the actors did back then, we would like to overlook that our predecessors sent others to death over things that we find trivial. In some more extreme circumstances, we can even usurp the past and interpret it according to our own comfortable prejudices. We can cherry-pick what we like and leave what we do not like to rot on its branch. Is this an honest approach? That is a very difficult question.

Thomas Cranmer was a coward. He was also a royal hack who did some rather unscrupulous things. He was not even an original scholar. He did, however, die a heroic death.... or so we can believe. Either those who burned him were in the right to do so and he was reaping what he sowed, or he died a martyr. Either his resistance of Roman authority was legitimate or he deserved to be burned at the stake as a heretic and schismatic. Either he died within the true Church in the flames, or he died outside of the bosom of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and Roman Church.

Cranmer of course was not an Anglican Pope. He was not a "founder" by his own admission. He was, however, the one who got the ball rolling for a Church that was both Catholic and Reformed. The great Divines who came after him until the Oxford Movement and beyond would not question his basic project. To do so would make the whole edifice fall. Cranmer was either a hero on that dreadful day in March 1556 or he died one of the worst enemies of the Church of Christ who has ever lived. There is, I think, no third option. You have to take sides.

As the flames lept up, he stretched out his right hand, saying with a loud voice, "This hand has offended," and held it steadfastly in the fire until it was burnt to ashes.

Thomas Cranmer by Albert Pollard, p. 383

Does this mean he was infallible? No. Does this mean we cannot question him? Of course not! You cannot, however, say that he was in the wrong on this day. If you can say this, you need to swim the Tiber and now, regardless of the consequences. You cannot be a Papalist and an Anglican, that just does not make sense. You cannot say that Roman doctrines and practices are absolutely true and necessary for salvation and still remain outside of the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome. If, in all of the factions left in the traditional Anglican and independent Catholic world, there has to be one stand that we can all agree on, it must be this: we may strongly suspect we are right, but we do not know that we are right. Therefore, we cannot commit ourselves to a system that claims that it is the only right way to believe in Christ. Cranmer must thus be a martyr for us, if only a very flawed one.

He called out [from the flames], " I see Heaven open and Jesus on the right hand of the throne of God."

-Thomas Cranmer by Jasper Ridley, p. 408

Since my encounter with traditional Anglicanism, I have put off many of the ideas of what I thought was necessary to be believed by an "apostolic" Christian. My encounter with High Churchmen, Low Churchmen, Protestants and Anglo-Catholics has shown me that maybe I do not know what the criterion for being in the True Church is anymore. All I know is where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is in their midst. Sure, there are lots of other things that I know are important, but how important?

I have posted on this blog that Cranmer was a radical Protestant. Even if this is true, so what? He believed some questionable things. He did some less than ethical political moves. He almost committed himself to some propaganda he did not believe in. But he loved Christ. I remember from MacCullough's biography two touching episodes. One was when Cranmer attended Henry VIII on his death bed and said only to the dying king to put his trust in Christ. There were no grandiose rituals or platitudes, only trust, and nothing else. The other is a little less religious. It was before Cranmer's execution when the condemned man was trying to have the friar assure him that his estates would be passed on to his son. Cranmer then broke down in sobs when thinking about the young boy, and MacCullough comments that the friar remained cold to this display of emotion, never having experienced the visceral love of a father. Cranmer was a human being who loved the Lord Jesus Christ. And he was a martyr. That has to mean something. It does for me.


At 12:38 PM, Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

This post is one of the reasons I love this blog so much.

After reading the biography of Cranmer I came to the same conclusion about him being a tool, a hack, a little bit of a coward, perhaps. In that sense we all have a little bit of Thomas Cranmer in us. But in the end he died a heroic death and showed his true colors; he accepted the consequences of his beliefs, of his conscience... in that sense, we could use a little bit of Thomas Cranmer in us. It is hard not admire a person like that. The struggle, his life, is so moving... worthy of a good film, I think. He was the only major leader of the Protestant Reformation who was martyred, and I think that says something. Would the other Reformation have died for their beliefs like Cranmer did? Maybe, maybe not.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The English Reformation has other martyrs me thinks. But, I agree that, by being burned at the stake for alleged heresy, even if the charges were true, he became in those agonizing minutes a Christian martyr, deserving of a day of honor on any Anglican calendar, hig or low. True christianity (the exceptions prove the rule) does not burn alleged or real hereitics at the stake.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

A very good reflection, perhaps a meditation, on the meaning of Cranmer's life and work. As Anglicans, it is true, we do have to take sides in one very important matter: Either we believe the Pope to be the head of the One True Church, with all of the doctrines she holds to, or we do not. If we do--off to Rome. If we do not, we must in good conscience stay outside tha fold. Our conscience can be clear, but perhaps we will be Anglicans or Old Catholics. This is the bottom line to all of the psychoanalysis of why C.S. Lewis never "joined the Church" (in the Roman parlance)--he did not believe it to be "the Church."

I always group Cranmer with blessed Laud in my thinking about the Anglican Way: One died as a martyr at the hands of the Romans for refusing to believe in Transubstantiation(!) and the claims of the Papacy. The other died at the hands of radical protestants for refusing to give up the Prayer Book and the Episcopacy. Both died fighthing at the extremes of Christian thought. In the middle, I think, is the truth. In this matter I do not think that Anglicans can "take sides." They must embrace both the death of Cranmer and the death of Laud as exemplars for what Anglicanism stands for.

At 8:26 PM, Blogger axegrinder said...


Excellent juxtaposition of the martyrs. We face the same opposition from both sides. Though it is unlikely that it will lead to our deaths, we are often marginalized in the minds of our brethren.

Jason Kranzusch

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

No surprise here but on this you and I part ways a bit, Arturo.

Interestingly the Martyrs Memorial in Broad Street at Oxford is in the parish of St Mary Magdalen which later in the 1920s until the early 1990s (I was there when it started to go bad) was advanced Anglo-Catholic.

Anyway, like RC traditionalist Michael Davies I admire Cranmer's, Latimer's and Ridley's courage at the end even though, and this is important, they were wrong. Nothing prideful at all about saying that. It's not Fogey's opinion but the church's teaching.

Likewise the 9/11 hijackers were anything but cowards dying bravely for their cause. But as they took a lot of innocent lives with them, so the heresiarchs led to the ruin of souls. 'It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.' (Luke 17.2) No, I'm not advocating torture.

That's far more important than that Cranmer was a hack for the king most of his life (which is why the king used him even though Henry VIII, though an open and notorious evil liver, was by no stretch of the imagination a Protestant).

Thomas Cranmer denied much else besides the papal claims as they were then or the Aristotelian explanation of the complete change of the elements of Communion (a common Catholic positon, not peculiarly Roman). Look at what happened to the churches and services under his watch when he realised Edward VI or his regent would back him up.

He may have loved Christ. So did Gandhi. But I commemorate neither liturgically whilst using the idiom of the former and admiring some of the peace message of the latter.

C.S. Lewis had a few real differences with the RCs even at the end of his life but though he didn't ID as AC he was far more Catholic than his Protestant fans today, believing in purgatory and going to confession and I imagine as a classic Anglican believing in baptismal regeneration and the necessity of the episcopate. And of course in The Screwtape Letters he defended liturgical worship (not necessarily ceremonial, which he didn't care about).

But the classic Anglican and the AC would agree, 'Why go to Rome? Why leave the church to join the church?'

And there is another, sturdy option besides Anglicanism (either official or Continuing), Old Catholicism or vagante-ism (pseudo-Old Catholics). If one can re-tool for a different rite (except perhaps in the Western Rite experiments though they often seen half-byzantinised on the Web), accept their exclusive one-true-church claim and put up with nasty remarks now and then about Western Christianity (my native tradition is not crap), there is the beautiful, Oriental version of everything non-papal ACs believe in, with no Low or Broad Churchmen muddling things: Orthodoxy. But of course, Arturo, you already knew that.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

I will concede that maybe I have gone a bit to "Protty" lately. Maybe I need to slow down and smell the incense.

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