Wednesday, March 20, 2024

On the feast of Thomas Cranmer

 Today we remember Thomas Cranmer, author of the prayer book whose words we still use, Thursday by Thursday in this place.   Born in Nottinghamshire in 1489, Cranmer was recruited for diplomatic service in 1527. Two years later he joined the team working to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and duly pronounced the Aragon marriage annulled. After the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer became a chief architect of Edwardian religious change, constructing two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, in 1549 and 1552, and the original version of what would later become the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Following King Edward’s short reign, Queen Mary’s regime convicted Cranmer of treason in 1553 and of heresy in 1554. Demoralized by imprisonment, he signed six recantations, but was still condemned to the stake at Oxford – where the position of his martyrdom is still marked in the street.  Struggling with his conscience, he made a final, bold statement of Protestant faith. Cranmer was an impressively learned scholar, and his genius for formal prose has left a lasting mark on Anglican liturgy. He was burnt at the stake on this day in the year 1556.

Cranmer, like his colleagues Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake by a Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we should also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility. 

First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same? 

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence, of either the physical or verbal kind.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian social media is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects. These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests.  These are all important topics, (and there are many more like them) that inspire real vitriol.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently pulling away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.  Oh to have their sense of utter certainty!

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.  And we use them to batter our theological and intellectual opponents.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.


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