Thursday, March 21, 2002

Remembering Thomas Cranmer on the anniversary of his martyrdom.

Today, March 21, the first day of Spring [in Britain], is the commemoration of the burning at the stake outside Balliol College, Oxford in 1556 of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. A wreath was laid on the spot today by the Prayer Book Society.

As I could not be there, I have read again today the account of his martyrdom, extracts from his writings and parts of The Book of Common Prayer of 1552.

Why, I ask myself, did the Protestant Reformers, including Cranmer, reject so vehemently the medieval doctrines [and ceremonies associated with them] of the Mass, of purgatory, of petitions to saints, of indulgences and of prayers for the departed. And to this question a simple and correct answer is, “Because they did not find them in Scripture.”

Yet there is more to it than that, as the portrait of late medieval devotion and religion provided by E. Duffy’s “Stripping of the Altars” makes clear. And this “more” is explained in these terms by the biographer of Cranmer, Diarmaid McCulloch:

“For the late medieval Church, the mass had become as much something for the dead as for the living; it had broken down the barrier between life and death in a very particular, concrete sense. Behind the crowds of the faithful in a medieval parish church, convent church or cathedral jostled invisible crowds, the crowds of the dead. And they crowded in because the Church maintained a model of the afterlife in which the mass could speed the souls of the faithful departed through purgatory. A gigantic consumer demand of the dead fuelled the services of the Church. It was to change this that the Reformers struggled. Insisting that the just shall live by faith alone, they believed that the medieval Church, with the papacy as its evil genius, had played a gigantic trick on the living by claiming to aid the dead in this way. They sought to banish the dead, and to banish the theology which had summoned them into the circle of the living faithful gathered round the Lord’s Table.” [Cranmer, p.614]

If one looks at the services of the BCP 1552 and compares them with the first edition of 1549 and then with the medieval services of the Sarum Rite, that was widely used in England in late medieval times, one can see the elimination from the 1552 services of all traces of the faithful departed and purgatory - no praying or offering sacrifice for the dead, who are judged to be asleep in Christ and thus in bliss.

In order to break the people free from what they saw as the evil bondage of medieval devotion and religion, the Reformers had to cut down the whole edifice of the Church’s control over the inmates of purgatory, first by removing purgatory from the spiritual universe and then making the church expectant into those who slept in Christ waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the fullness of the life of heaven in redeemed bodies. With the removal of purgatory went also all the means to assist the swift passage through it --- the sacrifice for the living and the dead of the Mass, indulgences, rosaries, pilgrimages, candles, prayers and so on.

And positively the message of justification by faith not by works was proclaimed widely and profoundly. The way to a right relation with the Father was to repent of sins and believe/trust in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. By the action of the Holy Ghost such faith brought union with Christ unto all eternity and the sure and certain hope that at death one would go as a disembodied soul to be with Christ immediately. Such true faith was also faithful and thus genuine faith works by love and has its fruit in good works which are done to the glory of God and not to gain merit!

So it is not surprising that the BCP of 1552 framed by Cranmer, the mature Protestant, has been recognized as a near perfect embodiment of the principle of justification by faith. Here is what Gregory Dix wrote:

“As a piece of liturgical craftsmanship it is in the first rank – once its intention is understood. It is not a disordered attempt at a catholic rite [liturgy], but the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone” (Shape, p.672).

Dix’s point is easily appreciated by the reading of the Burial Service and of the Order for Holy Communion – no purgatory or prayers for the dead here.

Today when Anglicans, using a modern rite for Holy Communion, are told that it is all about Celebration and Community (of this world) it is very difficult for them to enter into the experience and thought-world of late medieval and early sixteenth century English devotion and religion, where it was all about reference to the world of the departed. Thus Christians today hardly notice if in prayer there is a general petition for the departed or if in a burial service prayer is offered for the soul of the body being buried.

Thus, for example, it is not surprising that some of those who call themselves Evangelicals in the Episcopal Church USA and in the AMiA seem to have found a way (that Cranmer could not find or allow) of both claiming to hold to justification by faith alone and praying (howbeit in general terms) for the faithful departed. [It would seem that the only way that prayer for the departed makes sense is if a doctrine of the Church expectant is held wherein there is a process of purification of souls towards the full redemption at the general resurrection of the dead.]

Of course what Cranmer did believe in was praying together with the faithful departed in the Communion of Saints within the one Body of Christ and Household of God. In Christian worship the faithful on earth join the faithful departed to offer to the Father through Christ the Mediator and High Priest, worship, praise and thanksgiving. “With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy holy name!”

The Revd Dr Peter Toon, the anniversary of the Martyrdom of Cranmer, March 21, 2002.

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