Friday, September 28, 2012

Thomas Cranmer's legacy...

A fascinating essay, Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy by Diarmaid MacCulloch, looks at the woulda coulda shoulda had the Lady Jane Grey taken the throne instead of Queen Mary after the death of Edward VI, and thus leaving Archbishop Cranmer alive to continue the English reformation.  MacCulloch, a first-rate historian and scholar who authored the exceptional biography Thomas Cranmer - A Life, opens the article with the question, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer died at the stake in 1556, a martyr for the English Reformation; but did he die a martyr for the Church of England or for Anglicanism? Had he lived?  MacColluch:

Archbishop Cranmer, living to his allotted three-score years and ten or beyond, could produce a third version of his two earlier Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, in the light of friendly criticism from continental reformers whom he respected, like Peter Martyr, Johann Heinrich Bullinger and Calvin. He would be succeeded as archbishop by Nicholas Ridley or Robert Holgate, with energetic younger. reformers like Edmund Grindal ready to make their mark and pick up good ideas from the best reformed churches of Europe... 
Out in the parishes, metrical psalms in the style of Geneva would quickly have spread: these were the best secret weapon of the English Reformation, making its public worship and private devotional practice genuinely popular throughout increasing areas of the kingdom. This congregational music would also take over in the cathedrals, now devoid of choirs or polyphony, and with their organs (where they survived) used mainly for entertainment in the Dutch fashion...
England would have become the most powerful political player in the Reformed camp, with Cranmer a cordial if geographically distant partner with John Calvin. It is powerfully symbolic that it was Cranmer's son-in-law Thomas Norton who translated Calvin's Institutes into English, and Cranmer's veteran printer Reyner Wolfe who published it. With a Cranmer-Calvin axis, the profile of Reformed religion across the whole Continent would have been changed, and with the help and encouragement of Bishop Knox, the Reformation in Scotland might have followed a close path to the Reformed Church of England.
As MacCulloch notes, this was not to be.  The Roman Catholic Mary did take the throne. Cranmer, along with Ridley and Latimer, was martyred.  But MacColluch does go on to briefly survey what happened to the Church of England with the emergence of Anglicanism over the course of the ensuing four centuries.  He sums up what he understands to be Cranmer's lasting heritage:
Yet he spared the users of the Prayer Book the worst pomposities of humanism and the sprawling sentence constructions which are only too common in the English prose writers of the sixteenth century. He stands prominently amid a select band of Tudor writers from Tyndale to Shakespeare who set English on its future course...

He would not have known what Anglicanism meant, and would probably not have approved if the meaning had been explained to him, but without his contribution, the unending dialogue of Protestantism and Catholicism which forms Anglican identity would not have been possible. Beyond the concerns of Christianity, for all those who criticise his politics, or find his theology alien, Cranmer's language remains as the most enduring monument to Henry Vlll's and Edward VI's most faithful servant. Twentieth-century scholarship has reminded us just how fundamental is the structure of language to the way in which we construct our lives and our culture. Cranmer's language lies at the heart of our own English-speaking culture, which has now become so central to the destiny of the world.  
Read the whole thing.

Hat tip:  Anglicans in the Wilderness

1 comment:

  1. The previous archbishop to Cranmer had the right idea. Aside from that, the Reformation spiritually started with the clergy and those not of academic origin. Henry was a needed head of state--in order to implement such. The British contribution should not be solely credited to him.