Martin Luther may have constructed the reformation vehicle with his revolutionary 95 Theses nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg, but it was Thomas Cranmer, along with a few others, who paved the road for fleshing out its implications. Cranmer is the author of The Book of Common Prayer, one of the first devotional resources for the common man.
During his formative years, Cranmer possessed an insatiable desire for learning. He was afforded the opportunity for education in Cambridge, where he later joined other scholars to discuss Luther’s theology and practices. In August of 1529, a chance conversation with King Henry VIII as he was visiting a neighboring community gave Cranmer the opportunity to use his writing and reasoning skills under the employ of the Crown. King Henry sought Biblical grounds for divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his newfound love Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was summoned to write a letter to the Papacy in favor of granting an annulment of King Henry’s marriage. Although Rome denied the request, this solitary act earned Cranmer King Henry’s respect and the right to be an Ambassador of Europe.
After the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, just three years later, Henry appointed Cranmer to assume the position shortly thereafter. The first order of business on the docket for the Archbishop was to annul the marriage of King Henry VII to Catherine of Aragon and to validate his marriage to Anne Boleyn, even though the ceremony took place three months prior to his installation.
Cranmer became the commander in chief for the doctrinal direction of England. He called for reform among the clergy through the messages in his first work, the Book of Homilies, in 1547. His second work, Book of Common Prayer is what he is often remembered for today. It’s important to note that the word “common” was used to describe the fixed Scriptures used for regular services and for the vernacular in which it was written.
It’s impossible to translate to a modern audience the impact of this book at the time it was published. In a day and age without the Internet, television, or radio, few resources rivaled it. Cranmer’s emphasis on Scripture as the foundation for the weekly service, a difference from the structural formality of the Mass, made it the standard among Protestants. Another distinction, equally important, was the language in which the text was written: English. Up until that point, religious books utilized specialized languages, such as Hebrew and Latin, which few understood.
The title of the book is misleading to a modern audience as well. The book was a rubric for conducting church services, allowing for lectionary readings, songs, and creeds. Additionally, it contained outlines for performing weddings, funerals, and ordinations. Morning and evening prayers were included as well, although the section is small in comparison to the others.
During his tenure, Cranmer propagated to his constituency Royal Absolutism, the belief that the King was God’s chosen vessel to lead the church and the nation. Although he disagreed with the King in his attempt to divert back to Catholicism, for the most part, Cranmer was militantly loyal, which spared his life on occasion. Immunity would not last forever, however. Shortly after being crowned Queen of England, Bloody Mary, as she was called, ordered the massacre of protestant believers.
Cranmer was arrested, stripped of his priestly office, and charged with treason for speaking out against the Catholic Church and the Papacy. Believing that he could avoid being burned at the stake, Cranmer, weary from imprisonment, signed a document recanting his reformative stance against the Catholic Church. His signature appeared below a document stating: “I confess and believe in one, holy, catholic visible church; I recognize as its supreme head upon earth the bishop of Rome, Pope and vicar of Christ, to whom all the faithful are bound subject. I beg and pray God to deign of his goodness to forgive me the faults I have committed against him and his church.” Additionally, he affirmed the seven sacraments, the original source of his repudiation against the church.
His denial didn’t revoke the decision to send him to the stake. The government still ordered his death, that is, after one more confession, this time in public, in support of the Catholic church. Weight of what he had done overwhelmed him immediately; it was too late to be saved from the flames. His own signature would be used to humiliate him throughout the region.
In prison, before Cranmer’s execution, the witness of two men would impact Cranmer’s recantation. Huge Crowds lined the street near Balliol College in October 16, 1555 as Armed Dignitaries of Oxford lead two prisoners to a ditch. The first prisoner, Nicholas Ridley, former bishop of London, was 55 years old at the time. The second prisoner, Hugh Latimer former bishop of Worcester, walked behind him, wearing a ragged coat and a frayed hat. “Are you there?” Ridley yelled to his close friend. “Yes,” replied the 70-year-old bishop, “I’m coming as quickly as I can.”
The two men embraced one other and then knelt together for prayer before enduring a fifteen minute message from Dr. Smith about how love for God equals the belief that one must earn salvation through good deeds in the [Catholic] Church, as well as believe in the holy sacraments, particularly the Mass and the Eucharist. “Repent,” bellowed Smith, “and come home to the Church, and you will save your lives and your souls.” Ridley retorted, “May we speak?” Dr. Smith responded, “Only if you renounce your erroneous opinions.”
“Well,” shouted Ridley, “So long as breath is in my body I will never deny the Lord and His truth, God’s will be done to me.” He sealed their fate with these words.
Smith, along with the dignitaries, fastened chains around the waists of both men before securing their bodies to the stakes. Then, bags of gunpowder were wrapped around their necks. Finally, the executioners ignited the bundle of sticks at their feet. As the flames leapt up their legs, Latimer spoke first: “Be of good courage master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Bystanders reported that Latimer burned quickly, but Ridley lingered in agony because the fire burned initially on only one side.
That candle was lit, indeed, for watching from a prison window was Thomas Cranmer. Before being tied to the stake, Cranmer was allowed to address the crowd with one last confession of support for the Catholic Church, which he’d had six months to prepare. With hundreds of eyes watching his every move, Cranmer removed a piece of paper from his top pocket and read, “I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life. All such papers which I have written or signed with my own hand [are] untrue.”
He then shouted these words over the growing murmurs in the crowd: “And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine. And as for the sacrament….” But by this point, dignitaries had stormed the platform, began to rip him from the stage, and then bound him to the stake.
As the fire climbed his legs, the former Bishop of Canterbury stretched out his right hand, the one that signed the original document of recantation, into the flames and kept it there as he said, “This hand has offended you, Lord.” He only withdrew it one time to wipe his face before it burned to a stump. As he was consumed by the fire, Cranmer continuously prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
Although Cranmer’s contributions are still realized today in the Anglican Church, they have not stood without some criticism. Just for instance, the formalized structure suggested in the Book of Common Prayer can foster spiritless leadership on the part of the minister and monotonous engagement on the part of the congregant.
Criticisms such as these should be taken with a grain of salt, however, for the Book of Common Prayer began a number of positive precedents, such as the emphasis on the pastoral prayer in the service. Puritan preacher and author William Perkins, supported the formal prayers as “being both profitable and necessary since they provide for uniformity in worship and prevent ignorant pastors from neglecting the duty of pastoral prayer.”
While Cramner’s work was not necessarily the first quiet time devotional, as the Missal was used in the Middle Ages by monks and nuns in monasteries, it was certainly the most accessible. Its vernacular made it useful for the common man and set an example for personal quiet time that has proven crucial over the years to countless believers around the world.