Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Being In Communion With Thomas Cranmer

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1556 when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was put to death by burning, in Broad Street, here in Oxford, on the orders of Queen Mary I. He was first ceremonially de-frocked in Christ Church Cathedral and "tried" in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (an altogether nicer Mary). He had done his best to recant his "heretical" views, and escape to his wife and children in Germany, eventually he realised the game was up, and so, as the flames began to rise, he held out his writing hand into the fire, saying that the hand that wrote the recantation deserved to be burnt first. A macabre gesture, in a brutal age. To make matters worse, it was a damp and dismal day for burning(yesterday actually turned out rather nice and sunny), and so, in an act of mercy, boiling oil was thrown at the dying archbishop to speed it up, and end his agony. They say that in the cellars of Balliol College they keep a door that was scalded in the line of fire (as it were).

Cranmer is a fascinating figure, a man of huge intellect and deep learning, ancient and modern. Before he became archbishop, he had not even been an archdeacon, and was leap-frogged into the top job because of his commitment to the King's causes - to disentangle himself from the Queen, Katherine of Aragon, and from the Pope. Cranmer managed to stay in Henry's service for nearly twenty years without having his head chopped off, which is no mean achievement, and testament to his adroitness, tact, and sheer commonsense. But there is another element too - he really did believe that Henry had been put there by God. Henry thought that too, although perhaps in a different way: Henry thought God had put him there to do what Henry pleased, and Cranmer thought God had put Henry there to do what God pleased. There are two famous portraits of Cranmer, one before, one after Henry died. The latter shows the archbishop with a long grey beard - as a sign of mourning for (whatever you think of him as a man) a majestic king (the first king to use the title, Majesty, which has stuck ever since), he never shaved again.

One of the longest-standing controversies about Cranmer concerns his eucharistic theology - what did he think happened in the Mass, Holy Communion, Lord's Supper, Eucharist, or whatever else you want to call it? The text of his first, 1549, Prayerbook, is compared with his second, of 1552, which, with a few changes, evolved finally into the Prayerbook of 1662 which prevailed unchanged until the 19th century, and is still legal, and sometimes even used, today.

I'll leave it to the historians to judge whether Cranmer's own thought was evolving in the 1550s, but the text of the 1662 book is there for us all to read. In the 16th century you could align yourself on a scale from the Mediaeval belief in transsubstantiation (that the bread and wine actually become Christ's body and blood, and that his sacrifice on the cross is re-enacted on the altar), to the Zwinglian view that the ceremony is just a solemn memorial - "do this in remembrance of me". In the 1662 book you can find comfort for both views, and quite a few in between. Whether deliberately or not - and I tend to think it is deliberate - the text has been drafted to offer something to everyone.

In his book about the Lord's Supper, Cranmer takes a dim view of "magic words", as he makes fun of transsubstantiation, when understood at its literal worst. In fact, there is even what must pass as a 16th century joke, as he imagines saying "this is my bo ..." and lifting the veil to see if bread has turned to body yet. I suspect he would be in sympathy with the drafters of the American Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in which only one "amen" is printed in capital letters - the one at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, suggesting that it is not the words of the priest, but the amen of the people, which makes the sacrament. This would fit with these very early words of the liturgy: the priest says "Let us give thanks unto our Lord God", and the congregation answers "It is meet and right so to do". This represents the permission of the people to the priest to continue on their behalf. I once stopped a little communion service because I couldn't hear that reply, and I told a slightly surprised congregation, that if they didn't give me permission to continue, we'd all have to go home to breakfast early and without communion. So, we tried again, and they spoke up!

Cranmer's innovation - and he was little given to novelty, preferring instead to translate, edit, and elide the words and phrases of the Greek and Latin Fathers - was to make the service more dramatic. In common with many reformers, he deplored the way that the laity would come to hear and see the Mass, but not actually to receive communion. So, he gathered them round the table, and distributed the bread - and the wine, previously usually reserved to the priest alone (I wonder why ...?) - immediately after reciting the "words of institution", the ones that Jesus used at the Last Supper in the Gospels. This innovation has not found favour with modern liturgists, but centuries after Cranmer first started to encourage it, regular communion, and the bread and wine for everyone, have become much more the norm.

However, returning to the question "what did Cranmer think happens in the eucharist?", I think we make a mistake in concentrating too much on the bread and the wine. In his book, the archbishop writes eloquently about holy communion being not only something that happens with comestibles, and not only an encounter between the believers and their God, but also a sign of a deepening relationship one with another. The key to this can be found in his "Prayer of Humble Access", which in a revised form is available for us in Common Worship, just before the distribution:

"We do not presume to come to this, thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under they Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."

For Cranmer, the essence of the sacrament was this mutual indwelling, not just of God-with-us, Immanuel, but also one with another. The idea of saying, for instance, "that I may evermore dwell in him, and he in me", would have been a nonsense to him - the sacrament was communion-in-community, modelled on the community of the Divine Trinity itself. That is why, after the Reformation, Church of England priests were not to celebrate Holy Communion on their own.

One can only presume that Elizabeth I's famous dictum "I do not desire windows into men's souls" was influenced by this view. It is in our gathering together to share the sacraments, that the reality of communion can live and grow, not in our doctrinal disputes about who is right, who is wrong, and who doesn't really understand. There is much argy-bargy about "communion" in the Anglican churches at the moment, all of which misses the point that if you are arguing about "who's in and who's out", you're ALL out. And that is why the Anglican position has been, with very few qualifications, that if you want to come to communion, you are welcome to come, and if you do, you are in communion with everyone who welcomes you.

And those who won't come to communion, or refuse it to others, might bear in mind, to take another line from Cranmer's Prayerbook "how grievous and unkind a thing it is", and a "great injury and wrong" done unto God himself.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Richard. An excellent, albeit brief in Cranmer and his Eucharistic Theology.

    I'll go to BCP more enlightened now.