From current day reforming groups (complete with a Facebook page!) to my former pastor who had his picture on his study door, Thomas Cranmer is a bit of a favourite with Anglicans. After all, he was the architect of the beloved Anglican prayer book and has been credited with the English Reformation. Yet, I can’t help but wonder whether admiration of him is somewhat misplaced.
For those who are unfamiliar, Cranmer was a rather ordinary man – a second son in a low ranked family and an undistinguished academic – who eventually (and reluctantly) became Archbishop of Canterbury. Such favour was shown to him as he had given grounds for the divorce of Henry VIII from his wife, even though the Pope wouldn’t allow it. He instated Henry as ruler of the English church and married and divorced him to various wives according to Henry’s desire. Though Cranmer became more theologically Protestant during Henry’s reign, Henry remained Catholic, save for his resistance to the Pope’s authority. After Henry’s death, Cranmer was able to implement his Protestantism in the Anglican church because Henry’s son, Edward VI, was Protestant. When Edward died, Cranmer supported the protestant Lady Jane Grey as queen over the rightful Catholic heir, Mary, was tried in both secular and clerical courts and executed (ostensibly for treason, though his Protestant leadership was also on view.)
Among his more admirable achievements were his efforts to have the Bible available in the vernacular and to have the gospel on view in Sunday services. Some of his more questionable moments include his recantations under pressure, hypocritical persecution of priests with wives, multiple retreats from his own decision concerning the king’s marriage, and alleged involvement in pillaging monasteries to furnish the royal coffers. I hear lots from Cranmer admirers about his achievements, but they tend to whitewash his failings.
Here are the two justifications I’ve found most common:
- Cranmer firmly believed in royal absolutism. He was biblically persuaded that his duty was to obey the sovereign. He did not see a separation between church and state and so had little problem with making a secular ruler the head of the church. His belief in royal absolutism may also have motivated his recantations: once the Queen had declared England Catholic, he felt compelled to submit. Of course, this only took him so far, for he recanted his recantations shortly before his death.
- Cranmer was involved in questionable acts as a means of preserving his life in order that he could implement full blown Protestantism in the time of Edward VI. The problem with this of course, is the question of integrity. Do the ends of creating a Protestant Anglicanism justify the means of his actions in Henry’s time?
In my mind, there’s little doubt that Cranmer compromised himself and his beliefs. While he may have died a martyr, his conduct up to that point was less than courageous. In fact, in contrast to other historical figures such as Thomas More, Cranmer comes off looking pretty weak both in conviction and character.
That worries me in one sense. After all, the father of the English reformation was a bit of dodgy, and many of his actions seem politically driven, if not downright unethical. Yet, why should this come as a surprise? Was he too not a fallen human being? Why should his legacy make him any less susceptible to sin? But as the Cranmer fanboys point out, the legacy of this feeble Christian leader lives on over 450 years after his death! God could use even this coward! And so it seems to me that Cranmer’s failings are not something to shrink from but rather a testament to God’s grace. And as Christian History journal’s editor, Mark Galli puts it, Cranmer is “a hero for a person like me, who tries to live out the gospel in confusing circumstances,” for his failings just as much as his successes.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.