Reflections on the use of Cranmer’s liturgy

Today in the Church of England’s calendar we commemorate that great Archbishop and religious architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer. A brief biography may be found here. Not only did Cranmer reform the Church of England under Henry VIII and then Edward VI, but his legacy lives on in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which are the foundation documents of the post-Reformation CofE.

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Cranmer made a couple of attempts to produce a prayer book in English, once in 1549 and again in 1552. The latter was the one that was adopted (with very minor amendments) at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1662. This remained the only legal source of liturgy for the Church of England until the early twentieth century when the Bishops produced a revised version in 1928. Parliament, however, refused to ratify it and so it remained as a semi-official alternative. The sixties and seventies saw two set of authorised  experimental services – Series II and Series 3 – before the the publication of the Alternative Service Book 1980. This was authorised until 2000 when our present Common Worship was introduced.

Let me say that I am an admirer of Cranmer. His impact on subsequent generations of the Church of England has been profound. His liturgies often take the best of pre-Reformation practice and weave it into something that was simple, approachable and written to speak to a wide range of people within the Church’s congregations. It was also intended that clergy and others would be able to use the BCP offices for their own private devotions, and Cranmer’s phraseology has stuck in the collective memory of te nation for centuries.

Within the benefice here we still use BCP services regularly. In a “normal” month I preside at three BCP Holy Communion services and at least one service of Evening Prayer and there are a considerable number in our congregations who prefer the BCP services to their modern equivalents.

And yet I do wonder what Cranmer himself would have made of the extensive use of his original work today. Would he have been gratified or bemused? There are a number of things I believe are problematic with using the BCP extensively in the twenty-first century.

1. BCP is clearly the product of sixteenth century culture, philosophy and thought-forms (to say nothing of politics!). Although it makes extensive use of the Bible, it is the Bible seen through sixteenth century eyes. So while the BCP may be a wonderful cultural artefact, it does not represent the way in which most twenty-first century people (even Anglican Christians) think or speak. This is not to say that God cannot use an interest in cultural artefacts to draw people to faith in Christ; simply to say that this is not everyone’s experience.

2. As a consequence of this that use of the BCP in our day is most likely to attract those who view their faith through the lens of history and culture. And these are most likely to be drawn from the “educated classes”. For others the use of archaic Emglish (“not understanded of the people”?) is likely to be rather off-putting rather than draw them in.

3. It also follows that the primary view of God presented is that of transcendence, since the language has an unconscious effect of distancing our talk of God from our everyday life and language. Now transcendence is not a bad thing. God IS other to us, and we need reminding of that. But there is also an immanent aspect of God which can be lost. The incarnation (as well Pentecost) signify to us that God is with us in the everyday aspects of our life, that He is closer to us than our breath. These things must be held together, in tension, with neither aspect being lost.

4. The sixteenth (and seventeenth) century understanding of how the political system relates to our understanding of God and his kingdom is alien to a very large number of twenty-first century people. Indeed, the way in which our political system works has undergone many significant changes in the intervening centuries.

5.  I have often wondered exactly what the cumulative psychological and sociological effects of Cranmer’s language of confession of sin has been on Anglican people. Do we actually take the words seriously or have they become so familiar we no longer really reflect on them? Should we be using these words week after week? This is not to downplay the seriousness of sin. What I am getting at is that, although the forgiveness of sin in Christ is declared each time we make our confession, there is little recognition of the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit and how that affects us. We speak as though we begin each service in an unregenerate state.

So while I am happy to continue using Cranmer’s book on a limited basis, I am truly thankful that I live in an age when I am allowed alternatives in contemporary language (though it is still a formal language) and which allow doctrine to be expressed in a rather different way. Nevertheless, I join with Anglicans around the world in expressing gratitude for the life and work of RThomas Cranmer. May he rest in peace.

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