Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, Cranmer’s Legacy.
The architect behind the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and the Book of Homilies was not as self-assured a reformer as the other figures we have met. Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 to moderately well-to do family but certainly not of the nobility. He went to Cambridge in 1503 and became a fellow of Jesus College in 1515. He was heavily influenced by the humanism of figures like Erasmus and Jacques Lefevre, but when Luther hammered his 95 Thesis and challenged the authority of the Pope, Cranmer realized that he agreed. His early opposition to Rome allowed for his swift rise once the Pope became more vehemently opposed. In 1533, he was named Archbishop of Canterbury and dutifully served his post. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy was passed which made Henry the head of the church. Cranmer’s position was now the second highest in the land, a dramatic shift from being merely the head of a provincial national church. It was not, though, until a decade later that the path that woul reach Cranmer's lasting influence would begin.
In 1544, Henry VIII commanded that an English litany, understandable by the people, should be produced and promulgated widely. After almost twenty years of revolt from Rome, Henry began to think about needs of the commoners. Cranmer dutifully took up the challenge and the first formal steps of moving worship from Latin to English were taken. Three years later, Henry was dead, and his son Edward VI was crowned king at the age of nine.
It was under the six year reign of Edward that true liturgical reform took place. Medieval England had been a pious land with many different prayerbooks and rites of worship guiding the devotional life of the people. In organizing the first and second Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer was able to unite the devotional life of the common people, as well as give the people something to cling to beyond the whims of the aristocracy in peace or war.
Through the authority of the King and an act of Parliament, the first Book of Common Prayer was adopted in 1549 across the country, with heavy penalties to incentivize all parishes to adopt it. In some regions, like Cornwall, there was modest rebellion since most people didn’t speak English. In this way, the Book of Common Prayer did not function to bring the worship into the vernacular but into the language of Kingly power (as opposed to Papal power). Weekly communion was also a novelty of the prayer book that many people found uncomfortable. To the commoner, communion was most commonly associated with marriage or with the last rites of someone sick and dying.
The 1552 edition was even more reformed than the first. Reformers from the continent submitted recommended proposals and Cranmer himself worked to unify and simplify the liturgy in order to avoid misinterpretation, writing, “our excessive multitude of Ceremonies was so great, and many of them so dark: that they did more to confound, and darken, than declare and set forth Christ’s benefits unto us.”
Over the next hundred years, different editions of the prayerbook came out, but it was in 1662 that the last Authorized edition was published, the book for which John Wesley wrote in 1784:
“I believe there is not liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational Piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.”
Before the prayerbook was developed, Cranmer had promulgated 10 articles of faith to help the development of the Church of England as separate from Rome. These expanded to 42 articles in 1552 and then were reduced to 39 in 1563 among the Elizabethan Reforms of the church. Cranmer had been killed in 1556 during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary and so he could not work on the final version of the articles but his legacy was cemented within them. Both in doctrinal content, and in the fact that the 35th articles commends churches to read Cranmer’s first and second book of homilies.
The homilies themselves were still incredibly influential at the time of early Methodism. Primarily, they were written and promulgated to help in the promotion of English language worship. Any priests who had been Catholic would have never preached in English before and so needed a resource for what an English language sermon would be. The homilies also contained, as the 35th article stated, godly and wholesome doctrine, which served as an expansion upon the articles themselves. John Wesley spoke of it, saying, “The book which, next to the Holy Scripture, was of the greatest use to them in settling their judgment as to the grand point of justification by faith was the Book of Homilies.” (4:505)
Though the 35th article was removed by John Wesley when he sent American Methodists his version of the Articles of Religion, Wesley retained the logic of the homilies in promoting his standard sermons for use by Methodist circuit riders. Most of these young men (and some women) were not educated beyond a cursory level, and so Wesley’s sermons gave them a standard on which to devise sermons. As well, the sermons taught the distinctive doctrines of Methodism and could be read during worship in lieu of an original sermon if the circumstances demanded it.
The legacy of Cranmer held sway over John and Charles Wesley. Both men were ordained into the church that Cranmer developed. Both men were formed by the texts that Cranmer wrote, yet the reform movements in England and Northern Europe had not gone unnoticed in Rome. Wesley wrote that Calvin and Luther did not separate from the Church in Rome, “but were violently thrust out of it.” The thrust caused Rome to spin and change, to confront its past and its future, in ways that had consequences for Europe and for Methodism in the centuries to come with the Roman Counter-Reformation. Next time, on the History of Methodism.
John Wesley, Sermons, ed. Albert Outler, vol. 4 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976– )