The Archbishop of Canterbury: Poet, Politician, or Parable?

A Homily for Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, on the feast day of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop and Martyr, March 21st 2012

Thomas Cranmer: was he a romantic or an adventurer? A wise man or an opportunist? Was the man better suited as an academic or an archbishop? Was he a realist or a reformer? A faithful friend to his king, or a clever fake? Was Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury a poet, or a politician, or a parable?

Simeon’s words to Jesus’ parents seem very appropriate to the story of Thomas (Luke 2). Simeon prophesied that Jesus was a person who would bring out the innermost thoughts of those around him; powerful people would rise and fall as their true colours were tested and reflected in the mirror of this man, and the hearts of those who loved him would be pierced by their own vision of the truth, of the light that had come into the world.

Only Jesus knows all that was in Thomas Cranmer’s heart as he went to the stake and held his hand to the fire. Only God knows if the archbishop was as true a man, as true a priest and a Christian as he could be, or whether he had played the politicians’ game, only to lose at the end. Only the Spirit knows how he was inspired to write that poetry, those prayers, which have inspired generations to prayer and to the love of God and of the Word.

Thomas Cranmer was born at the end of the fifteenth century, a middle son of a middling family, with no prophesies to predict the fame with which he would be remembered. He went up to Cambridge and studied at a time when Erasmus, the pre-Reformation humanist scholar, was visiting, and when continental ideas were slowly fermenting. His career as an academic seemed set to course, except that he married, inexplicably to his friends, a woman named Joan, and lost his fellowship at the university because of her, and placed his ambitions and his advancement on hold apparently for the love of her. Their union was short; Joan died along with their baby shortly after giving birth a year or so after the wedding. The damage of his marriage undone, Thomas picked up where he left off at the university, and became a priest. A romantic or an adventurer?

Sent by the king at the recommendation of friends to Europe to canvas the greatest theological minds of the age on their opinion of Henry’s “Great Matter,” the question of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and whether it could be set aside, Thomas Cranmer, who had by all accounts been a faithful Catholic priest in England, seemed to be persuaded by the Protestant arguments against the sacrifice of the Mass, against the imprisonment of the sacred words of Scripture and liturgy in Latin, and against the celibacy of the clergy. He married again, his new bride, Katharina, a relative of one of his new Protestant friends. Presumably, given that Henry was never persuaded that priests could or should be allowed to marry, Thomas did not anticipate the honour that his king was about to confer upon him; shortly after his wedding, the Archbishop of Canterbury died, and Henry called upon Thomas Cranmer to be his new primate. An academic or an archbishop?

Thomas spent the next decade balancing the concerns of his faith and its developing Protestant sympathies, the needs of the English church as he came to see them, the preferences and peccadilloes of his king, and the responsibilities of being a married man and the archbishop of Canterbury, who by law could have no wife. Katharina seems to have spent much of this time with her family on the continent, hidden away while her husband managed his career and that of the king. A faithful friend or a clever fake?

Thomas was able to introduce some reforms, such as the new English Bible translation which he caused to be placed in all of the nation’s churches, even while passing along with Henry and Parliament the Act of Six Articles which reaffirmed catholic theology and practice in England. A realist or a reformer?

And on a more sinister note, although Catholic martyrs were fewer during the reign of Henry’s son than were Protestant ones during the reign of his elder daughter, still the Archbishop of Canterbury with the powers lent him by the state did silence by violent and merciless means some of the critics of his reformation. One wonders whether this irony helped him in his final hours to at last find the strength to speak his position plainly and to die heroically.

Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be the destiny which caused the fall and rise of many, that he would be a sign to many whose opposition to him would expose their inner secrets, the thoughts of their hearts.

During the ups and downs of the Reformation, in the violence and intrigue, in the poetry and secret romance, in the politicking and the rifts and reconciliations, the thoughts and secrets of many hearts were laid bare. Ambition, zeal for the gospel, resentment, revenge, steadfast love and faithfulness; all were revealed as the sign of Jesus Christ was held up before the people. Did they believe that the Bread of the Eucharist was really Jesus’ body, or was the symbol simply a creature of wheat and water? Did they read the stories of Jesus for themselves, or did they require them to be translated to them by those more learned and wise? In whom did they invest the power to represent Jesus to the church on earth, and more specifically in England?

Of course, Jesus survived all of these questions. Just as in the first century after Simeon’s blessing, when the people either believed in him as Lord or crucified him as a criminal, and Jesus could not be defeated by the gallows, but he defeated death himself;  so in the sixteenth century the person of the Risen Christ was never at the mercy of Catholics or Protestants or proto-Anglicans; but they were at the mercy of one another and themselves.

The Archbishop was called to the primacy at an impossible time, and asked to hold together a church, a country, a people of faith impossibly divided. There were casualties of his course of action, even among those whom he loved. The benefits of his legacy were not recognized for many years, being buried by his successors and their Queen in a reactionary riot of undoing.

If he had been more outspoken earlier to King Henry about his evolving theology, his end might have come sooner, and we might never have inherited the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer, which some have called the greatest spiritual work beside the Bible itself. Even his strongest detractors had to admit that he was a gifted wordsmith and that his liturgical works laid the groundwork for beautiful English language and prayer for generations to come.* Without him, our prayer life would be the poorer.

But Simeon prophesied to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” The mother of the living God must have felt her heart break as she saw her son die. Those standing by the ones who rose and fell felt that soul pain, too. Whether persecuted or ignored, vilified or set aside, burnt or betrayed, the Archbishop’s fate was not his alone. How did it feel to Katharina, to be married to a man who, once he became Archbishop of Canterbury, upheld the law that men such as he had no right to marry?

Poet, politician or parable? Only Jesus knows what was in Thomas Cranmer’s heart as he went to the stake and held his hand to the fire. Only God knows if the archbishop was as true a man, as true a priest and a Christian as he could be, or whether he had played the politicians’ game, only to lose at the end. Only the Spirit knows how any of our legacies will be received, what acts of devotion they might inspire.

One thing is certain: the person of the Risen Christ was never at the mercy of those of his followers who argue amongst themselves about the right way to follow him. In and through his person is true reconciliation found, and true worship practiced. He is a light to all people, of all stripes and all generations. May each of our hearts tell a story of love and devotion for God, for respect and kind regard for each other, for repentance and peace which he delights to read, since to him our hearts, preferences and prejudices, our pragmatism and our poetry, are all an open book. Therefore let us pray often in the words that Thomas Cranmer, archbishop and martyr, taught us:

ALMIGHTIE God, unto whom all hartes bee open, and all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hid: clense the thoughtes of our hartes, by the inspiracion of thy holy spirite: that we may perfectly love thee, and worthely magnifie thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.


* See Hilaire Belloc, Characters of the Reformation (New York: Image Books, 1958)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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