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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A martyr to truth and faith ...

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Book of Common Prayer and to a large degree, of the Church of England, was martyred outside one of the Oxford Colleges now disgraced by its Atheist Faculty, four hundred and fifty-five years ago this week. Five years ago, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Doctor +Rowan Williams, preached a sermon in Cranmer's honour. Having managed to find a transcript of the Archbishop's address, I post it here in tribute to a great man, a man who had his failings and his weaknesses, but who, in the end, showed vast courage as he died a hideous death at the hands of a Queen as fanatical as any al Quaeda terrorist ....

Cranmer lived in the middle of controversies where striking for a kill was the aim of most debaters. Now of course we must beware of misunderstanding or modernising. He was not by any stretch of the imagination a man who had no care for the truth, a man who thought that any and every expression of Christian doctrine was equally valid; he could be fierce and lucidly uncompromising when up against an opponent like Bishop Gardiner. Yet even as a controversialist he shows signs of this penitent scrupulosity in language: yes, this is the truth, this is what obedience to the Word demands - but , when we have clarified what we must on no account say, we still have to come with patience and painstaking slowness to crafting what we do say. Our task is not to lay down some overwhelmingly simple formula but to suggest and guide, to build up the structure that will lead us from this angle and that towards the one luminous reality. 'Full, perfect and sufficient' - each word to the superficial ear capable of being replaced by either of the others, yet each with its own resonance, its own direction into the mystery, and, as we gradually realise, not one of them in fact dispensable.

And in his last days, this was Cranmer's curse. If there was no easy certainty enough to kill for, was there certainty enough to die for? That habit of mind which had always circled and hovered, tested words and set them to work against each other in fruitful tension, sought to embody in words the reality of penitence and self-scrutiny, condemned him, especially in the midst of isolation, confusion, threats and seductions of spirit, to a long agony, whose end came only in this church minutes before his last hurrying, stumbling walk through the rain to the stake. It is extraordinary to think of him drafting two contradictory versions of his final public confession, still not knowing what words should sum up his struggles. But at the last, it is as if he emerges from the cloud of words heaped up in balance and argument and counterpoint, knowing almost nothing except that he cannot bring himself to lie, in the face of death and judgement. What he has to say is that he has 'written many things untrue' and that he cannot face God without admitting this. He cannot find a formula that will conceal his heart from God, and he knows that his heart is, as it has long been, given to the God whom the Reformation had let him see, the God of free grace, never bound by the works or words of men and women. Just because he faces a God who can never be captured in one set of words, a God who is transcendently holy in a way that exacts from human language the most scrupulous scepticism and the most painstaking elaboration possible, he cannot pretend that words alone will save him. 'If we deny him, he also will deny us'. He must repent and show his repentance with life as well as lips; 'forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished'.

So Cranmer draws the terrible and proper conclusion from a lifetime of skill and balance, of 'rightly dividing the word of truth': what appears bit by bit in our words about God as they are prompted and fired by the Word Incarnate is the realisation of the God who is always in excess of what can be said...

It led Cranmer - as it led so many others in that nightmare age, as it led the martyrs of our own age - Bonhoeffer, Maria Skobtsova, Janani Luwum - to something more than a contemplative silence: to a real death. When we say that the word of God is not bound, we say that death itself can be the living speech of God, as the Word was uttered once and for all in the silence at the end of Good Friday. Cranmer speaks, not only in the controlled passion of those tight balances and repetitions in his Prayer Book, but in that chilling final quarter of an hour. He ran through the downpour to the town ditch and held out his right hand, his writing hand, for a final composition, a final liturgy. And, because the word of God is not bound, it is as if that hand in the flames becomes an icon of the right hand of Majesty stretched out to us for defence and mercy.


Cranmer's 'Collects', short prayers focused on specific themes or, in his words, 'conditions of men' are masterpieces of 'poetic prose' and even today address so many of the uncertainties and stresses of our lives, they remain a constant source of inspiration. A remarkable man, in remarkable times and faced with impossible choices.

May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

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