March 27, 2012

Thomas Cranmer

21st March is an important date in the history of Anglicanism. On that date, Thomas Cranmer, the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be executed for heresy, died at the stake in Oxford- on the site now marked by the Martyr's Memorial on St Giles. The anniversary would have been marked fifty or even a hundred years ago by most Anglicans-just as other great anniversaries within the Anglican tradition (the death of Charles I for example) were marked. Today of course, although there was some traffic on blogs last week- there wasn't that much public recognition or memory of what happened in March 1556 and of the death of the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. That's despite the fact that last week also saw the resignation of Cranmer's latest successor- Rowan Williams (for whom this blog has almost unlimited admiration).

Is there anything to feel sad about here? For the historian, there may be. Personally I'd love it if people were more interested in Cranmer- for a start it would make party conversations so much easier for those of us with an obsession with Early Modern religious history, its amazing how infrequently the line 'so what do you make the Muggletonians' works (or maybe its not that amazing :)). Less flippantly there is some sense I think in which the subject of history is becoming more obscure- fewer and fewer people know or care about it as a real, living thing- they might as a soap opera but not as something that matters to them neccessarily. And if people do the stories they know and want to tell are different: conservative stories about the 1960s and the Welfare state, liberal stories about Woman's Suffrage and the development of democracy, Marxist stories about class. Few of those stories reach back into the past, before the Industrial Revolution- and if they do, they do so through the medium of religious texts not religious history or history itself. In that sense, our society is either sociological or fundementalist.

That may not be a bad thing. Cranmer's life afterall supplies us with very few uncomplicated lessons. He was a courtier par excellence, a survivor when England was ruled by one of its many tyrannical rulers, an intolerant evangelical in an age before tolerance was a virtue and a continental Protestant before the Anglican Church had fully separated from the Reformation. Cranmer was a Reformation figure and deserves to stand alongside comparable figures: he was no saint, twice he abandoned his friends to the axe and even his death involved recanting his views and then recanting his recantation. Whatever lessons come from Cranmer's life are difficult and it takes a historian of the subtlety of Diarmaird McCulloch to unweave them fully. When the Anglican congregation thought about the events of 1556, they would have thought about the vindication of Cranmer's stand for religious liberty and yet this was an Archbishop who burnt his way to the top, quite literally.

So if there are no lessons- are there any reasons to remember Thomas Cranmer? I think there are- but they do not lie with the easy lessons that others may pick. Cranmer is an interesting character precisely because of his contradictions and his differences to a contemporary thinker. He reminds us firstly that our origins are definitely different from our current state. He reminds us no less of the complexity of human nature: that is something worth remembering all the time. We go into history to seek for ourselves in some ways- we go into history to seek for allies and enemies. In part that is what the old story of what happened at Oxford in 1556 was, it was a story about good persecuted and bad persecutors, about Bloody Mary and the Archbishop. The crooked timber of history cannot be forced so straight, as modern historians have shown: however its still worth going back, to feel the warp of the wood, to understand I think the complexity of the individuals involved and see that politics is a matter of fear as well as fidelity. These statements are platitudes of course- but they can only be given life and vigour by the practice of history.

We should remember 21st March 1556, and the life of Thomas Cranmer, not because it can be fitted into a neat story, but because it can't.

3 comments:

James Higham said...

Afraid I take the orthodox view - he sold his soul for his secular ruler.

Claude said...

My son, the Anglican, who read Diarmaid MacCulloch's book (and will lend it to his Catholic mother) told me that, alas, there were very few holy men, in those days, even in the Catholic Church. The Pope was too power-hungry to be deeply spiritual. Looking at History, let me deduce that Clement V11 would easily have given a marriage annulment to King Henry, if it had been politically expedient. After all, the Church still grants about 60,000 annulments a year (lately to a Kennedy) for a generous sum of money.

Let's not have illusions about where, and why, souls are sold and bought in our organised, still very worldly churches.

My heart goes to Thomas (warts and all). I'll celebrate his next Birthday. His Prayer Book is magnificent! And may God have mercy on my soul when I go.

Gracchi said...

James I think you are too harsh.

Claude- alas I am not a Christian, though Christianity as you may be able to tell from this blog fascinates me. I wouldn't be too harsh on people like Clement- I think he saw the annulment as a threat from Henry to the independence of the church, especially as Henry claimed the annulment on the basis of the papal power to dispense, rather than a technical error in the bull granting him the right to marry his brother's wife. Clement may well have operated under duress.

As for Cranmer- he was definitely no saint- but a courtier as well as a clergyman and a man who I think would have found it difficult to divorce his obligations to his King from his obligations to his God: in a sense that ideological commitment to Kingship as a theological notion is one that we have completely lost- but was real for Cranmer and others at the time. It wasn't all self interest!