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Most worthy praise

29 May 2012

Raymond Chapman considers an output wider than the BCP

Begotten: The booke of the common praier . . . (Londini: in officina Richardi Graftoni . . ., 1549) (title page): on show in “Royal Devotion” at Lambeth Palace Library (Arts, 11 May). www.lambethpalacelibrary.org COURTESY OF THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY

Begotten: The booke of the common praier . . . (Londini: in officina Richardi Graftoni . . ., 1549) (title page): on show in “Royal Devotion” a...

God Truly Worshipped: Thomas Cranmer and his writings
Jonathan Dean, editor

Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

IN THE anniversary year for the Book of Common Prayer, a book about its principal begetter and com­piler is welcome. Jonathan Dean combines extracts from Cran­mer’s writing with a narrative of his life and times.

Cranmer wrote a great deal more than the BCP, including polemical, exegetical, and devotional works that cover the years of the English Reformation. That movement it-self was complex, at first hesitant, some­times inconsistent, as was the life and thought of Cranmer him­self.

The development of his theology, particularly his eucharistic doctrine, from the BCP of 1549 to its radical successor in 1552, raises questions. How far did his ideas change, and how far was he influenced by Re­formers such as Bucer and Peter Martyr? How much of the BCP did he personally write or translate? The first question remains in dis­pute; the answer to the second is probably: by far the greater part.

What is unquestioned is his per­sonal devotion, despite vacillations, and the quality of his writing. When English prose was uncertainly finding its way, Cranmer wrote in a style that enriched the new liturgy and was an influence on his suc­cessors. Its dignity, its rhythm, its use of some of the characteristics of English like doublets of Latin and Saxon words, gave a lasting treasure to the Church of England. His great learning, particularly in patristic works, informed all that he wrote.

In other ways, he was less than perfect. His obedience to Henry VIII began with his work in the “King’s Great Matter”, the annulment of the royal marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which set him on the road to high power. He never faltered in obedience, even subservience, to the civic authority; but deep respect for monarchy at that time was not con­fined to him, or to England.

In an era of bitter dispute, and cruelty from the victors to the vanquished, he was compassionate and eirenical as far as his official position allowed. Like all of us, he was conditioned by his time and society, but sometimes he speaks to our world, not only through the liturgy. One quotation must suffice: he censures “the greedy desire, and, as it were, worshipping of riches, wherewith both the high and low sort being too much blinded have brought our realm to this point”. He was preaching about the unrest in 1549, but had words for 2012.

The book concludes with John Foxe’s account of Cranmer’s martyrdom, which was pursued with savagery extreme even for that time. The list of contents promises an index; there is none, but it is not a great lack in this well-planned book. Dean is right to say that Cranmer’s achievement “entered the DNA of Anglicanism in its liturgy”.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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