March 3, 2024 – Third Sunday in Lent

Category: Weekly Sermons

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

Few people have had such profound influence on Anglicanism as Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer is credited with writing the first and second Books of Common Prayer—the first for Henry VIII and the second in the time of his son, Edward VI. Though Henry had Cranmer appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury before his split with Rome, Cranmer remained faithful to Henry and held the See throughout Henry’s reign, his son’s and even into Queen Mary’s, even as he faced multiple attacks politically and religiously. 

The English Reformation was a cutthroat political time—especially between reformers and religious conservatives. Betrayal, lies, and a lack of trust ruled the era. Cranmer weathered the assaults, not because of his political prowess, but because of his friendship and loyalty to Henry and Henry’s loyalty to him. Cranmer believed in royal supremacy—the principle that the monarch was head of the church in the realm. He was a loyalist as well as a reformer which would cause him some strife throughout his career and especially toward the end of his life. 

As the author of the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer is credited with many of our collects. In truth, he liberated many of those collects from Roman Catholicism, rewrote them, and conformed them to the theology and beliefs of the budding Anglican movement. Cranmer did not stray that far from his Catholic roots—he recognized the need for reform but refrained from turning over the money changers’ tables. The collect we read today is rooted in the Roman Catholic Gregorian Sacramentary of sixth century Italy. Also, a precarious time. Its translation in the sixteenth century by Cranmer is no less precarious a time. I wonder if we might take a moment to appreciate that. A collect written almost seventeen hundred years ago in Latin in a politically precarious time, translated about eight hundred years ago (a thousand years after it was written) into English in a politically precarious time, and still as relevant in the precarious political times of today. Cranmer understood what it meant to live courageously. In the short span of his life, not only would he offer significant reform theologically, but that reform was in a time of treachery when it was difficult to know who to trust and the feeling of the day was suspicion and anxiety. 

Though Cranmer survived the attempts to discredit and disrupt him as Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry’s and Edward’s lives, he was not so fortunate when Mary came to power. Cranmer was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He stood trial with other reformers, who were found guilty and put to death while he watched. He was stripped of his See as the Archbishop of Canterbury and then his circumstances began to change radically. He had been imprisoned for almost two years, first in The Tower and then transferred to Bocardo Prison in Oxford where he watched Latimer and Ridley, the other reformers, executed. He was then placed in the house of the dean of Christ Church. It was an academic community where he enjoyed the comforts of regular meals and warm bedding as well as academic debates and dialogue. He was treated as a guest, not a prisoner, and would recant—four times. He submitted to Mary’s authority and recognized the pope as head of the church. But it was not felt to be enough, and he was soon returned to Bocardo Prison. 

His execution date was set by the Mayor of Oxford and within days, he made a fifth recantation—that which is known as his “true recantation”—denouncing the teachings of European reformers like Luther, fully accepting Catholic teachings, asking for and receiving absolution. Under canon law, that should have been enough to absolve him. Though his execution was suspended, Mary wanted him dead—made an example to the pockets of English reformers that still existed across her realm. Cranmer, in desperation, wrote a sixth recantation, with a sweeping confession of sin. He was given the opportunity to make a final, public recantation at a service at University Church. 

Cranmer wrote and submitted his speech. On the day of the service, March 21, 1556, he took the pulpit, opened with prayer, and implored the subjects of the realm to abide the authority of the monarchy but by the end of his speech, he deviated from the script, denounced his previous recantations, and declared that the hand that had written or signed them would be burned first. Cranmer had found his courage and in the final moments of his life professed his faith to God and witness to the English Reformation. He was dragged from the pulpit.

In the collect for today, that Cranmer translated in the sixteenth century, we pray to be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul. When Cranmer was led to the pyre and set ablaze, I wonder how that prayer played out in his mind as he did indeed bend down and thrust his right hand into the flames. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of the Church, it is said, “…then there were the glorious sentiments of the martyr made manifest; then it was, that stretching out his right hand, he held it unshrinkingly in the fire until it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, ‘This unworthy right hand.’” Cranmer had finally realized that any adversity which might happen to the body was of far less concern than the evil that could hurt his soul as he denied his faith and understanding of God and God’s church were causing to his soul.

There are times when our courage causes us to say yes to those things that may cause harm, or the threat of harm to our physical bodies or mental and emotional well-being. Times when we must face our fear of pain and suffering, physically and mentally, in order not to harm our souls. Our collect this morning that we may be defended from adversity to the body is not the same as abnegation of the soul. But when we choose to deny the needs of the soul in favor of the body simply because we are afraid, it may cause us to traverse paths that lead us away from what we believe and distance us from God. It took Cranmer two years of suffering to remember this, which, I think, is why he publicly denounces his earlier recantations.

Cranmer was able to renounce not only because in the weighing of his soul’s immortality and his bodily comforts he discovered the primacy of his soul, he also remembered that in his powerlessness to help himself, God had something bigger in store for humanity. After Cranmer’s public declaration in favor of the Reformation from the pulpit of University Church, he was led immediately to the stake to be burned. But it was not his denunciation that Queen Mary nor her advisors desired to circulated in England. They circulated the speech he had written. They produced a pamphlet of all six recantations plus the speech and circulated it without alluding to any of his denunciations. Their victory was short-lived. The truth of that day soon became common knowledge, and the Marian propaganda was undermined. Where Cranmer was powerless, God indeed was powerful.

Early on in Cranmer’s incarceration, he was able to smuggle out a letter to one of his contemporaries who had fled to Strasbourg. In the letter he discussed the desperate situation of the church as proof that it would be delivered. He wrote, “I pray that God may grant that we may endure to the end!” Those words written at the beginning of his imprisonment, “endure to the end,” after two years of suffering became somewhat questionable. It was not until Cranmer accepted that his life was only a part of a reformation movement that he was able to release his need to “endure to the end” and recognize that it was Christendom that would “endure to the end.” It was his Moses moment—the moment he stood on the edge of the Promised Land and realized that though he would never enter in, that in no way limited God’s actions in the world or even his own personal contributions to God’s greater purposes.

We may pray to be defended from adversity to the body, but in truth we experience significant adversity to the body—cancer and heart disease, age, arthritis, debilitating joints, broken arms or ankles, surgery, cuts and abrasions, needles, splinters, small or big, we know adversity to the body. No matter how much we pray, those things still happen. But the pain and suffering we experience is not our true adversity. The adversity of the body is that which we cannot overcome with hope. It is the choices we make that drive us further from God instead of toward God. As long as we fear physical suffering more than the concern and care of our souls, we will find ourselves further out of relationship with God. As Cranmer reminds us, it is never too late to release the cares and comforts of this mortal life for the vibrancy of our eternal one. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves—but we can choose to focus on God and call upon him for our protection and defense such that our souls may not be hurt or assaulted.