Thursday, March 21, 2013

Death Came to the Archbishop

Theology of Freedom salutes Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, gathered to eternity on this day in 1556. (If you don't know his story, the Wikipedia article will suffice for present purposes.)

And why? Because the blog author is an Episcopalian? Indeed. But that's not a very interesting reason.

My real point here is this: Cranmer's ambiguous life story is an emblem of the fraught character of human existence. In contrast, the hagiographies surrounding a character like, say, Francis of Assisi, tend to cut a figure who sort of floats above the crappiness of our everyday lives and our venal compromises -- the stigmata, sparrows perched in the hand, bucolic crèches, and the like. (I don't mean to demean St. Francis, Pope Francis, my Franciscan friends or anybody else: My point is that the way the Italian saint's beatitude is depicted cuts a figure that often seems larger than life. Larger than our lives, at least.)

On the one hand, Cranmer was a genius in church leadership and diplomacy. As the principal architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer belongs among the ranks of Tyndale and Shakespeare in his impact upon the modern English language. As an evangelical theologian (in the old-school sense) on principle, Cranmer forged a path that moved somewhere along the spectrum between Luther and Calvin. He was a masterful homilist and one of the great divines of traditional Anglican doctrine.

On the other hand, he was a politician as well as a church leader -- at a time when church leaders were civic leaders and an upstart king declared himself to be the pope for his realm. Politics is dirty and ugly. Politics entails compromise...or martyrdom (or in Cranmner's case, both).

In some ways, Cranmer was a tool for a greedy and self-absorbed Henry VIII. He rose to prominence for his work advocating abroad for the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Whatever you think about these events, you have to admit there is something sordid about the way Catherine was treated. As archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer was Henry's yes man at Lambeth.

Let's review some of the lovely events that transpired during the archbishop's incumbency: The executions of Thomas More because he refused to give an oath affirming the king's headship of the church. The consecrating of Henry's adulterous relationship with Ann Boleyn. The "trial" and execution of the same Ann Boleyn. The pillaging of monasteries to fill royal coffers. (Incidentally, I've visited the ruins of the monastery established by Augustine in Canterbury, the first beachhead of Christianity in England. It's mostly just a pile of rocks now, thanks to Henry and his henchman Thomas Cromwell.) I'm no historian, and I'm not going to get into the complexities and mitigating factors that a real historian would bring up, but I think I can fairly conclude that Henry was a greedy and very insecure man. Cranmer's presence on the Privy Council -- though rare, perhaps, it was --sacralized the king's agenda.

Well, the 16th century was not as enlightened as the 21st, of course, you might well point out. It's not as if all opponents of the kings plans had clean hands either. Recall what happened when Mary Tudor came to power and the tables were turned. Now, after the evangelicals had made such strides under the sickly boy king, Edward, they were now the hunted and harassed, and Cranmer was stripped of everything. Many martyrs in those tumultuous decades -- both Protestant and Catholics --  went to the pyre with a firm and unyielding profession of the faith. But Cranmer, in a bid to save his life, recanted his own Evangelical convictions. To his great credit, in the final moments Cranmer recanted his recantations, insisted that the hand by which he had betrayed his faith should be burnt first.

So here's to Thomas Cranmer. The saint for the rest of us. The saint for all of us. Skilled politician. Poet and priest. Tool. Hero and martyr. Traitor to his faith, if not his country. A coward (Did I mention he had a secret wife?) A schmuck. A Christian man. A real human being, living under God's sun, just like you and I.

And like all the rest of us, he was a marked man. For on this day in 1556, he died. And this fate is ours too.

Cranmer's sainthood, to me, signifies that whatever measure of grace we enjoy in this life and whatever mercy we enjoy at the end has absolutely nothing to do with either our failings or our accomplishments.

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