Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Reformation Martyr
Born in Aslockton in Nottinghamshire in 1489, Thomas Cranmer, from an unspectacular Cambridge academic career, was recruited for diplomatic service in 1527. Two years later he joined the team working to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and duly pronounced the Aragon marriage annulled. By now a convinced Church reformer, he married in 1532 while clerical marriage was still illegal in England. He worked closely with Thomas Cromwell to further reformation, but survived Henry’s final, unpredictable years to become a chief architect of Edward VI’s religious change, constructing two editions of The Book of Common Prayer, in 1549 and 1552, the Ordinal in 1550 and the original version of the later Thirty-Nine Articles.
Cranmer acquiesced in the unsuccessful attempt to make Lady Jane Grey Queen of England. Queen Mary’s regime convicted him of treason in 1553 and of heresy in 1554. Demoralised by imprisonment, he signed six recantations, but was still condemned to the stake at Oxford. Struggling with his conscience, he made a final, bold statement of Protestant faith. Perhaps too fair-minded and cautious to be a ready-made hero in Reformation disputes, he was an impressively learnèd scholar, and his genius for formal prose has left a lasting mark on Anglican liturgy. He was burnt at the stake on this day in the year 1556.
2 Timothy 2. 8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself. Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
This passage reflects the opening themes of the letter – not to be ashamed of the Gospel and to share with Paul whatever suffering such faith brings. The anchor for such faithfulness is the reality of the resurrection and the salvation that Christ makes possible for those who believe. Paul is writing from prison and living daily with the brutal realities of discipleship. He reaches into the traditions already forming within the Church to find a creedal saying that makes his point; our obedience, even in suffering, binds us to Christ and to the promise of new life. Our denying of him means he will deny us even as he continues his ministry in and through others.
All of this is hard and echoes Cranmer’s story. It might feel remote from us until we let its words sink in. This very day Christians in many parts of the world are suffering deeply for their faith. At the start of 2018, the charity Open Doors identified the 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan top the list. The report suggested that 215,000,000 Christians face persecution. The recent case of Asia Bibi brought these stark facts to wider attention.
Such risk is far from most of us. This passage, however, still speaks. It highlights the demands of discipleship. It challenges us, as Paul challenges Timothy, to let Jesus be Lord come what may. As the letter says, we are each to be: “…a worker who does not need to be ashamed…” Which begs some vital questions, doesn’t it? As today unfolds, what sort of witness am I to the good news revealed through Jesus Christ? Are my words worthy and are my decisions suitable as a follower of Jesus? Can people see, in my living today, God’s worker?
Living God, hear our prayers for those suffering for their faith. Give courage to all who risk much in following Christ. Give hope to all who fear their faith will bring them harm. Give wisdom to communities and leaders facing hostility. Grant to us, as pressures come our way, the courage, hope and wisdom we might need. Help us to witness well, in the name of our risen Lord and in your Spirit’s power. Amen.
The Rev’d Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge