Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

A sermon preached by David Holloway

Tonight we have been using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer evening service. This year that is particularly appropriate as it is the 350th anniversary of that 1662 Prayer Book, whose theology, at law, still defines the doctrine of the Church of England. But tonight I want to think about its wider context.

There is a fundamental biblical command to “remember” God’s dealings with his people in past history and not forget them. Yes, that refers first and foremost to the dealings with God’s people that you read about in the Bible. But it is good regularly to remind ourselves of how God has blessed us in the past during our own post-biblical history. One such time in Europe was undoubtedly in the 16th and 17th centuries and the period of “the Reformation”.

Its starting point was in Germany at the beginning of the 16th century and with Luther. Its end point in England can be said to be 1662 with the final edition of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. This contains Cranmer’s Ordinal (for ordaining clergy) and the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. True, in 1662 there were slight changes to Cranmer’s original book of 1552 and his original Forty-two articles were reduced to Thirty-nine. However, the final product was the result of Cranmer’s God-given genius.

Yet few people today know much about Cranmer or the Reformation. Few children are taught about that period in our schools. But the Reformation was so important and did a great amount of good. And there are still lessons from it for today.

Some people may be embarrassed by it and don’t want to remember it because it was dealing with religious controversies. In an age when every belief has to be affirmed, such controversies seem to many to be “off limits”. But that means too few today can thank God not only for his delivering us from certain evils in this country, but also for the good they have inherited and can enjoy.

Of course, you must face reality. You do not have to say that all the Reformers were saints or that everything they said was right. Far from it.

Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I all had their faults; but God still used them as he used imperfect rulers in biblical times – such as Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. And the Reformation leaders like Luther, Calvin and Cranmer also had their faults, as we all have. But God still used them. And sadly many of their Protestant successors have quite drifted away from their Apostolic and truly Catholic faith. They have embraced multifaithism and sexual revisionism, where some successors of their Roman opponents are more faithful.

But overall the Reformation meant great gain. At the beginning of the 16th century there was a visible Church in this country and, unlike today, with no shortage of clergy or money. But clergy and money do not make a living Church if it has forgotten the gospel. And that was the case then – although you have to be careful about apportioning blame. For so many clergy had themselves not heard or been taught the gospel. Why?

Because, in simple terms, it was a Church without a Bible in English. There were just a few copies around of Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate (the old Latin translation of the Bible). So people not knowing Latin had no chance to know whether what was being taught and done in the churches related to the truth as Jesus and the Apostles taught it and that you read in the Bible. The reality was that much of clergy time was spent in saying Latin masses, repeating Latin prayers, chanting Latin hymns (which few could understand), hearing confessions and taking money to get the dead out of purgatory. And there was little preaching.

Some hard evidence of what was going on comes from Bishop Hooper and the, then, rich diocese of Gloucester. When he was first appointed bishop in 1551, he found that out of 311 clergy:

168 were unable to repeat the 10 Commandments;
33 did not know where to find them in the Bible;
39 could not tell where the Lord’s prayer was written, and
34 did not know who was the author of the Lord’s Prayer.

So with clergy like that you should not be surprised at a great deal of ignorance and superstition among ordinary people.

But what was the good from the Reformation? Answer: at least three things.

First, there came, at last, the Bible in English. Nor did that come without a struggle. Before Cranmer began his work, Foxe (in his book about martyrs) tells us that in 1519 six men and a woman were burned at Coventry for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in English. And the charge was not the possession of a Bible, but of possessing an English Bible. It was trying to get the Bible out in England in English (after he had translated it) that cost Tyndale his life. But thank God, the Bible did get out eventually And when it was read it was discovered, as Cranmer put it in Article VI:

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”

That, of course, was a threat to the religious establishment in many ways. So the availability of the Bible was the first great good of the Reformation.

Secondly, comes the rediscovered good news of the Bible’s teaching about the grace of God. It was now seen that forgiveness and getting right with God did not depend on your confession to a priest, or on praying to some saint, or by penances. As Cranmer put it in Article XI,

“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”

That was the message of Justification by Faith.

Then, thirdly, there was a recovery of true Christian worship. No longer were congregations just passive spectators. Cranmer wrote in Article XXIV:

“It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church to have public Prayer in the Church or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.”

So now in every English parish there was an English Bible that people could understand when it was read. And with a prayer book also in English they could now join meaningfully in the prayers and responses and the singing. How, therefore, we should thank God for the Reformation. Well so much by way of general background.

For the rest of our time tonight, I want us to look at one specific feature of Cranmer’s Prayer Book that embraces the essentials of this recovered biblical theology. It is his use of Psalm 95 which in the first edition of his Prayer Book was to be said at every Morning Service. He obviously saw it as important. It conditioned his thinking. It should condition ours. I am using for headings Cranmer’s own words from the introduction to our service tonight. For there Cranmer reminds us of what we should be doing “when we assemble and meet together”. He follows Psalm 95.

So my headings are that, in Cranmer’s words, we meet first, TO SET FORTH [GOD’S] MOST WORTHY PRAISE; secondly, HUMBLY TO ACKNOWLEDGE OUR SINS BEFORE GOD and TO RENDER THANKS FOR THE GREAT BENEFITS WE HAVE RECEIVED AT HIS HANDS; and, thirdly, TO HEAR HIS MOST HOLY WORD.

So, first, we meet TO SET FORTH [GOD’S] MOST WORTHY PRAISE

Look at verses 1-5 of Psalm 95:

Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. (Psalm 95v1-5)

The Reformers knew that worship was a mark of the true believer. They had discovered Paul’s teaching in Romans
1.

Romans 1 verses 16-17 were for them fundamental. Paul there writes:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1v16-17)

But then Paul says that people suppress the truth even though they know it to some degree. And they do not worship God (verses 20-21 of Romans 1):

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1v20-21)

So worship is a fundamental mark of the true believer. That is why you should sing with joy, and make a loud noise, according to the Psalmist. But that mustn’t only be an enjoyable emotional experience. You are to have rational worship and use your mind as well as your emotions. The motive for enjoyment must not just be the beat of the music or the sound of a choir and organ echoing in the rafters – whichever your choice. This Psalm provides rational reasons for our joy in worship.

These great reasons are in verses 3-4, namely that “the LORD” (Jehovah or Yahweh) is Lord of all. He is sovereign over all – things seen and unseen. He is the creator of all, “his hands formed the dry land” (and all else). And he is the sustainer of all, for “in his hands are the depths of the earth” (and every thing else created).

So when we meet together we are TO SET FORTH [GOD’S] MOST WORTHY PRAISE

Secondly, we are HUMBLY TO ACKNOWLEDGE OUR SINS BEFORE GOD and TO RENDER THANKS FOR THE GREAT BENEFITS WE HAVE RECEIVED AT HIS HANDS;

Look now at verses 6-7 of Psalm 95:

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. (Psalm 95v6-7)

How was this understood in 1552 by Cranmer and the other Reformers?

Well, first they knew that the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews saw Psalm 95 as so relevant for Christian believers. You can see that in chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews. Yes, our Reformers knew that the Lord is the great creator God (as all the Jews had known when the Psalm was first written). He was literally, “the Rock” on which everything else needs to be built. But our Reformers had discovered in a new way, as they read their New Testaments (in Erasmus’ new Greek edition), that he was indeed “the Rock of our salvation.” He was not just out there in the galaxies of space. He can also be “our God” and we can be his sheep that he shepherds as “the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

However, they also knew (as the ancient Jews knew) that God was not just great in his power but also great in his holiness. And they knew that all the good you do is never good enough to justify you before such a holy God.

But the Reformation discovery was this: with all your sin, whether much or little, you can be justified and reconciled to this almighty and all holy God, just as you are – warts and all, to quote Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century Puritan.

The final judgment, as it were, can be brought forward in time to the present. For Christ has already paid the ultimate penalty for your sin in your place by his death. So by faith and union with him, the risen and reigning Lord, you can be treated by God as righteous. As you trust Christ, so to speak, you come under the cloak of Christ’s righteousness.

It isn’t that faith in Christ helps you to become good, so that then God can reward you for your righteousness, such as it is. No! You are first treated as righteous when still unrighteous. On that basis you can then start to improve and live as God intends. And the mystery is – it all starts with God. He gives you that faith in the first place. That is why you must be thankful. Ephesians 2 8-10 puts it so clearly:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2v8-10)

So God is not rewarding your “faith”. “Faith” is not a virtue. It is simply an opening of the eyes to the greatness and the love of God and with an obedient commitment that follows.

Cranmer took seriously 1 John 4.19. That says:

We love, because he [God] first loved us. (1 John 4v19)

Cranmer believed that the glory of God was his love for the unworthy. And when understood, this inspires grateful human love through which you serve other people. By contrast, he saw that the mediaeval teaching on having to be worthy of salvation before God accepts you, produces two results. One is pride in thinking you are worthy; or, two, despair in thinking you never can be worthy.

But Cranmer and the Reformers also knew that this side of heaven no one would be perfect. John’s first Epistle teaches that. So when we come together, it should not be all joy and shouting. Rather there need to be quiet times when we humbly “kneel before the Lord our Maker” and confess our sins. And, then, forgiven we must thank God that we can come to him as “our God” and as “the flock under his care” through all that Christ achieved at Calvary. And being thankful for that love, as Cranmer saw so clearly, we should be motivated to love others.

So when we meet we are HUMBLY TO ACKNOWLEDGE OUR SINS BEFORE GOD and TO RENDER THANKS FOR THE GREAT BENEFITS WE HAVE RECEIVED AT HIS HANDS.

But thirdly, and finally, we are TO HEAR HIS MOST HOLY WORD.

Look at Psalm 95 and the end of verse 7 to verse 11:

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.” (Psalm 95v7-11)

It is amazing, but these words were cut off from this Psalm in a revision of the Prayer Book in 1928. Fortunately Parliament refused to authorize this 1928 Prayer Book. For these verses are vital. They teach you that God is a God of judgment even in this life. So you cannot mess with God.

This “testing or trying” of God refers to being dissatisfied with God when he doesn’t do miracles for you when you want, and when he lets you go through tough times. Then you may doubt him and “harden your heart”. The writer to the Hebrews (referring to these verses of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3.12-13) says this:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today”, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (Hebrews 3v12-13)

Who needs to hear those words tonight? Or who has never really turned to, and started trusting in, “the living God?” But as you heard in our New Testament lesson,

“God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5v5)

The true believer in Christ has a renewed heart. So if you are a believer, do not let it be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” And do not kid yourself that it is reasonable to doubt God in difficult
times.

As Cranmer studied the Bible he saw that the heart – the essential you – is so important. For he saw that what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind then rationalises. That is why, if you are to hear God’s word in biblical preaching or directly from the Bible, you must not harden your heart. So as you come to church, or as you read the Bible privately, pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, will soften your heart to hear his word.

I must conclude. I do so with a simple recap. Psalm 95 and so Cranmer and other Reformers teach that we should meet together regularly, first, TO SET FORTH [GOD’S] MOST WORTHY PRAISE; secondly, HUMBLY TO ACKNOWLEDGE OUR SINS BEFORE HIM and TO RENDER THANKS FOR THE GREAT BENEFITS WE HAVE RECEIVED AT HIS HANDS; and, thirdly, TO HEAR HIS MOST HOLY WORD.

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