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Thomas Cranmer: A Forgotten Worship Reformer

He’s Shouting in My Face!

Every once in a while you stumble across a historical figure whose voice speaks—no, shouts—with all kinds of contemporary relevance. For me, that figure is Thomas Cranmer, and the more I get to know him, the more I am inspired by this theologian, pastor, artist, and worship leader. If Cranmer is remembered at all, he is often caricatured as a wishy-washy politician, flitting to and fro in the winds of the whims of the mad King Henry VIII. Perhaps this reputation is what keeps him from being named on the A-list of reformers with the likes of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

Perhaps, also, he’s thought of as only being relevant to the Anglicans. But this is historically short-sighted. Cranmer was not conscious of being “Anglican” any more than Luther considered himself “Lutheran” or Calvin “Reformed.” Cranmer, like the other reformers, was a catholic Christian who came under the conviction that Paul’s word of justification by faith alone needed a new megaphone.

Further, Cranmer may be the most important reformer when it comes to how the Reformation’s theology shapes worship. A master of theological synthesis, and a true artist with a poetic command of the English language, Cranmer weaved together Luther’s theology of justification, Calvin’s understanding of providence and the sacraments, and Melanchthon’s Augustinian emphasis on the affections, creating a worship service that just might be the Reformation’s crowning expression of passionate, Christ-centered worship. Any worship leader who studies Cranmer’s work in earnest will be able to learn a lot of valuable lessons about what it means to take Christ-centeredness to new depths. Because the use of Cranmer’s prayers most closely parallels our use of worship songs today, I’d like to quickly zero in on how his work with prayer can inform our work of selecting and writing worship songs for the people of God.

Cranmer’s “Worship Editing” Chops

When Cranmer was crafting new services for the English worshipers, he was deeply concerned about the kinds of words and expressions he would put on the lips of the saints. Cranmer saw that phrases which spoke too much about me and what I do for God have the potential to sabotage the clear message of the Gospel—that we are only able to rightly approach God in Christ alone, by faith alone, and not by our own merits. Cranmer saw such language as a threat to the Christ-centered integrity of the service. So, when it came to prayers, Cranmer did a lot of editing of the traditional prayers. It’s fascinating and telling to see what he edited. Here’s an example:

Original Prayer:
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels and all just works do proceed, give unto us the same peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts being obedient to thy commandments, and the fear of our enemies taken away, our time may be peaceable through thy protection. By Christ our Lord.

Cranmer’s edits (additions underlined):
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels and all just works do proceed: give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments and also that by thee, we being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.

As you can see, Cranmer had an itchy trigger finger when it came to hunting down any hint of self-righteousness. He didn’t want to give room for what Paul calls “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). He didn’t like the idea that we might pray that our hearts are obedient to God’s commands (room for the flesh), but that we are made obedient. He didn’t want the nebulous “taking away” of fear left hanging; he wanted to clarify that fear is removed by Christ and the defense that he offers. He didn’t even settle for “by Christ” at the end of the prayer. He wanted it clear that it was by the merits of Christ, the Savior!

Then there were other prayers that Cranmer’s Christ-centered grid simply had to discard wholesale. Take this prayer for the first Sunday in Lent:

Original Prayer:
God, who didst purify thy Church by the yearly observance of Lent, may we strive toward abstinence and good works.

Cranmer’s New Prayer:
O Lord, which for our sake, didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence that our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth.

Cranmer knew that Lent was a time that we tend to turn in upon ourselves, to look at our work, our fasting, our effort for God. Cranmer believed that a gaze fixed on ourselves actually lacked the power to accomplish the very works it desired. Only a gaze fixed on Christ—his merit, his works, his life, his death—possessed the power to actually fuel the Lenten fast. The only way we can live for God is for God to “give us grace” to do so.

21st Century Cranmerian Worship Editors

If Cranmer were around today, I wonder whether he wouldn’t be holding master classes for gospel-centered worship songwriting. I wonder whether he wouldn’t encourage us to think more carefully about the kinds of words that we put into people’s mouths.

Ultimately, Cranmer encourages us to think about Christ-centered worship songs beyond the usual talking points of whether or not they focus on the cross and atonement (very important!). He would encourage us to look not only at the content of our songs, but their language and emphasis, too. I imagine that he would point out how weighted our worship songs tend to be on our response to God, rather than on our Savior’s work which fuels it. He’d be sensitive to the heavy use of “surrender” motifs and “we will” do this and “we will rise up” and do that. Cranmer would be inclined to downplay all this responsorial language, not necessarily because it’s wrong but because it needs a proper context within the gospel. He’d be quick to point out that all the things we’re “doing for God” that we’re singing about need to be explicitly understood as ultimately God’s work in us, propelled by His grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, as Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV).

Often times, I find that changing phrases to make ourselves the object being acted upon (rather than taking action ourselves) has the effect Cranmer would go for. For instance, if we were to critique the (fabulous) new song, “Even So Come” (Tomlin/Cates/Ingram), by Passion, we might adjust the triumphant line in the chorus: “Like a bride, waiting for her groom, we’ll be a church ready for you” to “Like a bride, waiting for her groom, make us a church ready for you.” Something like this might feel nit-picky, but Cranmer would see it as attempting to be faithful in creating worship contexts where the gospel is deeply formed into the lives of believers.

So, with Cranmer’s blessing, let’s all take a deeper look at how the language of our worship songs can be increasingly conformed to the gospel, with the bold hope that it truly is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16) for our people!

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Zac Hicks is Canon for Liturgy and Worship at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL) and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He writes regularly at zachicks.com.

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