The Death of an Archbishop

The Death of an Archbishop March 21, 2024

Thomas Cranmer
by Gerlach Flicke








Thomas Cranmer, theologian, controversialist, one time Archbishop of Canterbury, was tied to a stake and burned to death on the 21st of March, in 1556.

Cranmer, one time toady to a king, a priest and prelate. He was brilliant writer and complicated thinker, and was the principal architect of a reformed Catholicism in England. That king died. Then briefly under a boy king whose rule was through more extreme Protestants. Then, finally for him, under the new queen there was an instant shifting of political winds. The archbishop was imprisoned for two years. Then he was tried and convicted of heresy. He equivocated at the thought of the stake, recanting briefly.

Then repudiating his weakness in the face of the fire, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer died fully acknowledging his life and owning all its actions.

There would be more twists and turns until a queen would establish once and for all that reformed Catholicism.

And Archbishop Cranmer laid out some critical elements which eventually would become that church. His outline for that church retained the basic forms of Catholicism. But he infused it with much of the rationalism of the Reformation. And in the process created one of the masterworks of the English language, the Book of Common Prayer.

As for the church one can get all Hegelian about his work finding a thesis, and then an antithesis, and then coming up with a grand synthesis. But, it probably would be wise to avoid such a simple, perhaps the right word is simplistic analysis. What Cranmer created was a mess. Sort of like he couldn’t leave his wife for his mistress, or, perhaps it was the other way around.

But, out of the mess the good archbishop did initiate something with some staying power. At least once Elizabeth arrived, took what he did, polished it up a bit, and gave it the legs it needed to move on to the world stage.

But without Cranmer there is no Elizabeth. It took both of them, each in their own good time.

And in this time we might think of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The Anglican church celebrates the 21st of March as a feast for a saint. Me, I like that this particular saint was also so many more things, the perfect product of multiple causality.

And, so, just a brief pause in all the hubbub to note Thomas Cranmer, one of those great and troubled minds and hearts of human history.

A toast to Thomas, one of those who loved too much.

He was a good man. But… And, oh, my, what hangs in the several hesitations. One could say a whole religion.

I think of that lovely mess of a church he bequeathed to the world.

In the Zen tradition we speak of life and our way as one continuous mistake.

And with that in mind, I raise my glass to Thomas Cranmer and the Church of England…


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