Four hundred years after the bitter conflicts of religion, the Church is posthumously reCatholicising Archbishop Cranmer and reclaiming him for our tradition
Yesterday I was in a cathedral city in the south of England, and having time to spare, and because it was raining, I decided to visit the cathedral and stay for Evensong. I am, like so many in this country, familiar with Evensong; I find it both beautiful and alien at the same time. I both love it and hate it. I only go to Evensong to listen to it, never to take part.
Evensong’s beauties are the work of Coverdale and Cranmer, two men who led the revolt against the unity of the Church, and overthrew the great work of time, the historic faith of this country. Cranmer’s liturgical reforms were not reforms in any true sense, they were a wrecking of the monastic offices and their replacement with something superficially like yet utterly alien. The Cranmerian Prayer Book provoked rebellions in England, let us remember. The West Country rebels of 1549 protested that they found the Cranmerian service that replaced the Mass no more than “a Christmas game” . The Northern Rebels who entered Durham in 1569 tore up the Prayer Book and had the Mass celebrated in the Cathedral once more. In 1596 one of my collateral ancestors, the Blessed George Errington, was hanged, drawn and quartered at York, along with three others martyrs, because of his Catholic faith, a faith he and many others simply could not recognise in the Cranmerian Prayer Book.
Thus the experience of Cranmerian English leaves me feeling conflicted. I love it and I hate it, and I feel I ought to love it, as it is so beautiful, and because it has inspired so many of our great poets, not least among whom is T.S. Eliot.
That’s why I am profoundly pleased by something that happened earlier that day in London. I attended a meeting about the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, at which Mgr Burnham, the assistant to the Ordinary, told the assembled guests that a Customary is in preparation. This is essentially what we might call an office book, with various readings drawn from the English spiritual tradition, such as Newman’s writings from his Anglican days; but it also draws on those fine psalms and prayers used by Cranmer, with some doctrinal alterations. Mgr Burnham also spoke of the growing popularity of Evensong and Benediction amidst Ordinariate congregations.
What this Customary will do, it seems to me, is posthumously reCatholicise Cranmer and reclaim him for our tradition; it will make the Cranmerian liturgy, which I find a cause of division and conflict, into something that will bring about unity. It will mean that from now on, I need not find Evensong alien. Perhaps Dr Cranmer himself would approve. I hope so! It certainly promotes the healing of a cultural and religious wound.
The Ordinariate, which I greatly welcome, is already enriching us in many ways. Long may it continue to grow and flourish.