Another perspective on Cranmer’s second Holy Communion

War and civil unrest apart, was there ever so uncertain a summer as that of 450 years ago, as the weak health of the young King Edward VI became weaker still? One thing was certain, that the Evangelical experiment, begun in earnest with his accession on the death of his father Henry VIII, was under threat. Protestant theology wanted a godly prince; hence the reckless hopes focused around the luckless pawn, Lady Jane Grey. Protestant politics, however, required a legitimate prince, even if that meant the Catholic Mary. On July 19th 1553, thirteen days after her half-brother’s death, she was proclaimed Queen of England.

The security of the realm was worth a Latin Mass. Better peace and papism than chaos, disorder, death, destruction and good preaching. The 1552 Order of Holy Communion, enforced only as late as All Saints’ Day, had never achieved popularity; after a mere nine months in use, this may not be surprising; but what did it feel like, in that summer of 1553, to share in a celebration that might prove to be the very last one would ever hear in one’s own native tongue?

Was it so bad?

It is unfortunate that we tend to view Cranmer’s Second Prayer Book within the political context of its writing as part of the unfolding progress of the Edwardian Protestant revolution. In such a setting, the Order of Holy Communion must inevitably be seen as a lifeless, negative, dumbing-down of Christ’s sacrament, a manifesto rather than a liturgy, a historical embarrassment for all Catholic Anglicans.

If that were the only acceptable analysis, if the 1552 were really so bad, how is it that Cranmer is remembered as so fine a liturgist? Why is the BCP such a jewel of the English civilization? We miss the point if we believe it to be merely the language. Instead, we should look at an appropriate historical parallel, the proponents of liturgical ‘renewal’ in the Sixties and Seventies, and understand that, like them, Cranmer suffered from an excess of enthusiasm not a lack of it.

Bringing God to the people, making him more approachable, relevant and immediate. It was to fulfil these enthusiasms that altars were brought down into the nave, that the words were translated into English, that the laity were urged to receive communion more frequently. We know how ‘post-Vatican II’ did it. How did Cranmer do it?

It is as though he is saying through this order, ‘Forget what is happening out there; consider what is happening inside you; this is the real miracle worked by God!’ The consecration effected on an altar is essentially secondary by comparison with the consecration effected in the hearts of each of the faithful.

Earnestness is the key. The 1552 Act of Uniformity spoke of the 1549 Prayer Book as ‘a very godly order set forth by authority of Parliament for common prayer and administration of the sacraments, to be used in the mother tongue of the Church of England, agreeable to the word of God and the primitive Church, very comfortable to all good people.’ The present revision ‘is necessary to make the same prayers and fashion of service more earnest and fit to stir Christian people to the true honouring of Almighty God.’

Communion is all

Cranmer has no qualms at all about changing the liturgy around to accommodate his central purpose. The Gloria expresses well the joyful praise and thanksgiving of those who have received in the sacrament God’s holy Word; it is therefore moved from the beginning to the end. The usual position of the Agnus Dei would detract from the liturgical climax when Christ becomes present (not at the elevation but in communion), so he adds the extra phrase and includes it within the Gloria.

He doubles up again with the Pax. Instead of a separate Pax after the consecration (as in the 1549), it is shared/proclaimed before the blessing in the presence of the sacrament but so discretely that no Evangelical could possibly object. What he achieves by this is a clearing away of all that might distract from the communion itself – it can with complete simplicity be placed right in the middle of the Canon of the Mass. Not even an ‘Amen’ separates the words of Jesus and the faithful worshipper’s reception of his very Body and Blood. Except, that is, for the minister’s unnecessarily earnest, pastoral exhortation, so typical of the period, ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee…’ which is a rather heavy-handed summary of the principal purpose of the whole celebration.

We have followed the Lord’s command. He said, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ and each one of us has done exactly that. Immediately, and again without introduction or distraction, we pray exactly as he taught us, phrase by solemn phrase, priest and people. Having fulfilled his two great commands relating to worship and prayer, the priest concludes the Canon with what was later called the Prayer of Oblation. It may not be traditional, but it does make sense.

Communion is everything, but Cranmer did not underplay the need for confession and penitence and humility. Not only does the initial rubric prevent anyone approaching the Lord’s table until ‘accepted’ by the Curate, the whole progress of the liturgy through the Ten Commandments, the reading of the Word, the exhortation, the confession, even the comfortable words after the absolution, and finally the Prayer of Humble Access counterbalancing the slight uplift offered by the Sursum Corda and the Sanctus, is designed to keep the participant metaphorically, as well as literally, on his knees.

A strange survivor

‘More earnest’? It is indeed. All movement is suppressed, and instead the drama is made to unfold through the words alone. All externals are removed or reduced to an absolute minimum, to focus on the inner drama. There is no doubting that this is a highly experimental liturgy, with a desire for change and re-ordering that we generally thought was only found in the last century.

It may be mad, even bad, but it is earnest. And it expresses a seriousness about communion that many Catholics in our own generation would do well to emulate. As an experiment, it would surely not have lasted. But then the young king died, and the service which most hated or ignored became, for many, a cause to die for.

If the 1662 Holy Communion is wordy and heavy-going (and for all its merits it is), this is largely because Cranmer’s eccentric experiment fired so many with an unbounded enthusiasm; they had been invited into the very presence of the Lord, they had sat with him at his table, and the more the newly restored Roman church persecuted them, the more they held on to every word of their Lord’s Supper.

Nicholas Turner will be celebrating the 1552 on 19th July.