Michael Fisher  investigates the real absence of Cranmer from our Prayer Book

Have we totally abandoned Cranmer?’ An elderly parishioner asked me that question following the introduction of Common Worship. If I’d had the presence of mind I might have answered that ‘we’—i.e. the Church of England—abandoned Cranmer 459 years ago. The 1559 Prayer Book, issued just three years after Cranmer’s death, took an axe to the roots of his radical Eucharistic doctrine (wittily dubbed the ‘Real Absence’) and later on the 1662 Prayer Book cleared away the debris. It was no doubt the loss of the noble language of the Prayer Book which this elderly lady regretted, rather than Cranmer’s Eucharistic theology. How sternly he would have condemned her genuflexions as wholly contrary to the spirit and letter of his 1552 Communion rite, and at worst idolatrous. For many others too, I suspect, it’s more a question of the language of worship rather than of its theology.

In the wake of last year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s firing of the Protestant starting-pistol, it may come as a surprise to some that Luther’s influence on the shape and content of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was slight and transitory. Cranmer’s brief flirtation with Lutheranism, reflected in the 1549 Prayer Book, ended abruptly as his attention was drawn away from Wittenberg to Strassbourg and Zurich where a much more radical Protestantism held sway under reformers such as Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli. Luther maintained that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was incontrovertible, resting as it did upon the Dominical words ‘this is my Body,’ but without precise definition of how it happened, while for Bucer and Zwingli feeding on the body and blood of Christ took place spiritually in the heart, not physically in the stomach, and so the bread and wine were and remained mere symbols, neither containing nor communicating any holiness or grace.

The clearest evidence of the shift in Cranmer’s thinking comes from a comparison of the 1552 Communion Service with that of 1549. In the 1549 Prayer Book the service was still—grudgingly—subtitled ‘commonly called the Masse.’ This disappeared in 1552, and with it everything that suggested it could be anything more than a bare memorial. Gone was Cranmer’s innovative invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine ‘that they may be unto us the Body and Blood of Thy most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ.’ Instead the institution narrative (‘who in the same night that he was betrayed took bread… etc’) was simply recited by the minister without any of the customary acts of taking the bread and cup into his hands, while Cranmer’s deliberate omission of ‘amen’ at the end of it meant that it could scarcely be called a prayer at all, let alone a ‘prayer of consecration.’ Lest anyone should think that ‘give us this day our daily bread’ could even remotely refer to the receiving of the sacrament, the Lord’s Prayer was removed from its customary place before the communion and placed immediately after it. The 1549 words of administration—‘The body/blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ’—were replaced with a stark ‘take and eat this/drink this, in remembrance…’ thus stressing the purely memorial nature of the rite and to remove any vestigial notion of the ‘Real Presence.’ There was to be no repetition of the institution narrative should either of the elements run out, and no reservation for the communion of the sick: both were regarded as pointless. As if to emphasize further the notion of ‘the Real Absence,’ any unused bread and wine remaining on the table could be taken home by the minister to augment his Sunday lunch.

As for vestments and furnishings, the priestly vestments enjoined in 1549 were now expressly prohibited, the only garment allowed being the surplice (or rochet for a bishop) which were choir robes carrying absolutely no Eucharistic connotations. Such stone altars as remained were to be demolished, and chancels levelled. New wooden communion tables were to be placed either in the chancel or nave, but not where the altar had been, and with the minister officiating at the north side, the table often sat lengthways east-west. The combined result of all this was to make it totally impossible to use the 1552 rite to counterfeit the Mass as had—just about—been possible with the first Prayer Book. The final blow came with the appending of the notorious Black Rubric, at the insistence of Edward VI’s council, which expressly denied any ‘corporal presence’ and pronounced any kind of devotion to the sacramental bread and wine to be idolatrous.

Complete and thoroughgoing as the Cranmerian revolution was in its substitution of the Real Absence for the Real Presence, it was very short-lived. Within a few months King Edward was dead, and Mary Tudor restored the Latin Mass. Following Mary’s death in 1558, there was a short hiatus as Elizabeth I and her ministers deliberated. The outcome was the 1559 Prayer Book. What appeared to be a simple reversion to 1552 included some small but highly significant changes to the Communion Service. The addition of a single word ‘amen’ turned the Cranmerian institution narrative into a prayer of consecration, while the joining together of the 1549 and 1552 words of administration of communion converted what Cranmer had studiously designed as a denial of the Real Presence into an affirmation of it. The ‘Black Rubric’ disappeared altogether, and a new Ornaments Rubric appeared to sanction a return to 1549 in respect of vestments and furnishings: loopholes which enabled seventeenth century divines such as Andrewes, Cosin and Laud to construct a revisionist theology and re-set their Holy Table altar-wise and furnish them with frontals, candlesticks and other ornaments. Holy Trinity Church, Staunton Harold is an outstanding example. Dating from 1653 and built in defiance of Cromwell and his suppression of the Prayer Book, it retains its Laudian-style furnishings, embroidered altar-covering and magnificent communion vessels, all within an architectural gem of late-medieval Gothic Survival. The 1662 Prayer Book added further embellishments to the rite, restoring the manual acts to what was now clearly labelled ‘The Prayer of Consecration,’ and making careful provision for the reverent consumption of what remained of the consecrated elements.

The puritans—who already thought that the 1552 Prayer Book was not radical enough and still riddled with ‘the dregs of popery’—saw all of this for what it was, and either rebelled or packed their bags and set sail for New England, while Catholics remained firmly recusant. For most Englishmen however, ‘1662’ became the accepted norm, with its unique blend of what Henry VIII had termed ‘old mumpsimus and new sumpsimus,’ or as one of my university tutors expressed it, more prosaically, ‘a rag-bag with so much stuffing inside that it was bound to survive.’ The ‘stuffing’ included such things as saints’ days, the observance of Lent, provision for auricular confession, and the retention of the threefold orders of bishop, priest and deacon, all of which puzzled continental Protestants and gave the Church of England a unique place among the Reformed Churches.

Back to my elderly parishioner’s question: ‘Have we totally abandoned Cranmer?’ The answer is emphatically ‘yes’ as far as his Zwinglian Eucharistic doctrine goes, but we still rightly treasure the packaging in which it was wrapped, i.e. Cranmer’s noble liturgical language which stood the test of time and became part of our cultural heritage. There is something quintessentially English about BCP Evening Prayer as rendered ‘in choirs and places where they sing,’ namely a cathedral evensong.

There is, however, a double sting in the tail. In Cranmer’s view, the cathedrals with their deans, chapters, endowments and independent constitutions were an anachronism, and bastions of conservatism. Had he and Edward lived a little longer, cathedrals—and cathedral music—would have suffered the same fate as the monasteries had done in the 1530s. Since music all but disappeared from the parish churches, it was only in the cathedrals and royal chapels that the superb Anglican choral tradition grew and developed in the way it did. Secondly, the joining together of the 1549 and 1552 words of administration at the communion created the lengthiest formula ever devised, with the result that the administration took at least twice as long. In time, some clergy adopted the highly dubious practice which, regrettably, still persists in some places, of subdividing it so that the first communicant hears the 1549 words, and the second the 1552 ones. The result is that while one half of the congregation receives a Catholic affirmation of the Real Presence, the other half gets Cranmer’s ultra-Protestant repudiation of it.


Father Michael Fisher writes on ecclesiological matters