I must confess out front that I am no great friend of liturgical innovation. I realise that much of what we do at Christian gatherings was, at some point, an innovation, such as using a language other than Greek (be it Latin or English or any modern vernacular), or singing hymns, or using an organ, or stained glass windows, etc. Nevertheless, I am not generally interested in the creation of wholly new liturgical developments that do not interact with or grow from the existing traditions.
Indeed, one of the great things about the BCP is the fact that most of it is simply an Englishing of Sarum with a few new prayers, and some collects and other prayers translated from other sources. It is a completely traditional innovation in liturgy. It was an attempt to keep in step with both tradition and scripture, being catholic and reforming.
I can also see circumstances for the creation of new orders of worship, of new prayers, as well as adaptations of old ones.
What I did not say is that we did not use said liturgy precisely as it exists in the editions, translations, and manuscripts.
Well, first of all, the Liturgy of St James takes around three hours. In the economy (oikonomia) of church life, not every congregation can handle that. My church is a diverse group, not all of whom are yet comfortable with any liturgy, let alone three hours of it. Most lack the stamina for these ancient services. So our priest cut it to an hour and a half, mostly by cutting repetitions.
He also made necessary changes because the rubrics require the presence of quite a few clergy, and all we’ve got are a priest and a deacon (so we’re better off than many other congregations!).
A third set of changes was a modification of the wording because a great many people in our congregation are ESL, often from East Asia but also some Europeans. This was a way to make using this ancient form of worship accessible to them.
A fourth set (I imagine) was the cutting of aspects of the text as we have it that would be simply unacceptable to those of evangelical background who attend our church. This I am not sure of, because I’ve never read the entirety of the text. But, given that some invocations of saints slipped through, I bet others were cut. Now, our priest is himself edging ever higher, but in the oikonomia of parish life, clergy have to tread carefully.
These strike me as four acceptable reasons to tinker with an ancient liturgy, for their main purpose is, while maintaining the heart and core of the worship as laid out, to make it more accessible to the congregation at hand. I think this is the sort of thing that must be done carefully and prayerfully, mind you. We live now over fifty years after Vatican II, and all the liturgical churches of the West have suffered through their share of poorly-executed liturgical experiments done, one hopes, with the best of intentions.
But if we tinker and prod and sometimes shorten the ancient texts with care and reverence, doing so as a means of opening them up to others — surely this is no bad thing?
If one were to ask the average Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they would probably say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ This is, of course, an inaccurate statement, although there are certainly individuals in all Christian traditions who read, mark, and inwardly digest far too little of the Bible.
If one were to ask the average low-church, non-Anglican Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of Anglicans, there is a chance that, once again, they would say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ Some, including at least one low-church Anglican I know, would point to The Book of Common Prayer as part of the flawed faith of Anglicanism. Too much BCP; too little Bible.
Holding in my hands the Canadian BCP of 1962, let me tell you a few things:
Out of 736 pages, 190 are taken up with the Psalter (that is, the Book of Psalms).
Immediately prior to the Psalter are ‘The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be Used Throughout the Year’ — no more than a quarter of this section is taken up by the Collects; the rest are passages from the Epistles and Gospels for use at Holy Communion; 235 pages of text. Imagining 1/4 Collects, that’s 176.25 more pages of Bible, bringing us to a total of 366.25 pages of Bible — almost half the BCP right there.
Morning Prayer: Begins with a Bible verse, options filling up c. 3 pages. Includes the Lord’s Prayer twice, Psalm 95, one or two more Psalms, two significant Bible readings, the song of Zachariah from Luke 1, several responsory Bible verses, and closes wth 2 Corinthians 13:14.
Evening Prayer: Like unto Morning Prayer, but instead of Psalm 95 we have the song of Mary from Luke 1, and instead of the song of Zachariah we have the song of Simeon from Luke 2.
If one becomes concerned that all these repetitive Biblical Canticles are a bit much, 5 pages of Scriptural options are provided, besides recommended Psalms in the rubrics.
At Holy Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer twice, either all Ten Commandments or Christ’s Summary of the Law, the aforementioned Epistle and Gospel readings, a Bible verse to introduce the offertory, another Bible verse after the offering has been collected, the Comfortable Words after confession of sin which are all Bible verses, and the Words of Institution which are taken from 1 Corinthians.
In the lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer as set out in the 1549 through 1662 Prayer Books you read through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice a year, as well as the Book of Psalms once a month. In the Canadian BCP of 1962, the Psalter takes two months.
At every service of the BCP one recites either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, and sometimes the Athanasian. These are summaries of Scriptural teaching.
On page 544 is ‘The Catechism: An Instruction to be learned by every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’ — and Confirmation is one of those nasty, ‘unbiblical’, Prayer-Book Anglican things — much of which is recitation of Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
In the Solemnization of Matrimony, besides various references and allusions to Scripture (such as are abundant throughout the BCP), we have either Psalm 128 or Psalm 67, the Lord’s Prayer, responsory Bible verses, a Bible reading from Colossians, and a Bible reading from Matthew.
The other, less common, services demonstrate a similar combination of straight Scripture and scriptural allusion or concept.
Frankly, it is hard to find an order of worship more imbued with Scripture than Prayer-Book Anglicanism (although the Orthodox in Holy Week give us all a run for our money!). If we actually followed the rubrics and read all of this Scripture, and then followed the BCP’s exhortations concerning Scripture — to read, mark, and inwardly digest it; to truly pray for God to write His law on our hearts — Anglicans would be soaked and saturated with Holy Scripture to an extraordinary degree.
Finally, as my last piece of evidence for Prayer-Book Anglicanism loving God’s Holy Word, I give you this from the Supplementary Instruction (pp. 554-555, 1962 BCP):
Question. Why ought you to read God’s holy Word, the Bible?
Answer. Because it tells how God has made himself known to man; and how we may come to know him, and find salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of his Church.
Question. What does the Church teach about the Bible?
Answer. The Bible records the Word of God as it was given to Israel, and to his Church, at sundry times and in divers manners; and nothing may be taught in the Church as necessary to man’s salvation unless it be concluded or proved therefrom.
Question. Where then is the Word of God to be found in all its fulness?
Answer. In Jesus Christ, his only Son, who was made man for us and for our salvation.
Question. What is the vocation of a Christian in this world?
Answer. To follow Christ and bear witness to him; to fight the good fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life.
O tempora! O mores! That we have laid aside so rich a heritage as the Prayer Book in these last decades for the modern and mundane!
What follows is likely to be less popular than discussing the catholicity of the Prayer Book. But I am a Protestant, so it only follows that liturgy I love would also be Protestant.
Thinking on this proposed series of 3 posts about loving the BCP, I’ve decided to add a fourth after catholic, Protestant, and beautiful, and that is theological. This is because, as I think on the ‘Protestant’ aspects of the BCP, I realise that many of the theological moments that I love and that come to mind are actually simply sound theology, and could easily be embraced by the Church catholic outside our small corner of Protestantism. Nevertheless, I think it is important to point out that the BCP is, in fact, Protestant.
So is Anglicanism.
It seems to have become fashionable in many Anglican circles these days to deny our status as a Protestant church. This, I think, is related to the use of the word Protestant by evangelical, dissenting churches such as Baptists, the Alliance Church, varieties of Methodism/Wesleyanism, varieties of Reformed, etc. There is also a long and strong tradition within the Anglican Church of seeing connections with the past in theology and liturgy, especially with the Church Fathers but also, to a degree, our forebears in the English Middle Ages and the best of mediaeval theology and devotion on the Continent, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Thomas a Kempis.
Nonetheless, by strict definition Anglicans are Protestant.
And so, as I said, is the BCP — hence its modification by both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics when they use it.
Now, it could easily be said that the BCP is Protestant because it tends to be a one-volume compendium of Anglicanism, containing the orders of service, the Psalter, and the doctrinal documents of our faith. The Articles of Religion, containing such words as ‘popish’ are obviously Protestant. What about the liturgy, though? When we consider the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi, we would expect to find Protestantism in the BCP.
Justification by faith is the most important Protestant doctrine that sets us aside from the Church of Rome. Does the Prayer Book teach justification by faith through grace alone? Yes it does, but more by aggregation than any single articulation. It is a doctrine that undergirds the BCP’s understanding of grace and sin. Here are some excerpts from Canada’s 1962 BCP, starting with the Communion:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him …
And although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.
…most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy
Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
…although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences
Morning & Evening Prayer:
He [God] pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.
As I say, it is the aggregate of passages, combined with what they do not say. If you read the Litany, for example, while it is not perfectly, explicitly justification by faith all spelled out, and while much of it is common to Anglicans, Catholics, and the Orthodox, there is a vein of such doctrine running through it. It would be tedious (albeit profitable, I have no doubt!) to go through all of Cranmer’s collects as well as the Exhortations, but I think you get the idea.
Justification by faith alone through grace alone is a rich vein of theology running through The Book of Common Prayer.
More easily spotted is the fact that Protestants do not believe in the sacrifice of the Mass:
who [Jesus Christ] made there [upon the Cross], by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again.
But after the offertory, let the deacon hand the cup with the paten and the sacrifice to the priest; and let him kiss his hand each time. But let him, receiving the cup from him, place it carefully in its own due place above the middle altar, and with bent head, for a little while, let him elevate the cup with both hands, offering the sacrifice to the Lord, saying this prayer:
Receive, O Holy Trinity, this oblation, which I, an unworthy sinner, offer in honour of thee, of the blessed Virgin and all the saints, for my sins and offences, and for the salvation of the living, and the rest of all the faithful dead. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Let this new sacrifice be acceptable to the omnipotent God.
Therefore most merciful Father, suppliant we beg and beseech thee, through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.
Here let the priest rising kiss the altar on the right hand of the sacrifice, saying: that thou wouldst receive and bless these gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices. And the sins being made over the chalice, let him elevate his own hands, saying thus…
Likewise, the Prayer Book has cut this:
Here again let him look upon the Host, saying: Which oblation do thou, O Almighty God, we beseech thee, vouchsafe in all respects to make hallowed, approved, ratified, reasonable, and acceptable, that it may be made unto us the body and blood of thy most dear Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
I think you get the idea. In pre-20th-century Prayer Books, the Canon of the Mass ended with the words of institution. In the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, things have been rearranged, and we come dangerously close to offering a sacrifice:
And we entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, most humbly beseeching thee…
That prayer was intended for after Communion. Indeed, besides Christ’s sacrifice once offered for the sins of the whole world, the only other sacrifice, in a prayer after Communion, is:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.
Now, you may not be a Protestant. You may be Orthodox or Roman Catholic. You may believe that the Eucharistic sacrifice is an integral part of the service of Holy Communion. You may not think there is a sharp difference between justification by faith as represented by the Prayer Book and the concept of condign merit.
I’m not condemning you.
But I am praising The Book of Common Prayer. In this small, maroon-coloured book, the wisdom of the Church has been distilled, bringing us a beautiful book that is not only Protestant but catholic. Not only catholic — connected with the church universal throughout time and space — but Protestant, connected to the reform movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sure, there are problems with a lot of what Protestantism has got up to since 1517.
And so comes the final week of Advent. On Thursday, the season will climax and close with the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Following the Use of Sarum, this Sunday’s collect is:
O Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins we are sore let and hindered, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. Who livest …
This is what the Advent longing is about — the coming of the Lord. There is a straining and a wrestling in it. A struggle. We feel the ache of life without Emmanuel (God-with-us) in Advent. This year, I have found this particularly true not only reflecting upon these Sarum collects with their crying out for God to give us his aid and be ever-present to us in time of need and in the face of sin, but also in my daily readings.
Although I don’t pray Vigils, I started reading the lessons for Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer partway through Advent this year. The Old Testament lesson was usually from Isaiah, and usually about the dread day of the Lord’s coming, or a weighty pronouncement about judgement. The New Testament lesson was usually from the epistles, usually more cheery, about Christ’s fulfilment of the Old and future coming in glory.
When you read such Bible passages regularly, combined with the average sorrows of daily life and the great burden of a world torn by strife, the Advent ache for a Saviour becomes much more pronounced. You feel with the liturgist the request for the Lord to succour us with His great might!
But it’s not mere, run-of-the-mill suffering the Sarum points us to. It is about the suffering we inflict on ourselves — through our sins we are sore let and hindered. St John Cassian, joining the Stoic ethical tradition, argues that the only evil inflicted upon you is the evil that you yourself commit. When someone else wrongs you, if you do not sin, no evil has been done to you; that person has done evil to himself.
The phrase ‘through our sins we are sore let and hindered’ is Englishing the Latin, ‘nostra peccata prepediunt’, ‘our sins shackle/bind/entangle/fetter’. I like ‘fetter’, myself.
And is not the bondage of the will, this human shackling to our sins, precisely what Jesus came to unloose? As the angel said to Joseph, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ (Mt 1:21; NKJV)
To turn from Sarum to Cranmer (who sourced the Litany from ancient texts; below is Canada’s BCP, 1962):
From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation, Good Lord, deliver us. From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us.
From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us. …
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.
Given my recent series about the sources for early mediaeval liturgy,1 I thought it would be appropriate to do some Advent blogging about these prayers. However, I discovered last night that the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries do not have collects for Advent. Sarum Use, however, does. And the Sarum Collect for Advent 1 is familiar yet foreign to Prayer Book Anglicans:2
Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come, that we may be accounted worthy to be rescued by Thy protection; from the threatening dangers of our sins to be set free by Thy deliverance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord…
Because of ‘Stir up, we bessech Thee, O Lord,’ we automatically think of the Collect for the Sunday Next Before Advent (aka ‘Stir-up Sunday’ — the day the Christmas puddings are made). However, in Sarum Use, that Collect is for Trinity 24, just like in the BCP:
Sir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of Thy lovingkindess be more plenteously rewarded. Through Jesus Christ our Lord…
Two differences exist between this collect after the Use of Sarum and Cranmer’s version in the BCP: 1. ‘of Thy lovingkindess’ becomes ‘of thee’ in the Prayer Book, and 2. ‘more plenteously’ is simply ‘plenteously’. I admit to having no theories as to why the former change was mode. The latter seems to be made to make the sentiment more Protestant. That is, we are hoping to be plenteously rewarded, full stop. No ‘more plenteously’, since our good works do not change the acting of God’s grace and lovingkindess upon us. This, at least, is my theory. Feel free to disagree/offer your own.
I like the connection between Trinity 24 and Advent 1 in Sarum. The final Sunday in the Church Year is thus intimately linked with the first. Endings are united with beginnings. We are asking the Lord to stir up for us. In Trinity 24, it is our own wills we want Him to stir up. As the Prayer Book collect for Trinity 19 says, ‘forasmuch as without [God] we are not able to please [God].’ So we ask Him to stir up our wills that we may do the good works he requires of us.
In Advent 1, we are beseeching God to stir Himself up. We are asking Him to come, seeking His Advent in the here and now (this is, in some ways of thinking, e.g. St Bernard of Clairvaux, the second coming, whereas Christ at the Final Judgement is the Third). I have no doubt this is precisely the sort of prayer that Reformers were wary of; observe its lack of presence in the BCP! The prayer asks ‘that we may be accounted worthy’, and the oft-repeated refrain of the Reformation is that our worthiness has nothing to do with it. To many ears, this sounds like a diminution of grace.
But perhaps it is not.
I mean, we are asking to be ‘accounted’ worthy. Not to be worthy. If anyone is aware of his own unworthiness, it is the mediaeval Christian. Read St Thomas a Kempis if you don’t believe me. We are not worthy, but God can account us worthy, see us as worthy. This is entirely His own free gift. This is grace.
And what do we want, having been account as worthy by God? His deliverance. We want to be rescued from our sins.
At the beginning of this holy season of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, we are asking God to deliver us from our sins, to make us holy. A good place to start, don’t you think?
In his 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer included a collect for Good Friday that was reprinted up to 1662. I don’t know about the early 20th-century attempts to re-shape the Prayer Book, but in Canada’s 1959/62 edition, this third collect is gone, while the other two are present.
MERCYFULL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothyng that thou hast made, nor wouldest the deathe of a synner, but rather that he should be converted and live; have mercy upon all Jewes, Turkes, Infidels, and heretikes, and take from them all ignoraunce, hardnes of heart, and contempt of thy word: and so fetche them home, blessed Lorde, to thy flocke, that they maye bee saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one folde under one shepeherde, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lyveth and reigneth, &c.
Since I received a 1662 version of the BCP for Christmas, today was the first time I read this collect. I think it is says something important about Good Friday that we lack in the other two collects.
The first of the two collects is a prayer for the congregation there gathered, focussed on Christ’s Passion, and the second is for the entire Church. The third takes the focus beyond the Church to the world, to those who do not yet know the Gospel. The four groups listed are Jews, Turks, Infidels, and heretics. I can see why this prayer would be controversial in the 1960s and not precisely ‘PC’.
However, let us look at these four groups in turn. First, the Jewish people. We get well over half of our Bible from the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jewish man, as were the Apostles. It is in fulfillment of prophecies made to the Jewish nation that Christ came, died, and rose for us. Therefore, that so many Jewish persons have not embraced Jesus as their Messiah, Saviour, and Redeemer, is something that should concern us. Christ died both for Jew and for Gentile. They are worthy of our prayers.
Second, we have Turks. This is probably a catch-all phrase for Muslims. Here we have the other of what people term ‘Abrahamic faiths’. Here we have a very large portion of the world’s population, whose holy book teaches many things contrary to our faith, yet many things cunningly similar — so close, yet so far away. In the minds of people in 1549, the ‘Turks’ were primarily to be found as the inhabitants of the Holy Land, as well. Should not the salvation of those who live where Our Lord walked and died be a concern for us? Did Christ not die for the Muslim Turk as well? They are worthy of our prayers.
I am not sure about the Infidel. Is this all unfaithful, ie. all un-believers, or a different circumlocution for Muslims? I do not know. But this I do know — Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. They are all worthy of our prayers.
Finally, heretics. The common view until recently is that heretics imperil their souls by their twisted belief. This may be true. Whether or not heretics are all going to Hell, they are certainly mistaken about the character of God and His action in the world, and as persons thus mistaken, they are not able to enjoy the love and fellowship of God as closely as the orthodox. Otherwise orthodoxy is meaningless. If you take offence to that, consider this: If someone thinks I am a Communist or a basketball player or only five-foot three, that person clears does not know me very well at all. That person has not entered very deeply into love and fellowship with me. So also when we think of God and heresy. Christ died for the heretics. They are worthy of our prayers.
Christ died on Good Friday, spilling out his blood for the sins of all of humanity. If we do not pray for the unsaved today, then we have lost the plot. If we pray only four ourselves and our churches, if we pray only for a better understanding of the cross, if we only meditate upon what this violent, glorious event means for us as Christians — we have lost the plot.
The Second Article of Religion states:
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.
Are we bringing this truth to bear to others? Are we praying for the salvation of the whole world this Good Friday? Are are we navel-gazing and ignoring our mission as followers of the Crucified God?
This week’s saints are for those of you who perhaps feel a certain lack of things non-Patristic of late, and those who may unreasonably fear my turning Orthodox or Papist (which, in some circles, is thought almost worse than being an atheist).
Bishops Latimer and Ridley will be commemorated this coming week on the anniversary of their death at the stake, 17 October 1555, in Oxford.
Ridley was a Northumbrian, taught grammar at Newcastle, then studied at Pembroke College in Cambridge where he was awarded his Master’s degree in 1525. After his ordination to the priesthood, did further study at the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1529 he returned to England; 1534 saw him senior proctor of Cambridge University. His ecclesiastical career under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (saint of the week here) and Kings Henry VIII (he’ll never be saint of the week) and Edward VI (not sure if he stands a chance given the sea of truer saints out there) led him to become a chaplain to the King in 1541, then Bishop of Rochester in 1547, then was translated to the vacant see of London in 1550.
To his sermons the people resorted, swarming about him like bees, coveting the sweet flowers and wholesome juice of the fruitful doctrine, which he did not only preach, but showed the same by his life, as a glittering lanthorn to the eyes and senses of the blind, in such pure order that his very enemies could not reprove him in any one jot.
Ridley represents the wing of Anglicanism (which would ultimately win, although is under threat in Australia and possibly some African places), in the Vestments Controversy of 1550-3, that things that are adiaphora — not central to the faith, but matters of indifference regarding salvation and polity — are not to be stripped away willy-nilly. In a controversy with John Hooper, who took a more continental, Reformed line (influenced by Zwingli, not likely to ever be saint of the week either), he said that, even if vestments be adiaphora, the King and Bishops could require people to wear them, and choosing not to is disobedience. Basically.
It’s always more complicated than that.
In 1553, Edward VI died. Ridley was involved in orchestrating the accession of Lady Jane Grey to the throne, signing the letters patent giving her the throne, as well as preaching a sermon claiming Mary and Elizabeth both bastards.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Queen Mary had him burned at Oxford in 1555 — not only was he a Protestant and she a Catholic, he had been involved in conspiracy to prevent her accession to the throne.
Hugh Latimer was from Leicester, and entered Cambridge University at age 14. 2 February, 1510, he was elected a Fellow of Clare College. 1514 he was awarded his Master of Arts, and 1515 he was ordained priest; in 1524, he was awarded his Bachelor of Divinity, his disputation for which was a refutation of Reformation doctrines.
However, one Thomas Bilney heard Latimer preaching against the Reformers and went to confess his own Reformation ways to this university chaplain. Latimer was moved by Bilney and began to move towards a more Protestant direction in his belief. He got involved with Bilney and others calling for Reform, including the call for an English Bible. This could have got him into more trouble, but at just this moment Henry VIII got himself a new Archbishop of Canterbury in Thomas Cranmer to get himself an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
1535 saw Latimer Bishop of Worchester, preaching reform and iconoclasm. But in 1539, he was opposed to Henry VIII’s anti-Reform Six Articles, so was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
He found himself in better favour under Edward VI, being a court preacher until 1550. From 1550-3, he was chaplain to Katherine Duchess of Suffolk. Under Queen, Latimer, like Ridley, was arrested — unlike Ridley and Cranmer, he was not involved in any conspiracies against the new monarch.
Trial and Death of the Oxford Martyrs
Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were taken to Oxford where they were to engage in a disputation on the faith. Latimer was by now quite aged, and provided his declaration in writing. His prayer was, in the words of Foxe, ‘that he might stand faithful to the doctrine he had professed, that God would restore his Gospel to England once again, and preserve the Lady Elizabeth to be queen.’
All these would be granted, but Latimer would not live to see it.
The result of the disputation at Oxford was, naturally enough, that Latimer and Ridley were heretics in contravention of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Cranmer initially recanted, however (ever the politician?). They were to be burned at the stake in front of Balliol College, at the north end of the city.
Foxe relates the following about Nicholas Ridley:
Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, “Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.”
As they were burned at the stake, Latimer is reputed to have said:
Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.
This echoes the Martyrdom of Polycarp (which both Latimer and Foxe undoubtedly knew). When Polycarp is entering the arena to face death, he hears a voice from heaven that says, ‘Be of good cheer, Polycarp, and play the man.’
As the two theologians were burned, Thomas Cranmer watched. He recanted his recantation and was himself burned at the stake six months later, in 1556, at the same spot.
As discussed in this post, I am not especially comfortable with praising Christians who were killed by fellow Christians as martyrs. However, whether we speak of the Oxford Martyrs, or Thomas More, or the Covenanters, or the Carthusians disembowelled by Henry VIII, or evangelicals imprisoned in Ethiopia today, we can say that they are, at least, victims of conscience in the face of a Christian government that is not behaving especially Christianly.
Of the two, I think I prefer Dr. Nicholas Ridley, in large part because of Latimer’s iconoclasm vs. Ridley’s championing of vestments. My vision of reformed (note the small r), Protestant Christianity is not a reimagined Christianity that starts from scratch but a Christianity purged of the late mediaeval abuses, anti-biblical teachings, and the requirements for salvation for things adiaphora. That is to say, in a post-1662 sense, Anglican, or possibly Lutheran — that trajectory of thought and worship in the Prayer Books, in Nicholas Ridley, in John Jewel, in Lancelot Andrewes, in Richard Hooker, but not in the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the Zwinglians, the Anabaptists.