What I learnt at a 16th century Anglicanism course

king henryI recently attended the “Scripture and Sacraments in Reformation Anglicanism” course at George Whitefield College presented by Dr Ashley Null*.  I found the course extremely challenging and very beneficial in thinking about ministry today.  The course centred around the Protestant Reformation in the Church of England in the 1500’s, how the Church of England broke from the church of Rome, how God used Thomas Cranmer to capture the essence of the English Reformation and how Cranmer set the glorious Reformation truths before ordinary people with the Book of Common Prayer.

Scripture and authority

In Anglicanism there were and are three big authorities. Scripture – the Bible, God’s revealed Word.  Tradition – which is how the community of believers has understood the Bible. And reason – good commonsense aided by grace.  In the worldwide church the order of these three authorities has always been in dispute; Reformation Anglicanism says that the Bible must be our supreme authority which takes precedent over and above the others.

Divorce and providence

The Church of England separated from the Church of Rome over the issue of King Henry VIII’s divorce.  The Roman Catholic Church would not annul his first marriage.  Providentially, this was used by God to establish Protestantism in England.  God used a seemingly unspiritual, “worldly” decision for His Glory and for people’s good, as he always does.

Bibles and hearts

The invention of the printing press was one of the great catalysts for the Protestant Reformation as Bibles were printed and read.  The Catholic, medieval church came to be viewed as superstitious, dead and in error by reformers and by ordinary people as now for the first time they had access to Bibles.  The Bible was seen by the English Reformers as God’s supernatural power to stir our hearts toward God in love. The transformative power of Scripture is to make me want what God wants, not to make God do what I want.  In the Bible they discovered that God does not make us worthy, but declares us righteous. This righteousness is appropriated by faith. Faith comes by the hearing of God’s word and God shows he is trustworthy. Thus we trust the promises of God and even the faith we have is a gift from God.  When we hear God’s promise and trust him we are declared righteous.

Thoma CranmerThomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury (main guy in the church) during King Henry’s reign until being burnt at the stake under Roman Catholic Queen Mary I.  Cranmer came to a thoroughly Protestant view of the Christian faith and used his influence to advance the gospel of Justification by Faith in England.

The question at the centre of the English Reformation was, “What moves the heart?”  Is it a relic or a message?  The English Reformers believed that as we listen to the gospel with our heads, the Holy Spirit moves and stirs our hearts.  The Doctrine of Justification by Faith stirs the affections and then enables us to be moral.  Therefore the English Reformers used affective language, language which touched the affections (as seen in the Book of Common Prayer).  Affections are deeper than emotions.  The gospel through Scripture must stir our affections, we cannot stir them towards God by ourselves our by our good works.  Thomas Cranmer believed that what heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies. Therefore he sought to win the English people’s hearts for Christ.  He realised we need to love God more than we love sin.

According to Dr Ashley Null,

“The English Reformers wanted the people to know that Christ was first and foremost the Good Shepherd (not the dreaded doomsday judge) who allured his lost sheep back by the power of his self-sacrificing love.”

For Cranmer, grace produces assurance, assurance gratitude, gratitude love, love repentance, repentance good works, and good works produces a better society. Medieval Catholicism said the Glory of God is to make us worthy.  The Glory of God for Cranmer is that God loves the unworthy.

Book of Common Prayer

In an age without YouTube or digital data projectors, the Book of Common Prayer was a novel idea at the forefront of mass communication.  Cranmer authored the Book of Common Prayer in order to be used by ordinary people during regular church services.

Typical medieval church services were in Latin and no one could understand Latin.  Possessing a Bible was also illegal.  The new Prayer Book was in English for all to take part and it was saturated with Scripture. The genius of the Prayer Book was that the entire liturgy was geared to reminding one of the dilemma of the human condition and the glorious gospel solution.

The Prayer Book reminded the churchgoer that, as the Bible shockingly says, we are “totally depraved”. That means I can choose how to sin, but I can’t choose not to sin.  We confess our sins and ask God to “pardon” and “deliver” us.  We are commended to ask God to cleanse our hearts and to incline them towards Him.  We are reminded of God promise to forgive all the sins of those who trust in Christ and the radical new life of Christians.  God is always put first and we acknowledge his great worth.

The Prayer Book insisted on a table for Holy Communion to remember and share in Christ’s death; not an altar for Mass where the priest “re-sacrificed” Christ.

The Prayer Book geniusly took what was the normal practises and rhythms of English churchgoers and “protestantized” them.

Challenges for today

Maybe not too surprisingly, this course on 16th century Anglicanism made me realise that the challenges faced back then are very similar to those we face today – even in the church context.

  1. Do we have a culture of shame and guilt in our churches (similar to medieval Catholicism), instead of culture of renewed affections for Christ? When we feel bad, condemned and shamed we are more open to the temptation to seek our joy in sin. If someone is struggling with sin we need to primarily move their affections in love for God, not shame them with their sin.
  2. Are our church services saturated with the Bible and thoughtfully structured to remind us of the human condition, God’s glorious graciousness and our new life in Christ?
  3. Are our church services so structured that as we listen to the supernatural Scriptures with our “heads”, we trust the Holy Spirit to move and stir our “hearts”? Our hearts are stirred as our minds encounter the truths of Scripture. It seems like most charismatic church services are going back to the medieval, catholic pattern of private, individual meditation (as we say or sing repeated phrases) that will somehow magically make you more holy.
  4. How do we know if the Scriptures are changing us? Cranmer would answer, “Are you growing in love for heavenly things and in despising sinful things?” Not, “Do you know more facts about the Bible?” What do we and the people in our churches love?
  5. Every church has a liturgy (the way you run the service). The question is: is it a good or bad one.


* Rev Canon Dr Ashley Null is an internationally respected scholar on the grace and gratitude theology of the English Reformation. Holding research degrees from Yale and the University of Cambridge, Ashley has received numerous awards for his work.  He currently holds a research post funded by the German Research Council at Humboldt University of Berlin and is a visiting fellow at the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and St. John’s College, Durham University. His project is editing the private theological notebooks of Thomas Cranmer, the author of the independent Church of England’s founding formularies, for Oxford University Press.


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