Cranmer and Ussher – ‘Bookends’ of the English Reformation

Today marks two anniversaries – the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury in 1556, and the death of Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh in 1656. In some respects, these two are the intellectual ‘bookends’ of the English Reformation, with Cranmer being in some respects the pioneer of the English Reformation, and Ussher perhaps the best representative its mature theology.

Cranmer was born in Aslockton, Notts., 2nd July 1489, so in terms of age he is a close contemporary of Martin Bucer, with whom he was to have a long and fruitful correspondence. There is very little about Cranmer’s early career to suggest anything remarkable about him. He seems to have been an adherent of the New Learning, but there is little to identify him as a decided Protestant until the 1530s, though there are some indications that he became interested in reforming literature in the 1520s. Because he was a King’s Man, he was promoted to Canterbury in 1533 and consecrated in that year following his return from Germany where he had spent some time in Nuremburg. He had studied the Lutheran church in that city and had married the niece of the Lutheran Superintendent, Andreas Osiander. His correspondence with Bucer also begins in this period, and increasing Cranmer was drawn into the international network of reformers. Although very much his own man, Cranmer seems to have been drawn inexorably into what I tend to think of as the middle party – those who were looking for a united Evangelical front against Rome – a grouping that at various times included Melanchthon and Bucer as almost permanent members, and at times included others such as Bullinger, Brenz, Calvin, etc., until the party lines between Lutheran and Reformed finally hardened in the 1550 and 60s. Under such influences, Cranmer’s theology gradually developed along Reformed lines, but when one reads the word Reformed one should not automatically assume Calvinism. Much of Cranmer’s work was official, so he tended along with a small group of bishops, to have the job of defining the official position, but in his final words on the subject – his book ‘On the Lord’s Supper’; the Forty-Two Articles of 1552, and the second BCP he aligned the Church of England with the theology of Bucer and Bullinger and the Reformed Churches of Strasburg and Zurich, even though his liturgical work was a little more conservative. It was for his Reformed views that he was burnt on this day in 1556.

By the time James Ussher was born in Dublin in 1581, the Elizabethan Settlement had been an accomplished fact for almost a generation. Jewel’s ‘Apology’ had been published almost twenty years before, Nowell’s ‘Catechism’ had received official sanction; Bullinger’s ‘Decades’ were held up as a model of doctrine, and the bones of the Settlement had slowly acquired muscle, breath, and life. Ussher was one of the first students at Trinity College, Dublin, an institution founded to provide a learned and preaching ministry for the Church of Ireland among other things. Largely staffed from Cambridge, Trinity College embraced the Reformed theology of the era, and Ussher became a renowned Hebraist, who sadly, seems to be remembered today mainly for his chronology, which pegged the creation to the year 4004BC. This popular memory perhaps gives him a rather unfair reputation for obscurantism today, and it hides his achievements in, among other things, distinguishing the authentic from the false Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, his work on the Irish Articles, and his work on Church governance. The Irish Articles reflected the mature Reformed theology of the Anglican Church, and whilst it contains no surprises, the 100 plus articles of the Irish text lay out a moderate version of the “Calvinist” tradition. Ussher himself shared with Davenant the ‘Hypothetical Universalist’ position when it came to the doctrines of Grace, and as such seems to have been representative of the dominant strain in Anglo-Irish theology. However, more interesting for the future was Ussher’s work on taking the best features of the Presbyterian system into the Episcopal (1642) – a work that seems prophetic when looking at it from an American perspective, as to some extent, whether by deliberate imitation, or parallel develop, White’s constitution for the PECUSA echoed some of Ussher’s ideas for bringing together the best aspects of both system. Ussher was respected by both sides in the English Civil War, which may have been something that compromised his reputation after the Restoration, and although his name remained well known, some of the most constructive elements of his work lay unappreciated for years.

As I suggested earlier, studying Cranmer and Ussher gives us an insight into the way English theology developed in the first 120 years of the reformed Church of England and Ireland. Whilst the Elizabethan Settlement was relatively conservative in matters of vesture and liturgy, there is no doubt that it aligned itself with what was going on elsewhere in the Reformed Church. It is no accident that the Church of England sent representatives to the Synod of Dort, as Anglicanism was very much part of that theological world in the 1610s. I also think it is fair comment to assert that many of Anglicanism difficulties in terms of producing a coherent theology today could be solved if we simply returned to our roots, and started appreciating once more the theology of Cranmer and Ussher, along with that of Jewel, Nowell, Hooker, Davenant, and others in the English Reformed tradition.

Peter D. Robinson

The Most Rev. Peter D. Robinson is the Presiding Bishop of the United Episcopal Church. He also serves as ordinary of the Missionary Diocese of the East and vicar of Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.

'Cranmer and Ussher – ‘Bookends’ of the English Reformation' has 1 comment

  1. March 21, 2019 @ 12:13 pm Remain within the bookends – We see through a mirror darkly

    […] is good to see Archbishop Robinson, of the UECNA, blogging again in this latest installment from The North American Anglican. It is a great reflection on Anglican theology in a time in which many seem to pick and choose what […]


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