One of the old saws when I was training for the ministry, was that Cranmer had the shape of the Communion service all wrong. This assertion was, of course, based on a 1945 book called The Shape of the Liturgy by an Anglican Benedictine called Gregory Dix. Leaving aside the fact that Dix rejected Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist, one of his goals in writing was to get rid of the Cranmerian style of liturgy in favor of one based on Patristic models. This has the result that Dix and Cranmer’s liturgical shapes are animated by very different considerations.
Dix’s approach is primarily historical. He traces the development of the Eucharistic liturgy in the first millennium, and then organizes the pieces according to the late Patristic shape, restoring the Prayer of the Church, returning the Pax to its presumed Patristic position, but leaving later additions, such as the Creed, intact. This works fine historically, but one does have to be completely clear that it is an approach that treats the liturgy as an historical artifact, not as a liturgical, catechetical, and theological tool.
Cranmer’s approach to the liturgy was primarily theological. He asked himself the question “how can the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper be made to express Evangelical theology?” This caused him to reorder the Mass so that it proceeds through the classic stages of the Evangelical experience of God’s Saving Grace. Thus, Cranmer’s liturgy begins with Law, so after the Collect for Purity ‒ which is culled from the Sarum Missal and serves the office of the classic Reformed Prayer for Illumination ‒ he provides the opportunity both to hear the Law, and for self-examination through the Decalogue. Cranmer placed the Commandments where the Kyrie and Gloria had stood in the mediaeval Mass, adapting the former as a response to each of the commandments. The inspiration for this move came from Bucer’s Strassburg rite, but Cranmer turns it into a Litany.
Having heard the Law, examined their lives and consciences, and hopefully having been stirred to an awareness of their sin, the congregation is then offered the Gospel. This is done in the form of the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel followed by the Nicene Creed, and the preaching of the Word. This is intended to both promote repentance and a desire for amendment of life which is expressed in the next three elements of the liturgy ‒ almsgiving, prayer to God, and confession. This is the most traditional part of the service because Cranmer’s alterations to the traditional sequence of Collects, Epistles, and Gospels were judiciously made, and limited in scope. The archbishop and his assistants placed the Prayer for the Church Militant at the end of this section so that when the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated, it would still be possible to celebrate a complete Liturgy of the Word.
Like all Reformation-era liturgies, there is an explanation of what the Lord’s Supper means inserted into the liturgy. In some Lutheran rites this occurs immediately before the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Institution, but in the Reformed rites it is a little earlier. Cranmer’s position between the Prayer for Church and the General Confession is the least jarring as it serves the purpose of both providing an explanation of the benefits of the sacrament (the long exhortation) and fences the Table (the short exhortation, or introduction to the General Confession). The General Confession, Absolution, and Comfortable Words then follow leaving the communicants ready for the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Cranmer makes a rare stylistic error in reversing Bucer’s order of Word first, then Absolution, but that really is a secondary consideration.
The Eucharistic liturgy proper is remarkably traditional in that Cranmer retains the Sursum Corda, Preface, and Sanctus, then the “Canon” itself consists of the Prayer of Humble Access, a Prayer of Consecration which consists of little more than a brief prayer asking that the communicants might receive the benefits of the sacrament and the Words of Institution. The action is then paused to allow for the communion of the faithful, and then the “Canon” concludes with the Lord’s Prayer and either the Prayer of Oblation, which emphasized the gift of Christ and our self-offering, or the Prayer of Thanksgiving. Cranmer strengthens the element of thanksgiving at the end of the service by moving the Gloria in Excelsis to this point, and the Eucharist concludes with the Blessings.
We can see Cranmer’s Evangelical theology at work from the Law ‒ Gospel ‒ Faith ‒ Repentance ‒ Communion ‒ Thanksgiving shape he adopted for the Lord’s Supper. Whilst not historically correct, it is Evangelical theology put into liturgical form. If we are serious about our adherence to the theology of the English Reformation, we need to maintain the use of a Eucharistic liturgy which maintains Cranmer’s liturgical shape as it underscores the teaching of the Bible, Articles, and Catechism about not just the Eucharist, but also justification and sanctification. Although it is fashionable among some Evangelicals to trash the 1928 BCP, that Liturgy retains Cranmer’s Law-Gospel-Repentance-Sacrament-Thanksgiving shape – which is why its use as written is anathema to some Anglo-Catholics. Thus, although the 1928 Communion Office could be improved in one or two aspects, it does respect the theological orientation of the English Reformation.
- Dix’s shape is that of the mid-sixth century before the loss of the opening Litany, of which the Kyrie eleison is a relic, and the Prayer for the Church, which still appeared in the form of the Solemn Collects on Good Friday in the Tridentine Rite. ↑
- Bucer’s Strassburg Liturgy in a stripped-down form provided the model for Calvin’s 1542 service for the French-speaking congregation in Strassburg. Elements of that service subsequently found their way into the Eucharistic service of the Genevan Church. ↑
- Cranmer had an independent streak even when incorporating other theologians’ ideas into his own system. ↑