The Reformed 1549 Holy Communion

Someone recently commented to me that in order to bridge the Anglo-Catholic/Confessional Anglican divide, a prayer book should be created that simply includes the Holy Communion rite from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, as well as the one from the 1662 BCP (built on Cranmer’s 1552 BCP). On the surface, this might seem fair—after all, the 1549 Holy Communion (HC) included things such as vestments and a prayer for the faithful departed, seeming to nod towards a more “Catholic” theology.

However, I believe a simple reading of the text juxtaposed against the Missal for the Use of Sarum makes apparent that Cranmer created a broadly Reformed service in the 1549 HC, and that we should take his statement that the theology between the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer are the same at face value.

Before I dig in any further, I strongly recommend reading the 1549 HC and the Use of Sarum. The contrast is stark, and it’s necessary to understand the degree of change that Cranmer instituted.

The Sacrifice

Everything in the 1549 HC services comes downstream of Cranmer’s complete elimination of any possible sacrifice other than one of praise and thanksgiving. This, of course, makes sense: one of the primary facets of the Reformation was a rejection of a material, propitiatory sacrifice wherein Christ is immolated and the benefits are applied to the living and the dead. This also happens to be the foundation upon which the Use of Sarum is built; it is drenched in the language of sacrifice. Even prior to the Canon of the Mass, the bread, referred to exclusively as “the sacrifice,”and the wine are offered:

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.

And at the heart of the Canon is the oblation:

Wherefore, both we thy servants, O Lord, as also thy holy people, keeping in mind as well the blessed passion of the same Christ thy Son, our Lord, as also his resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension too, into Heaven, offer unto thy excellent Majesty of thy gifts and endowments, a ✠ pure Host, a ✠ holy Host, an ✠ immaculate Host: the ✠ holy bread of eternal life, and the ✠ cup of everlasting salvation. Upon which vouchsafe to look with a propitious and serene countenance, and to accept them, even as thou didst vouchsafe to accept the gifts of thy righteous servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which thy High Priest Melchisedech offered to thee, a holy sacrifice, an immaculate host.

Cranmer flips all of this on its head. Nowhere is the bread and wine offered to God, a staple of even some of the earliest Christian rites. That Christ is offered once and for all on the Cross is mentioned multiple times against Sarum’s none. Then, precisely where the oblation would go, the heart of the mass, Cranmer inserts his own oblation of praise and thanksgiving, even going so far as to begin it in the same way, Sarum’s pattern of “Wherefore, both we thy servants” becoming Cranmer’s “Wherefore…we thy humble servants.” Here as well, the text is quite explicit in emphasizing that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial and a remembrance of the Cross, and whereas in Sarum the angels carry the sacrifice of the host to the altar of God, in 1549 they carry prayers and supplications. The priest is prohibited from ever partaking alone of the sacrament, another prominent feature of Sarum. And to top it all off, Cranmer includes this rubric before the oblation:

These wordes before rehersed are to be saied, turning still to the Altar, without any elevacion, or shewing the Sacrament to the people.

Again, Cranmer’s intent here would be impossible to deny, the effect jarring on those used to the old rite. No offering to the Father, no Adoration of a substantial presence.

Prayers for the Dead

Now that the sacrifice of the mass has been shown to be reformed, the rest of the service falls quickly into place. As we know, the offering of masses for the dead is a key issue of the Reformation, and at the heart of the Roman Canon, immediately after the oblation, lies this prayer:

Remember also, O Lord, thy servants, N. and N. who have gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace. To them, O Lord, and to all resting in Christ, we beseech thee to grant a place of refreshment, light, and peace. Through the same our Lord Christ. Amen.

Cranmer’s “canon” includes a similar prayer:

We commend unto thy mercye (O Lorde) all other thy servauntes, which are departed hence from us, with the signe of faith, and nowe do reste in the slepe of peace: Graunt unto them, we beseche thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the generall resurreccion, we and all they which bee of the misticall body of thy sonne, may altogether be set on his right hand.

There are three items to note. The first is that the prayer has been moved to before the consecration, so that in no way could it be perceived that the merits are applied to the dead. Secondly, the ability to pray for specific dead has been excised, and third the “place of refreshment” is gone.

The prayer for the faithful departed in the 1549 will always remain controversial among Reformed Anglicans, and in their minds will undermine the thesis, more than anything else, that it is a Reformed rite. While the debate over whether prayers for the dead can be counted as “Reformed” is a complex one, in this instance I believe Cranmer was working via a Patristic lens. He had done away with Purgatory the year before in the Homily on the Fear of Death, and considering that homily’s language is clearly pulling from the Fathers, it is likely that Cranmer came to the same conclusion as Abp. James Ussher in that the prayers for the faithful departed of the early Church are in a category of their own, assuming no benefit could be conveyed to the dead, and that he felt some small commemoration was allowed. Clearly, this would be done away with in 1552, but nonetheless, I am skeptical that Cranmer’s theology really changes.

The Real Presence

Laying aside debates regarding what “real presence” entails, I have heard the argument before that the 1549 HC contains a “different” presence than that of the 1552, Cranmer’s more reformed rite. Here as well, though, the evidence comes up short.

Like prayers for the dead, presence comes downstream of the sacrifice in the 1549, and Cranmer is quite careful to ensure that there is no opportunity whatsoever for an implied material sacrifice, particularly after the consecration. Likewise, there are no indicators for even a “Lutheran” presence, as Cranmer had held earlier in life. Absent is the straightforward emphasis of adoration found in Sarum. The language is essentially identical to that of the 1552, with spiritual eating clearly against Sarum’s “Let us take, O Lord, with a pure mind that which we receive with the mouth.”

It has been argued that because of the change in the Words of Administration from “The body of our Lorde Jesus Christe whiche was geven for thee, preserve thy bodye and soule unto everlasting lyfe” to “Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving” in 1552 marks a shift towards a more Reformed theology, but we must remember that the Calvinist/Bucerian tradition took no issue with realist language, and that the Directory of Public Worship, for example, was happy to administer with “Take ye, eat ye; this is the body of Christ which is broken for you.” The more likely explanation for the shift is that because Cranmer moves the Words of Institution to be just prior to administration he felt that it would be repetitive.

Next to the prayer for the faithful departed, the most controversial aspect of the 1549 HC tends to be its epiclesis:

Heare us (O merciful father) we besech thee; and with thy holy spirite and worde, vouchsafe to ✠ blesse and ✠ sanctifie these thy gyftes, and creatures of bread and wyne, that they maie be unto us the bodye and bloude of thy moste derely beloved sonne Jesus Christe.

Mention of the epiclesis brings internet Anglicans to blows, as for some it is an indicator that a “substantial presence” is being conferred, but really it is just Reformed theology once again. Calvin states that the sacraments are equivalent to the Word of God, and that the Holy Spirit accompanies them. According to Bryan Spinks, Cranmer’s likely source is Peter Martyr Vermigli, who says, “bread and wine are translated from the natural order…to a sacramental state and order, both by the work of the Holy Spirit and by the institution of the Lord.” Further afield, the Directory of Public Worship prays that God will “sanctify these elements both of bread and wine, and to bless his own ordinance,” and the Scottish Presbyterian tradition contained similar statements such as “Send doune o Lord thy blissing upon this Sacrament, that it may be unto us the effectual exhibitive instrument of the Lord Jesus.” Quite strong sentiments from those supposedly more “Reformed” than the drafters of the 1662 BCP.

What then of the crossing of the elements? I do not buy the argument they are a “red herring” for traditionalists. The simple answer is not a shift in theology, but rather that Cranmer took no issue with the sign of the cross during his services, as is evidenced by the 1552 baptismal rite, as long as it wasn’t excessive and prone to superstition, although he clearly seems to conclude that in the communion rite it doesn’t work.


A brief moment should be spent on the aesthetic aspects of the 1549, such as the vestments. Again, because the sacrifice has been neutralized, the rest of the decisions around ornaments and ritual make sense as well. Like Luther, Cranmer does away with an explicit need for a eucharistic vestment (stole, chasuble) to be worn during the Holy Communion, quietly eliminating their significance to be one of ornamentation. The word “altar” appears, but side by side with “God’s Board,” an almost comical juxtaposition, and elsewhere he gives the same justification as other Reformed such as John Jewell: that the Fathers use “altar” interchangeably with Table language.  Gone are heaps of rubric from Sarum specifying dozens of acts of ritual and ornamentation. Cranmer’s service here does what it intends to do in 1552: have the laity partake of the benefits of the Lord’s Supper in a comely environment.


I hope that I have made a clear case for a Reformed rite in the 1549 Holy Communion service, even if it stretches the definition of “Reformed” a bit. If so, then, why does Cranmer scrap it for the 1552? Because the same thing happens in 1549 as in the 19th century with certain parties: a “read between the lines” approach is used to take advantage of certain aspects of the liturgy that are less clearly defined in order to promulgate particular theologies. What I wish to have highlighted, however, is that when placed next to Roman liturgy, the 1549’s theology of the dead, sacrifice, and presence require some serious bending over backwards to make Catholics happy. At the same time, I am skeptical of the thesis that the 1549 was “merely a transitional book” in Cranmer’s mind. The differences between it and Sarum are far too stark, despite some structural similarities. It bears the mark of Cranmer’s mature theology, and it should be treated as a full expression of it.

Far more reputable scholars than I have argued that the 1549 is as Reformed as the 1552. See Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, Bryan Spinks’ And with thy Holy Spirite and Worde in Margot Johnson’s collection Thomas Cranmer, and Gordon P. Jeanes’ Signs of God’s Promise.


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