Posted By Claire on March 21, 2016
If you have been following this website for a while, you will have gathered that I am a practising Christian. My faith is real and true, but it’s far from perfect. I doubt, I question, I rant and I rave, and I often wonder when I’m writing about martyrs of the 16th century what I would have done if my faith had been challenged or if my very life depended on my faith – could I be a martyr?
I look at Anne Askew. There was a woman who was racked at the Tower of London so badly that she had to be carried to the stake for her execution. She was steadfast. She stuck to her faith and refused to name names even though her bones were popping out of their joints. She is so admirable – what a woman! I’d like to think that I could be that strong, that I could stick to my faith no matter what, but to be very honest I think I would be begging for mercy and giving my torturers anything they wanted. I like to think I’m strong, but I know I’m weak, and that’s why it’s not Anne Askew who gives me hope, it’s people like Thomas Cranmer and the Apostle Peter.
As Beth von Staats points out in her article “Thomas Cranmer: Were his recantations of faith driven by Stockholm Syndrome?”, Cranmer “has a tainted and complicated legacy”. He was an incredible man. He was a theologian and reformer who did so much to further the cause of reform in Henry VIII’s reign but “he didn’t lead the charge” and in Mary I’s reign he recanted his Protestant faith no less than five times in an effort to save his life. Beth von Staats examines his last days in her excellent article and offers a very plausible reason for his behaviour- click here to read it now (it’s in the sample of the November 2014 issue) – but every year I read comments accusing him of being a coward. Perhaps he was a coward, perhaps he can’t be compared to Anne Askew. I’m glad that some people feel able to judge him from their ivory towers and I am in true awe of those who know for sure that they could suffer for their faith. Being burned at the stake was an awful way to go and if the wood was green or piled too high then the suffering could go on for many hours. So, for me Cranmer is a glimmer of hope. Here was a man who recanted five times but then, at the last minute, when he was supposed to recant a sixth and final time, he defied Mary I and renounced his previous recantations:
“And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth, which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is, all such bills or papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall first be burned.
And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.
And as for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the bishop of Winchester, which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand in the last day before the judgment of God, where the papistical doctrines contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show their face.”
As he was burned at the stake in Oxford on 21st March 1556 he stretched out his right hand, the hand that had written the recantations, and “held it unshrinkingly in the fire till it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand!””, and, as John Foxe describes, “He closed a life of high sublunary elevation, of constant uneasiness, and of glorious martyrdom.” Whatever his faults and his sins, that day he died safe and secure in the knowledge that he was justified by faith alone.
Cranmer reminds me of Peter, that not-so-perfect apostle who drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant and who, as Christ predicted, following Christ’s arrest denied he knew Christ three times before the cock crowed. Yet, this weak man was also the man of whom Christ said “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”. There is controversy over those words and what Christ really meant by them, but, regardless, Peter went from denying Christ to save himself to being a true fisher of men and bringing many to the Christian faith. He was also crucified for his faith.
Thomas Cranmer and Peter both denied Christ, they both had very human flaws and yet both have gone down in history as doing much to further Christianity. Their stories give me hope. I’m not a theologian or archbishop of Canterbury, I’m not an apostle like Peter or a great preacher, but I can relate to their flaws and I know that I am justified by the same faith that gave them their salvation. It is these men who help me with the faith I have, and today I will raise my glass to Thomas Cranmer and whisper “thank you”.