Yesterday marked the 457th anniversary of Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom, something Philip Jenkins noted here yesterday. Cranmer is justly remembered for his work in framing the traditional Symbols of Anglicanism, notably The Book of Common Prayer and The Forty-Two Articles (which later became The Thirty-Nine Articles under Elizabeth I). But what is less well remembered is his other great work: The Book of Homilies.
This is somewhat puzzling given that the book is theologically normative for Anglicans (or at least that’s what The Thirty-Nine Articles intended). Article 35 calls for the homilies’ continued public reading “in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understood by the people.” Moreover, Article 9 actually defers to one of the homilies as the “more largely expressed” articulation of the church’s theology of justification.
Written during a time of intense theological division in England, the Book of Homilies (or Certain Sermons or homilies, as it was originally titled) was intended to do a couple of things: first, it was to provide appropriate preaching material for a church that had not previously focused on sermons (canon law from the 13th century required churches to have four sermons a year, but records suggest this was an ideal rather than the norm). Emphasis on sermons increased dramatically in the 16th century, however; the Book of Homilies was meant as a tool, therefore, for priests who had never studied sermon-making themselves.
But more than that, it was Cranmer’s hope to use this book to bring theological unity to the fractured church. Under Henry VIII, the nation had seen its religious allegiance swing from Rome to an evangelical faith, and then back (as Henry VIII became increasingly worried over theological innovation by evangelicals) to a more conservative (if not Roman) position. Various statements of faith had been prepared over the years, but as new ones continually succeeded the previous, it was difficult to establish what exactly the Church of England officially believed.
Cranmer wanted to solidify the church’s theology in a new way. And while the Articles of Religion (1552) and the Book of Common Prayer (1549) were part of Cranmer’s long-term plan in realizing that vision, his first real success came with the Book of Homilies (1547). The book’s publication came with a royal injunction (from Edward VI) mandating the homilies’ continual use, in perpetuity, throughout all churches in England.
But healing a broken church is not easy. As a first attempt to build bridges between the different factions, Cranmer invited both conservatives and evangelicals to contribute sermons for the book: of the four known authors, we know two (Bishop Bonner and John Harpesfield) were conservatives and two (Thomas Becon and Cranmer himself) were evangelicals. In fact, the question of unity was so important to Cranmer that one of the twelve sermons (the last) was devoted entirely to that subject: “A sermon against contention and brawling.” That homily, likely written by Cranmer himself, calls for renewed commitment to making peace in the church. “We cannot be jointed to Christ our head,” it warns, “except we be glued with concord and charity one to another. For he that is not in this unity is not of the Church of Christ.”
It’s difficult to find a copy of Cranmer’s original edition of the homilies, unless you have a subscription to Early English Books Online and a penchant for reading old gothic type (confession: I do). For everyone else, you can read the book as updated in Elizabeth I’s era, during which time a second volume was appended to Cranmer’s. (And I just discovered that Trinity School for Ministry has videos of the first three sermons actually being preached, so you might want to check those out too.) The homilies are well worth reading. Who knows? You might just conclude that they’re still, as The Thirty-Nine Articles assert, “necessary for these times.”
Just as you can’t find Cranmer’s 1547 edition easily, it’s also difficult to find secondary sources that focus on it. (I’m hoping to help fill that gap a little by revamping my honours thesis on the original Book of Homilies, with plans to eventually submit it for publication in a journal somewhere.) For a more general introduction to Cranmer, check out Diarmaid MacCulloch’s masterpiece Thomas Cranmer: A Life; it’s the best resource on Cranmer, bar none.