Against "ghetto living", against 'The Cranmer Option'

If I had been asked some time last month, as part of the discussion around the idea of the 'Benedict Option', to define what a 'Cranmer Option' might look like, my response would have focussed on the generous orthodoxy of Reformed Catholicism, the vocation to be a national church, and common prayer gathering up into Christ life from cradle to grave.  Such an understanding could be reasonably founded on Cranmer's theological writings, his liturgies, and the nature of the reformed ecclesia Anglicana shaped by the character and convictions of this (in Diarmaid MacCulloch's words) "cautious, well-read humanist".

A rather different vision, however, is presented by the recent post on the North American Anglican, 'The Cranmer Option'. Part of the reason for the contrast would be that 'The Cranmer Option' - despite the name - shows little interest in Thomas Cranmer's theology (and, it might be added, is also rather critical of his liturgy).  To say, as the post does, of the 'Cranmer Option' that "[t]his may not have been Cranmer’s original intention" is - to put it very mildly indeed - an understatement. Archbishop Cranmer would have been at the very least bemused at the idea that his Erastian sensibilities, "his denial of the Real Presence" (when he actually asserted "yet is not Christ clearly absent in the godly administration of his holy Supper, nor present only in a figure ... but by his omnipotent power he is effectually present by spiritual nourishment and feeding"), and his strident critique of Anabaptists for rejecting the parish and creating exclusive communities should all be overturned in pursuit of 'The Cranmer Option'.

Amongst the oddest claims of 'The Cranmer Option' is the suggestion that Anglicanism has failed at "community building":

A deep-rooted practical quandary is that Anglicanism for the past four hundred years has systematically ejected the sort of believers who were good at community building, preaching, and resisting the world around them.

The most significant recent theological account of the Anglican parish, by contrast, has pointed to the strengths of this aspect of the Anglican experience, what it terms "this central emblem of Anglicanism, and the commitment to nation and community that it represents".  For the Parish continues by describing the Anglican parish as "a resource that is well placed to respond to the needs of our contemporary humanity".  An excellent historical account of the vitality of the Anglican parish can be found in John K. Nelson's study of the Church of England in colonial Virginia, where, "without the benefit of the Mother Church's ecclesiastical superstructure", the parish functioned in 'secular' and spiritual terms "reflecting a sense of community united in beliefs, values, and needs".

Why, then, does 'The Cranmer Option' entirely overlook the rich theology of the parish and the historical evidence of this theological vision finding embodied in Anglican experience over centuries? The answer is because this is the 'wrong' type of community.  We get a hint of this with the reference to Anglicanism's "Erastian streak".  This seems to refer to how Anglicanism has traditionally sought to minister to polity and civic community, recognising how these are necessary for human flourishing, seeking to orient communal, civic, and political life towards the good, the true, and the just.  In doing so, Anglicanism has also valued the peaceable ordering of our common life, what Tillotson called "a prudent and peaceable reconciling temper".

This, however, is not what 'The Cranmer Option' seeks or celebrates.  Instead, it looks to deeply sectarian models entirely inconsistent with Anglicanism, what it describes as "experts in ghetto living".  We are pointed to example of "Amish zeal and seriousness".  The witness of the Amish is, indeed, praiseworthy but to view it as applicable to Anglicanism fails to take seriously either the Amish or Anglicanism.  Then there is the example of the Pilgrim Fathers:

Our clubbiness and standoffishness caused pilgrims to cross the Atlantic and found non-conformist communities, which subsequently became the basis of the world’s major superpower.

No, it was not Anglican snobbery which led to the Pilgrims leaving English shores: it was the radical sectarianism of the Pilgrims, refusing to conform to the church by law established and a Christian, constitutional commonwealth.  It is very odd indeed that a supposedly communitarian 'Cranmer Option' would celebrate the heroes of the Whig interpretation's resistance to the settled order of bishops and king.  What is more, it also takes no account of how Anglicanism offered an attractive ecclesiastical and civic alternative to the Puritan 'New England way' and its "paranoid style" (which has periodically engulfed the culture and politics of the Great Republic).

It might be thought that any 'Cranmer Option' would heartily endorse and celebrate Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer.  Not, however, in this case.  A fatal theological flaw, we are told, lies at the heart of the Prayer Book:

the resulting problems that arise from openness in the 1662 Prayer Book to Calvin’s theology of total depravity and his denial of the Real Presence. It has resulted in an Anglicanism that has swung from confessing a morose message of there being "no health in us" and that "we are miserable offenders" to contemporary liturgical poverty, which seeks to ape inclusion and diversity buzzwords. 

The issue of Cranmer's Eucharistic theology has already been addressed in this post.  It is difficult to understand how any self-described 'Cranmer Option' could reduce his rich sacramental theology to a "denial of the Real Presence".  As Cranmer himself declared:

And therefore is Christ present as well in baptism as in the Lord's Supper. For in baptism be we endued with Christ, and seemly clothed with him, as well as in his holy Supper we eat and drink him.

On the issue of the Prayer Book and our sinfulness, we might wonder if there are hints of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the accusation that this must equate to a Calvinistic view of Total Depravity.  Cranmer's liturgy is robustly Augustinian.  It does not allow us to delude ourselves with the fiction that there are parts of our life - individual or shared, church or state, business or entertainment - untouched by sin: "there is no health in us".  It reminds us that despite our pretensions - whether conserving Tradition or promoting Enlightenment - we stand with the Prodigal as "miserable offenders".  

This is not a "morose message".  It is a deeply realistic assessment of the human condition.  When it is denied, then there are morose (and worse) outcomes, when it is shockingly recognised that, after all, human beings are not perfectible, whether as members of a godly commune, as rational consumers, or enlightened global citizens.  

What is more, Cranmer's liturgy balances this reality with the truth of sanctification.  We can live "a godly, righteous, and sober life", "our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments".  This is beautifully evident in Cranmer's Communion Office.  After receiving the Sacrament, we pray the Lord's Prayer as children of God.  In the Prayers of Oblation and Thanksgiving "we offer and present unto thee ... ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice", we pray that may "do all such good works as thou has prepared for us to walk in".  The fact that this leads to our participation in the angelic song, the Gloria in excelsis, powerfully demonstrates the vision of theosis in Cranmer's liturgy.

It is this, not a grim sentence of Total Depravity, which has underpinned the celebration of civic, communal, and domestic life in the Anglican parish, as described by John Milbank:

refusing ... any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature ... radically biblical yet hyper-Catholic; sturdily incarnated in land, parish and work, yet sublimely aspiring in its verbal, musical and visual performances.

Just such a "facile separation" seems to be indicated by 'The Cranmer Option' when it contrasts nature and grace.  There is more than a hint of this when we read "Anglicanism has pushed a therapeutic religion whose vernacular is social justice, not the supernatural vision of the New Jerusalem", as if the right and just ordering of communal relationships is not a part of what it is to be oriented towards the heavenly city.  

This is similarly seen in the descriptions of marriage and death given in 'The Cranmer Option'.  Marriage in Cranmer's rite, we are told, is "primarily a foreshadowing of the mystical union between Christ and his Church", whereas this is "merely incidental" in contemporary rites.  This ignores the fact that Cranmer first defines marriage as "an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency", that is, part of the created, natural order.  When "the causes for which Matrimony was ordained" are expounded in the rite, they each hold nature and grace together.  The supernatural, in other words, does not overshadow or abolish the natural: it is knit together with the natural.

The funeral rite similarly recognises both the natural and supernatural aspects of Christian burial.  The opening sentences hold together both the hope of the resurrection and harsh natural reality of death, for "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out".  The appointed Psalms - 39 and 90 - refer to the natural experience of death: "I am ... a sojourner as all my fathers were", "The days of our age are threescore years and ten".  The supernatural hope of resurrection does indeed animate Cranmer's funeral rite, but it does not deny or abolish the natural experience of death and grief.

Richard Hooker gave to Anglicanism classical theological expression of the insistence that "grace hath use of nature" (LEP II.8.6).  This is seen in his interpretation of the Prayer Book's marriage and funeral rites.  He opens his account of the marriage rite by placing it within the context of nature: "In this world there can be no society durable otherwise than only by propagation" (V.73.1).  Pointing to pagan societies, he notes that "the bond of wedlock hath been always more or less esteemed of as a thing religious and sacred" (V.73.3).  He again compares the Prayer Book marriage rite to pagan practices in antiquity, "the laws of Romulus concerning marriage ... established the use of certain special solemnities" (V.73.8).  For Hooker, the fact that the celebration of marriage is natural - as seen in pagan societies - is what establishes the wisdom of the Church of England's order. 

His account of the burial rites similarly emphasises natural duties: "to show that love towards the party deceased which nature requireth; then to do him that honour which is fit both generally for man and particularly for the quality of his person".  Having established this in nature, he then recognises how these natural duties are oriented towards the supernatural: "the hope which we all have concerning the resurrection of the dead" (V.75.2).  A "decent" internment of the deceased is necessary "for very humanity's sake", while the funeral sermon reflects the practice of "the heathen in funeral orations" (V.75.3).  

Pitting a "supernatural vision" over and against natural duties and delights, obligations and joys is neither Cranmerian nor Hookerian.  It is as these natural duties and delights, obligations and joys are caught up in the Church's life of prayer and sacrament, that they are 'unveiled' and so rightly perceived as participating in and orienting us towards the good, the true, and the just.  The idea of the Benedict Option's "strategic withdrawal" from the polity and wider culture into exclusive sectarian communities is a withdrawal from, to use Calvin's phrase, the theatre of God's glory. As For the Parish states:

our contemporary culture is already potentially divinizable.  That is, it is soil in the sense of being God's creation, and as a human construct the Spirit is naturally at work within it, albeit in ways that need discerning ... In mission, cultural expressions of all sorts from art and music to politics and transport are attended to and in every case illumined by the light of Wisdom to discern a Divine formation.

To say there is very little that is Cranmerian - or Hookerian - about 'The Cranmer Option' leaves us with the question of what might be an alternative with greater substance and coherence.  Thankfully there is evidence, particularly within the Church of England, of theological sources which hold the potential of renewing the Anglican vision, avoiding both a retreat into sectarianism or bland conformity with vapid secularism.  

John Hughes offered a superb account of 'Anglicanism as Integral Humanism' (2013), providing a robust theological rationale for both the "concrete material practices" of traditional Anglicanism (including "our policy of baptizing any children ... or marrying or burying anyone") and a "characteristically Anglican" piety which celebrates "all creation being in God and God being in all creation".  Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison in For the Parish (2010) identified "classic Anglicanism" with the parish and its "cultural practices" of "mediation and participation".  Davison's more recent Participation in God (2019) is a brilliant exploration of the theological foundation for traditional Anglican engagement with and presence in culture and society:

Participation lies at the heart of the account of Christian doctrine and metaphysics ... it also, and therefore, undergirds a parallel sense of Christian perception, habitation, and action in the world, and a theologically informed way of life.

Sarah Lawrence's A Rite on the Edge (2019) provided a convincing case for the renewal of the theology and practice of christening, against the congregationalist and sectarian tendencies of recent baptismal theology and liturgies, warning that "seeing this rite as baptism without christening is in danger of becoming what Roger Scruton calls dogma 'detached from the community'".  In Preaching Radical & Orthodox (2017, edited by Alison Milbank, John Hughes, and Arabella Milbank) we see "the vitality of a radical orthodoxy" given expression in contemporary (mostly Anglican) sermons which meaningfully address (rather than retreat from) contemporary culture:

Like St Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17, we interrogate our present-day culture to discern the buried desire for the unknown God ... Preaching to unbelievers in today's marketplace, we too must speak from within the space of the Word, collaborating to render it hospitable to others.

There are, in other words, theological sources for what would be a more authentically Cranmerian vision, rooted in parish, common prayer, and national church, gathering up the life of community and nation in prayer and sacrament, rather than aspiring to a sectarianism which celebrates "ghetto living".  'The Cranmer Option' bears the same relation to Cranmer as Dreher's 'Benedict Option' has to Benedict: which is to say, very little (as Alasdair MacIntyre has also stated).  As one Benedictine commentator said regarding the 'Benedict Option':

Mr. Dreher stresses the evils of modernity with little consideration of its possible goods. While it might be his belief that there are no good aspects of modern culture, this is a conclusion that would need rigorous argument (not to mention a new post-Christian anthropology). It has been the continuous experience of the Church that there is something good, true, and beautiful in every culture because of the inherent goodness of man, whom God has created in His image and likeness. 

It is in this confidence that Anglicanism should continue to minister to culture and society, rejecting the false securities of "ghetto living".  Sectarianism was the way of the Anabaptists and Pilgrim Fathers, not of Cranmer and Hooker.


  1. Having a fairly weak (or non-existant) parish system culture, Americans (in the states) tend to think of religion in the voluntary sense. So, American Anglicans tend to be closer to Dissent than we care to admit. But two points: You might bridge the gap with the so-called 'Cranmer Option' by considering semi-separatism (some Puritans) as well as Occasional Conformists (moderates among ejected clergy) in the Church of England both of whom straddled sectarian and national identities. Probably the best or richest example might be the Wesleyan 'Old Planners' who kept private society and chapels without abandoning the established Church. We've tried to model the Wesleyite Old-Plan in a very small continuing Anglican Church (UECNA) here (, and consequently we might might be ostensibly dubbed a kind of 'Ben-Opt'.

    Among historical Dissent, old Wesleyanism may have a unique relation to the Church, neither disagreeing in doctrine nor in worship or liturgy. It's a curious thing (and there are many statements by both Wesley's to the same effect) that methodism saw no fundamental difference with the Church unlike previous iterations of renewal; i.e., quoting the Minutes of 1744,

    "Q. Are we then dissenters? "
    "A. We are irregular: (1) by calling sinners to repentance in all places of God's dominion; (2) by frequently using extemporary prayer. Yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense which our law acknowledges; namely, persons who believe it is sinful to attend the service of the Church; for we do attend it at all opportunities. We will not, dare not separate from the Church, for the reasons given several years ago. We are not seceders, nor do we bear any resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles. The seceders laid the very foundation of their work in judging and condemning others. We laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They begin everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and ministers are. We begin everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves. And as we are not dissenters from the Church now, so we will do nothing willingly which tends to a separation from it. Therefore let every Assistant immediately so order his circuit that no preacher may be hindered from attending the Church more than two Sundays in the month. Never make light of going to Church, either by world or deed. But some say, 'Our own service is public worship'. Yes, in a sense-- but not such as supersedes the Church service. We never designed it should; we have an hundred times professed the contrary. It presupposes public prayer, like the sermons at the university. Therefore I have over and over advised, use no long-prayer, either before or after sermon. Therefore, I myself frequently use only a collect, and never enlarge in prayer, unless at intercession, or on a watch-night, or on some extraordinary occasion. If it were designed to be instead of Church service, it would be essentially defective. For it seldom has the four grand parts of public prayer: deprecation, petition, intercession, and thanksgiving. Neither is it, even on the Lord's day, concluded with the Lord's Supper. The hour for it on that day, unless where there is some peculiar reason for a variation, should be five in the morning, as well as five in the evening. Why should we make God's day the shortest of the seven? But if the people put ours in place of the Church service, we hurt them that stay with us and ruin them that leave us. For then they will go nowhere, but lounge the sabbath away, without any public worship at all. I advise therefore all the Methodists in England and Ireland who have been brought up in the Church, constantly to attend the service of the Church, at least every Lord's day." p. 326 Works V. X, Rack

  2. In other words, there are many other sources to go to within historical churchmanship other than full-blown anabaptism. I'd like to see a semi-separatist take especially from a historic or 18th c. methodistical pov .

    1. Many thanks for your response. I think I would begin by saying that by 'parish' I mean a local church embedded in a local a community, serving that community, with a congregation drawing from that community. In other words, 'parish' can function in a voluntary system (as has been the case for many Anglicans historically e.g Ireland, Canada, the American colonies).

      When it comes to a semi-separatist approach, I likewise have significant concerns, theological and pastoral. Having seen it function in various forms in parish churches, my fear is that it undermines the parish's presence and mission in the local community, as well as undermining the unity and peace of the congregation.

      This is not to say that there can be fellowships which sustain and renew the life of prayer and sacrament in the parish (which is, perhaps, what early Methodism could have evolved into).

    2. It's just different in America (USA). The extra mural Anglicans are less rooted in the community in a de facto way. They tend to be very small congregations with scant resources (as a result), and often times considerable 'commuter' attendance. The Episcopal Church USA has a better claim to the 'parish' practice you describe. Often times ECUSA are well-established, involved in the politics and welfare-institutions of the town, and are part of the fabric and history of the municipality itself. Where I live in California the ECUSA church buildings and congregations date back to early Pioneer years. However, ECUSA tends to be politically radical.

      In some cases, the societal approach is the best way to go for extra mural Anglicans. Yet, I don't see the above necessarily contrary-- societies can work alongside and within parishes, denominations, and national churches. Major complaint about so-called Cranmer Option is it begs examination of the semi-separatist or societal movements within our own tradition. And, in this case, something like 'old-plan' Wesleyanism has a serious claim, especially if scant or destitute in resources.

    3. yes.
      "This is not to say that there can be fellowships which sustain and renew the life of prayer and sacrament in the parish (which is, perhaps, what early Methodism could have evolved into)."

    4. I'd probably say the early methodists did that, originally, but evolved into a separatist movement. If they kept their first foundations-- the glory of the methodist people to leaven the church-- and NOT evolved, it would have been entirely different. This is what Wesley is trying to argue in the minutes and elsewhere. Again, thanks for posting my comments. In a time when blogging is less popular than videos, you have proven the art of essay writing is still alive and well. thanks again.

    5. That is very generous - thank you.

      The example of the early Methodists is something I will have to address on the blog.


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