Thomas Cranmer: Using the Bible to Evangelize the Nation (The Latimer Trust)
By Peter Adam
It is not often you get a book providing a succinct overview of 1500 years of church history, thoughtful theological reflection, ministry strategy and personal challenge – all in less than 50 pages! Peter Adam’s Latimer Trust study is just that and more.
Dr Adam poses a series of simple questions and proceeds to answer them using his skills as historian, theologian and pastor. He traces the history of the evangelisation of England before the Reformation, examining especially the vision and work of Thomas Cranmer as he used his position as Archbishop of Canterbury to evangelise and transform the nation in his day. The final challenge is to think about whether the principles identified might guide us still in the continuing need to evangelise our own nation today.
The short but stimulating study addresses three simple questions:
How was England evangelised before the Reformation? Essentially this was through migration as the gospel came from Europe to England as the word spread (Acts 1:8). It was very much a “from below” movement as believers shared their faith wherever they went. Monasteries, local parishes and itinerant evangelists/preaching orders were significant methods in this evangelisation.
“…evangelism is a continuing task and constant responsibility”
However, despite the extensive growth and impact of the gospel upon England, by the time of the Reformation the nation still needed evangelising. Peter astutely acknowledges that “evangelism is a continuing task and constant responsibility” (p7).
Churches, like individuals, “have a natural tendency to drift from the gospel” and to neglect evangelism. Paganism may easily occur because of invasion, persecution, nominalism, syncretism or simple neglect and distraction by the world (p7). Every generation therefore needs to clarify the true gospel, to return to that gospel once delivered, reform its practices to God’s word and evangelise the age in which they live.
What was Cranmer’s strategy for evangelising the nation in his day? Grounded in Cranmer’s deep convictions about the power of the word of God, with its self-revelation of God and the gospel of salvation, he wanted the Bible “read aloud, available to be read, studied, preached, prayed” in every church, and from every church, in the nation (p11). He believed the Scriptures alone, by the agency of the Spirit, were God’s effective means of grace to transform a nation (p11). This was a program for evangelism and edification.
Cranmer set about implementation by provision of the Book of Common Prayer with a systematic, comprehensive and sequential reading of Scripture (in the vernacular English, not Latin), by training of ministers in how to teach, by homilies modelling that teaching, by the Bible being prayed aloud in daily services to inform the prayers of everyday people, and much more.
Is Cranmer’s strategy one we ought to use today?
While Peter Adam recognises the danger of merely “reduplicating past culturally conditioned methodologies” (p1), he rightly observes that a “conversation with the past, especially such a significant past, will enrich and enlarge our thinking, our imagining, our prayers and our actions, as we work to evangelise our nations today” (p1).
Cranmer’s principles and the theological reasoning behind his strategy, drawn from Scripture, are as relevant today as then. His emphasis upon the place and power of the word of God – in our evangelism in particular – challenges us when we so easily rely upon the latest courses, communication skills, cross-cultural awareness, apologetics, technology and new programs rather than prayer and the word.
Dr Adam offers a series of searching questions about evangelism in our age (p46) that warrant careful reflection. Following Cranmer, he offers a vision for what we still need – “well-trained godly and able ministers, well taught in the Bible, with gospel clarity and faithful perseverance, willing to serve and to suffer, who know they must give an account to God for their life and ministry… and godly, obedient people, confident in their salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, and full of love of neighbour and all good works” (p45). May it be so in all our churches!
I highly recommend this stimulating Latimer Study.
The Rev Phil Wheeler is director of Evangelism and New Churches.