Today we mark the martyrdom of Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer during the reign of “Bloody” Mary. These three luminaries were instrumental in capitalizing on Henry VIII’s divorce inclinations as an opportunity to bring the Reformation to England.
Cranmer is most widely remembered for his seminal work, the Book of Common Prayer, that put in one handy volume the didactic, prayer, and ordination rites of the English Church in English. The first edition was in 1549 and later revised in 1552. The 1662 edition (instituted after the restoration of the crown following the Commonwealth) became the standard by which later Prayer Books in various countries were derived. It is still the only official Prayer Book approved by Parliament in the Church of England.
Ridley and Latimer were more noted for the preaching; many of their sermons were collected and required to be read in two collections called the Homilies. Their theology was instrumental in the development of the 39 Articles of Religion to which all clergy ostensibly subscribe in the Church of England, and is still a major part of Episcopal clergy preparation, at least as a historical source of Anglican theology.
It is “meet and right” that we should rejoice for their witness and legacy, which was instrumental in forming hundreds of years of English-speaking Christians, even of other denominations, around the world. Were it not for these three men, the English Church and her offshoots would be very different creatures today!
Sadly, their story of martyrdom also outlines the tenuousness of aligning Church and state too closely. The Church of England was the established Church of the realm. Thus, whatever gains for a more Reformed life of faith during Henry VIII and Edward VI were quickly reversed under Mary I who sought to return the Church of England to Roman hegemony. (Lady Jane Grey reigned for a mere 9 days, thus her influence on the Church is basically nil.) It was Cranmer’s erastian convictions that caused him to flounder, first recanting his work, then recanting his recantation.
Contemporary conflations of “God and Country” sentiment are problematic. The only theocracy that we should endorse is the Kingdom of God, fully consummated at the return of Christ. Temporal advocates of America, or some other nation, being a “Christian country” are pipe dreams.
Invariably, fallen humanity is adept at corrupting institutions meant to carry on the witness of Christ. It is a struggle that will remain with the Church until our Lord returns. So why compound the problem by politicizing the Church, linking it with the state, which (however well-intentioned its leaders may be at a given time in history) can never bring about God’s will. At their best, states can allow for a general peace and prosperity by securing the freedoms of all within their borders without regard to race, gender, or creed. At their worst, they co-opt the things of God to enslave the many, enrich the few, and suppress the freedom of all to demonic systems of governance.
The Church needs to maintain her prophetic role in society, and that is done best without any temporal head being accorded more honor than due by office, and no political leader being free from remonstrance by the Church when they inflict immoral policies and exhibit immoral character. To what degree individual Christians feel free to participate in the political sphere is a matter of vocation and conscience. But never should the Church bow to the whims of governments that demand infidelity to God, nor should Christians (especially clergy!) espouse particular leaders or particular policies as a “mandate from heaven”. The Church and and should only speak to the moral qualities of leaders and laws, to what degree they align with Scripture, and leave decisions to vote for particular persons or specific policies to individual conviction.
We live in a delicate dance as people of faith in a fallen world. We are to leave at peace insofar as it depends on us. So checking our own hearts is necessary. The slope to confusing Christ with Caesar is slippery. We have no king but Jesus. We have no Messiah but the Son of God. Any earthly leaders who try to claim that mantle will fail us and most likely betray us. Earthly power games are not what we are about. For the sake of the Church, may we heed the warning we see in the lives these three martyrs and keep Church and state separate.
Keep us, O Lord, constant in faith and zealous in witness, that, like your servants Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer, we may live in your fear, die in your favor, and rest in your peace; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.