Stained glass windowOur journey continues with the founding of the Church of England in the 16th century.

A revolutionary time

This was a revolutionary time for the church because of its emphasis on direct access to the word of God. Not that Christians hadn't translated the Bible into local languages before - John Wycliffe's work in the 14th century is a famous example. But to make a vernacular version of the Scriptures widely available was a distinctively Protestant thing to do, and the results changed the world!

In one of his first moves as a reform-minded Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer persuaded King Henry VIII to produce and distribute an English Bible to all the parishes in the land. Eventually, with the blessing of Henry's successor, Edward VI, he produced the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552), which contained the liturgy in English and mandated the systematic reading of Scripture in the English language.

Imagine what it was like. In a world where printed books were still quite scarce, suddenly you would have had access to an English Bible in your local parish church. Anyone able to read it could do so at any time of day. Passages of Scripture that had perhaps never been heard before were now encountered for the first time.

But also picture what it would mean to participate for the first time in a worship service entirely in your own native tongue, even the most mysterious parts like celebrating Holy Communion. 'All things shall be read and sung in the church in the English tongue,' Cranmer insisted, 'to the end that the congregation may be thereby edified.'

What was Cranmer thinking?

Well, for one thing, the Archbishop was uncovering a fundamental aspect of the gospel that had been obscured in the late medieval church: the unconditional love of God. And to bring that message to the forefront with clarity and conviction, he insisted that the written record of this message had to play a more prominent role in the everyday life of believers. Everyone should know what the Scriptures had to say, because they were 'a sure, a constant and a perpetual instrument of salvation'.

Everyone should know what the Scriptures had to say, because they were 'a sure, a constant and a perpetual instrument of salvation'

They were God's way of communicating the mission, promises and offering of Christ to the world, and they were also God's way of turning human hearts to himself. Cranmer actually thought the words of Holy Scripture had 'a power to convert [our souls] through God's promise'. Just hearing the words, with understanding, could make a person blessed and holy! So, this was no ordinary book!

Reading the bible

Bible and handCranmer also thought carefully about the context in which the bible was read. He imagined what it would be like to gather people around this book on a routine basis - day to day, or at least Sunday by Sunday, and keep the encounter fresh and transformative. That would take some work because people were not accustomed to hearing large portions of the Scriptures read. How would this be done effectively in a worship service?

He had to think carefully about the relationship between reading, preaching, listening, prayer and sacraments. Cranmer revised many of the existing patterns of English worship, but also studied ancient liturgies and borrowed from continental reformers. His major project, and the quintessential fresh expression of the Anglican tradition, was a new liturgy that would lift the hearts of entire congregations in a 'Godly and decent order' of worship.

Theology through embodied participation

Cranmer's liturgy aimed to communicate theology through embodied participation. The words may be for the head and heart, but the rubrics are for the body - individually and as a community. The sequence of repentance, grace and faith in Christ, and the invitation to fellowship in the Spirit of the triune God, are all brought together in actions of remembrance and gratitude, seeing and tasting.

As participants experience God's presence, especially in Holy Communion, they enact the story of what God has done for and in each person. The reception of the bread and wine becomes a response to the words of 'institution', which Jesus had spoken at the Last Supper. The really exciting miracle is that the communicants now become what they are eating - the Body of Christ! The point here is that Cranmer showed how to synchronise words and actions in a way that was intelligible and transformative for the whole gathering of God's people.

A new order of worship

He put together a new order of worship that demonstrated the fullness of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and what God was doing invisibly in the hearts and minds of all who took part. That is what we call a sacramental action. It was not a new idea - Christians had been expressing their theology in liturgical form for centuries. But Cranmer reminds us that the church cannot exist apart from this holistic response.

In our worship we first encounter the transformative presence of the Trinity, with Christ in word and sacrament, and the Spirit in the fellowship of the Body. Here we remember and rehearse the story of God. Here we respond to the invitation to become his disciples. What does this mean for fresh expressions? If we follow Cranmer's lead, a fresh expression of the church will be informed by this choreography. It is here, in the words of NT Wright, that we worship God 'for all he's worth; and the next result will be mission'.

Mission a major concern

Mission was the other major concern in Cranmer's agenda. He wanted to make the Book of Common Prayer into what the Windsor Report (2004) calls a 'vehicle of the Spirit's work in energising the Church in its mission'. After hearing the living Word in the written word, responding as members of Christ's Body and feeding on his spiritual food, we are sent into the world in peace, with the strength and courage to love and serve the Lord 'with gladness and singleness of heart'.

The people increasingly embodied the teachings they heard, both as individuals and as a society

It is remarkable that this vision has been realised across a 'diversity of countries, times, and men's manners' (Article 34). Theologian Ashley Null suggests that making this vision real began with 'the systematic proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament'. Through these 'instruments', the Holy Spirit transformed an entire nation in the 16th century. The people increasingly embodied the teachings they heard, both as individuals and as a society.

We see in Cranmer's reformation project the sort of nuts and bolts, the essential ingredients and processes, required to carry individuals, communities and the entire nation across the gospel threshold. In so doing, a scripture-based church became a mission-shaped church. This is what Cranmer was thinking when he composed a new liturgy, and this is how Anglicans continue to think about worship whenever God calls them to translate the story in new mission situations.