Cranmer’s Keys

Thomas Cranmer's Theology of Absolution and Its Ties to Lutheranism

Within Anglicanism, much debate and controversy has surrounded the topic of confession and absolution, particularly since the Oxford Movement, and it is one of the few areas where the Prayer Book and the 39 Articles do not explain the issue plainly. Lately, this has been the topic of my own personal research, and I began with Thomas Cranmer whose reasonings behind what went into the Books of Common Prayer can at best, be quite obtuse. What I found regarding absolution surprised me: it appears that Cranmer held a much more Lutheran conception of the “power of the keys” than I had initially thought, yet at the same time he develops a uniquely Anglican theology around this, particularly when it comes to confession.

The primary source of all this comes from the catechism[1] released by Abp. Cranmer in 1548. A translation of a catechism released in Nuremberg for the education of children, it became quite popular, selling through several editions over the next three years. Cranmer himself claims to have translated it, in addition to having written the preface, and it bears the official seal of the Church of England. While the catechism does not appear overtly Lutheran in most ways, regarding the power of the keys, it most certainly does, containing an entire sermon dedicated to them, with quotes such as:

“And whatsoever they [ministers] do to you, as when they baptize you, when they give you absolution, and distribute to you the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, these you shall so esteem, as if Christ himself in his own person, did speak, and minister unto you.”


“But he hath given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the authority to forgive sin, to the ministers of the church. Wherefore let him that is a sinner, go to one of them, let him knowledge and confess his synne, and pray him, that according to God’s commandments, he will give him absolution and comfort him with ye worde of grace and forgiveness of his sins.”

This theme is reiterated over and over, giving a particularly Lutheran slant on how we are to interpret Cranmer’s view of the power of the keys.

“But Young High Churchman,” you say, “Doesn’t Cranmer’s theology shift considerably between 1548 and 1552? Does he not become quite Reformed in that time? And what of the movement away from auricular confession between the two prayer books? And the new catechism in 1553?”

I have become less and less convinced that Cranmer’s personal theology shifts in any major way during the period, and that he employs the changes we see to prevent theological abuse, rather than demonstrate shifts in doctrine. This applies particularly to the 1548 catechism, as Cranmer defends it in both A Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine (1550) and his An Answer (1551). At the same time, the catechism goes through several editions, and while slight adjustments occur within the section on the Eucharist,[2] none can be found regarding the Keys. On top of all that, during his Examination at Oxford in September of 1555, he takes ownership of the catechism, yet does not make any attempt to distance himself from its contents, as he does regarding other past beliefs.

As far as the changes between the 1549 BCP and the 1552, I believe them to be less substantial than some might think. Let’s begin with the exhortations. In the 1549 it is written:

“And if there be any of you, whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, lacking comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discrete and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confess and open his synne and grief secretly, that he may receive suche ghostly counsaill, advyse, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that of us (as of the ministers of GOD and of the church) he may receive comfort and absolution, to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness: requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession, not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the Priest: nor those also which think needfull or convenient, for the quietness of their own consciences, particularly to open their sins to the Priest: to be offended with them that are satisfied, with their humble confession to GOD, and the general confession to the church.”

While in the 1552 this is reduced to:

“Therefore if there be any of you which by the means afore said cannot quiet his own conscience, but requireth further comfort or counsel; then let him come to me, or some other discreet and learned minister of God’s word, and open his grief, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, as his conscience may be relieved; and that by the ministry of God’s word he may receive comfort and the benefit of absolution, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.”

There are two distinct changes occurring here. Obviously, the insistence upon no offense being taken regarding the type of confession received has been removed in the 52, but I believe this was done primarily for brevity, as well as to encourage those entrenched in mandatory auricular confession to seek public confession, something that I will address later on.

The second, and most contested change, occurs with the removal of the mention of priests, as well as the introduction of the phrase “by the ministry of God’s word” in regard to receiving comfort and the benefit of absolution. Particularly since the Oxford Movement, those of a less Anglo-Catholic persuasion have argued quite vigorously[3] that this indicates a more Reformed turn, and that the ministry of God’s word and absolution therein refers to a basic reminder of the Gospel and its promises.

I would argue that this is not the case, simply because the language Cranmer uses here corresponds perfectly to the language he utilizes in the 1548 catechism. Take for example the “minister of God’s word.” This just means a priest, as the catechism states that these ministers must not only be ordained by the laying on of hands and the giving of the Holy Spirit, but that the passage from Luke 20 regarding the retention and remission of sins must be said as well, all of which occurs within the Ordinal for priests. As for the “ministry of God’s word” the catechism makes quite clear that this includes not only the preaching of the Gospel, but the forgiveness of sins via absolution. It should also be noted that the language regarding the relieving of the conscience, etc., is mirrored in the Augsburg Confession, as well as the 1548 catechism.

The other primary shift surrounding absolution that occurs between the 1549 and the 1552 BCP occurs in the rubric within Visitation of the Sick. In 1549, just prior to the absolution, it contains, “and the same form of absolution shall be used in all private confessions,” while this has been removed from the 1552. First, it should be taken into account that the form of absolution below here follows quite closely to the one given in Luther’s Small Catechism. Secondly, I don’t believe that the alteration of the rubric contains any radical shift in doctrine, but rather happened to emphasize Anglican confessional theology, not absolution itself.

As to the official “short catechism” released in 1553 with the approval of the King and written in large part by Thomas Cranmer, it is considerably shorter and more concise than the 1548, yet it still contains this phrase:

“To this church belong the keys, wherewith heaven is locked and unlocked: for that is done by the ministration of the word: whereunto properly appertaineth the power to bind and loose: to hold for guilty, and forgive sins.”[4]

Note that “ministration of the word” appears again, and in many ways that brief passage distills all of the sermon on the keys from the 1548 catechism into a single paragraph.

I will not spend a considerable amount of time investigating all of the ways Cranmer seems to lean towards Augsburg. For that, go read The Agreement of the Lutheran Churches with the Church of England by R. Wilkin (1715) or The Life of Archbishop Cranmer by Henry Todd (1833), both of which go into great detail as to Cranmer’s relationship with the Lutherans. A cursory glance of the 42 Articles next to the Augsburg Confession reveals that many of the Articles were lifted wholesale from said Confession. On top of all of that, we should not forget that Cranmer had paid for Phillip Melanchthon, with whom he held close correspondence, to come teach in England around the time of King Edward’s death. Regarding Cranmer, then, as a mere hybrid of Bullinger and Bucer, would be a grave mistake.

All of this leaves us in a strange place. If we are to believe that Cranmer’s understanding of absolution is of the more authoritative, rather than declarative kind, then why doesn’t confession hold as high a place within Anglicanism as it does within Lutheranism?  Why do we have no mandate for private confession? Does Cranmer believe less in the efficacy or necessity of priestly absolution?

I believe not, and that the answers lie within Cranmer’s theology of Common Prayer. Again and again we see him decrying a Catholicism that he believed to have become quite private: private devotions during the Mass, private Masses, only the priest consuming the Eucharist, corporate prayer relegated to the space of the monastery. Cranmer inverts all of this with Common Prayer. The liturgy, now in the vernacular, becomes oriented around the idea of an entire community continually giving themselves in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Confession gets the same treatment. Note this line from the exhortation of the 1549 BCP, “with their humble confession to GOD, and the general confession to the church,” as well as before the general confession of the 1552, “Draw near and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort: make your humble confession to almighty god, before this congregation here gathered together in his holy name.”[5] For Cranmer, the general confession generates a deeper, more sincere confession in that it is bound to not only the parish community, but to a parish that is about to participate in the Body and Blood of Christ. This is why the priest gives the exhortation just prior: it serves as a reminder of the deep consequences to be had when not truly confessing one’s sin. This, paired with Cranmer’s theology of absolution, paints a beautiful reminder of the Catholicity of Anglicanism and the unity of Christ’s Body.

[1] Catechismus, that is to say, a shorte instruction into Christian religion for the synguler commoditie and profyte of childre[n] and yong people. Set forth by the mooste reuerende father in God Thomas Archbyshop of Canterbury, primate of all England and Metropolitane, 1548

[2] Cranmer’s Forgotten Catechism, D.G. Selwyn, 1964

[3] For example, The Tutorial Prayer Book

[4] A Short Catechism or Plain Instruction, Containing the Sum of Christian Learning. Pg. 5, 1553

[5] Note that in later editions the word “and” was inserted prior to “make.” We’ll never know, but certainly raises some interesting questions.