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Thomas Cranmer

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4

Aims

To consider what the attributes of heroism are.

Preparation and materials

Have available the theme tune from the film Tomorrow Never Dies, sung by Sheryl Crow, and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.

Assembly

  1. If you were to imagine a 'hero', how might you describe him or her?

  2. In Hollywood films, heroes are generally tougher than a tank, though with a sentimental side that can occasionally be glimpsed through their tough outer skin. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 – he's literally inhuman, bullets just bounce off him, but there are one or two glimmers of almost human emotion in his cybernetic eyes. 

    Think of James Bond – the actors might change, the technology get ever more unbelievably sophisticated, but the personality remains the same: shaken but not stirred, ultra cool, impervious to hurt. In the early James Bond films, the female characters were all fairly formulaic, but now even they, like Bond, are beautiful but ultra-tough. Think of the character played by Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies. She can karate chop her way through a bunch of snarling thugs without even a trace of sweat on her beautiful brow.

  3. The trouble is that the world is never like the worlds that Hollywood conjures up – and neither are real people. Real people are easily hurt, both physically and emotionally, by other people. Real people, like me and you, are never truly cool; we are often shaken and stirred.

  4. The person we are going to focus on today is, in almost every way, the complete opposite of a fantasy character like James Bond. His name is Thomas Cranmer and he was born 500 years ago.

  5. Thomas was quiet and scholarly by nature and, after university, became a priest. Almost by chance, he became a civil servant in the court of King Henry VIII. Unfortunately, while Hollywood heroes seldom resemble real human beings, Henry VIII, in many ways, exactly resembled one of the evil villains in a Bond film: selfish, brutal, vindictive, erratic  . . .   he could almost be a model for the megalomaniac villain Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies. If you crossed him, then you ended up very dead.

    Cranmer, as Henry's servant, did his best to please his master. He was a born civil servant – efficient, quiet, never confrontational. He was so good at dealing with the unpredictable king, smoothing his ruffled feathers, that Henry promoted him to Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Cranmer was not some unthinking minion of Henry's. 

    This was a time when there was great debate in the Church – the period when Protestant ideas came into conflict with the more traditional Roman Catholic ideas. People were looking for new ways of expressing their faith. Henry wanted to break with the Church of Rome – not so much because he thought that the Church's ideas were wrong, but because he wanted to get rid of his wife and marry his mistress.

    Cranmer, like a good civil servant, did his best to help, yet, at the same time, his own ideas about religious belief were gradually changing. He came round to thinking that maybe the ideas of the great Protestant thinker Martin Luther were right after all. He did his best – unostentatiously, never making a big issue of it – to support people who wanted to change the Church.

    After Henry died, Cranmer became more open about his beliefs and critical of Roman Catholic teaching. He supported the translation of the Bible into English and – his most enduring work – was responsible for writing a prayer book for the Church. Before long, however, the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne. 

    Cranmer was now in serious trouble! What should he do? Should he stand up for his beliefs? Could he act like Bond – defiant, unflinching? 

    Unfortunately, the answer was 'No'. Well, could you? After all, he was only human – just like you and I. He was arrested, stripped of his property and offices, humiliated in mock show trials. He was forced to watch his friends being burned to death. One of them, Nicholas Ridley, had relatives who tried to throw fuel on the fire to make his death quick, but it had the opposite effect. Cranmer, who was watching, was deeply shaken. In the end, he broke. There are records of him weeping in his cell. He couldn't take any more. He was weak, so he signed a 'recantation' – a statement that denied everything he really believed in.

    The authorities were really pleased. They had got what they wanted, but they still went ahead and condemned him to death. Cranmer was broken  . . .   and yet  . . .  and yet  . . .  in the last few hours, he managed to pull himself together and he died (almost!) like a Bond-style hero. Before he died, he was meant to give a speech to the crowd accepting that he had been wrong, but, to the authorities' surprise, he started to shout out his real opinions. 

    He was knocked down, tied up and dragged to the stake. There, as the fire took hold, he held out his right hand, the hand that he had written his recantation with, in the flames – a sign that he knew he had been weak when he signed it. Everyone was amazed that, in this final moment, the quiet, scholarly civil servant could behave with such strength.

  6. Which person do you think you most resemble? The cool, self-contained, invulnerable James Bond or the weak, dithering, but, in the end, just about heroic, Thomas Cranmer? Would you have been as brave as him? 

Time for reflection

Let's be quiet for a moment. Think about what you might want to be like – tough, maybe, or attractive or cool or sophisticated  . . .  perhaps all of these things?

Pause.

Then, take some time to think about what you are really like. Someone who depends on other people and is easily hurt by rejection? Someone who makes mistakes and is laughed at by others? Someone who is unsure about your own value?

Be quiet and think about where you might find strength at times when you feel absolutely weak and useless. Where did Cranmer find that strength?

Pause.

Finally, let's think about those people we know of in today's world who are in prison, alone and suffering for their beliefs.

Pause.

Follow-up activity

  1. Cranmer is famous today for the beauty of his language. Compare the language of a prayer or other passage from Cranmer's prayer book with its modern equivalent. Discuss which of them is the more attractive. Why? Alternatively, talk about two equivalent passages from different versions of the Bible. Though the King James version is considerably later than Cranmer's prayer book, the issues are the same.

  2. Create a Bond-style film poster for a Hollywood epic on the life of Cranmer. Perhaps Tomorrow Cranmer Dies might be an appropriate title? 

Music

‘Tomorrow never dies’, by Sheryl Crow

Publication date: July 2014   (Vol.16 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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