When words fail

Over this period of Lent and now lock down, I have had several books on the go and my head has been swirling with thoughts about “things too wonderful for me” (Job 42:3).  One of the books I have been enjoying is Rowan Williams’, Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way (2019).  Further on I will discuss his chapter on Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), an Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the Book of Common Prayer.  But first I will set the scene by considering the difficulty of expressing holy things, particularly as we find ourselves here in Holy Week.

As anyone who gropes with the words to convey in conversation or in written form the things of God will know, you can never quite say enough or get it quite right.  There is always something more to be said, some added detail or nuance.  And we can be sure that not even the four Gospels testify to the full truth.  The Gospel of St John ends in this manner: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.  But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:24-25).

Furthermore, each one of the three-person Godhead is full of paradoxes. How could anyone so glorious, so majestic and so mighty be captured in words?  As God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).  In the Book of Job, Job and his three friends struggle to fathom God, but in the end all four of them are put to shame.  In the last chapter of Job, God engages him in conversation and Job says, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Hear, and I will speak,… I had heard you by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).

Famous theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), who wrote many heavy, barely penetrable and esoteric pieces about the faith was once asked to sum up his five-volume Church Dogmatics and the best he could do was to say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Over the centuries, many people have criticised Thomas Cranmer for his “repetitive” and “clunky” language in the Book of Common Prayer.  When Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury he was asked to preach a sermon on the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of Cranmer.  In his sermon he offered a powerful defence of the man who had done so much to create an English version of the Reformation.  As Wikipedia states, “he was responsible for establishing the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the reformed Church of England.”  He published the first church service in the English language, now part of the Book of Common Prayer.

In his chapter on Cranmer, Williams writes, “It was once fashionable to decry Cranmer’s liturgical rhetoric as overblown and repetitive.  People often held up as typical the echoing sequences of which he and his colleagues were so fond. ‘A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction,’ and ‘succour, help and comfort all that are in danger, necessity and tribulation… and, of course, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

Cranmer served as Archbishop of Canterbury under three monarchs, but when the Roman Catholic Mary I acceded to the throne he was arrested and tried for treason.  Imprisoned for two years and harassed by Church authorities, Cranmer recanted several times.  Williams explains this wavering, saying, “The habit of mind which always circled and hovered, tested words and set them to work against each other in fruitful tension and sought to embody in words the reality of penitence and self-scrutiny, condemned him, especially in the midst of isolation, confusion, threats and seduction of spirit, to a long agony, the end of which, came only minutes before his last hurrying, stumbling walk through the rain to the stake.”  In typical fashion, Cranmer had written “two contradictory versions of his final confession.” The one he handed over at the end represented himself to martyrdom as an adherent to the Reformed, rather than the Catholic tradition.

As God’s word is made not merely of words as we know them, but of ultimate reality, death can serve as his final word.  It served as a final word for martyrdom for Cranmer and as a final word for martyrdom on Good Friday for Christ at Calvary.


Holy Bible, NRSV.
Thomas Cranmer-Wikipedia
Rowan Williams, 2019, “Thomas Cranmer 1489-1556 ‘The word of God is not bound’, in Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian Way. London: SPCK.

Kim Regan

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