Vol I No. 7

CRANMER’S GNADENSTUHL Continuity and Change in the Liturgy

The Revd. Fr Gavin Dunbar

Among the rare survivals of English medieval art is an altarpiece in painted and gilded alabaster, made in England for the flourishing export market in such things, in the early or middle of the 15th century. Purchased in Munich in the 1830s by Lord Swansea, it is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Four of its five panels depict the joys and glories of Mary – the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Ascension, and the Assumption. At the center, however, is the image of the crucified Christ, much popularized by the Franciscans from the 13th century onwards. As in other crucifixes, the Son hangs crucified, naked except for his loincloth, his head bowed in death, and there are angels with chalices to catch the precious blood that pours from his sacred wounds. But the cross upon which Christ hangs itself hangs from between the knees of the much larger figure of God the Father – bearded, robed, enthroned in majesty, his hands raised in blessing and flanked by angels blowing trumpets. In its current state, there is no representation of the Holy Spirit, though in other versions of this image he often appears, hovering over the Son or perched upon the wood of the cross. Yet the dove’s absence is not uncommon in such images, and even when it does appear, it is inconspicuous.

This type of image was dubbed the Gnadenstuhl (Throne of Mercy) by 19th century German art historians, in an allusion to Hebrews 4:16: “let us come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need”. But properly speaking it is an image of the Trinity, in which the Son is represented as the crucified one. It first appears late in the 13th century as an expression of “a new theological emphasis on the outworkings of the eternal Trinity in the life and death of Jesus”, and is widespread from the 14th century through the Catholic Counter-reformation. Celebrated examples are Masaccio’s early 15th century fresco in Santa Maria Novella, in which he made revolutionary use of Brunelleschian perspective; and Durer’s early 16th century Landauer Altarpiece, now in Vienna. But there are no traces of the influence of the Italian Renaissance on the Swansea Altarpiece, which is thoroughly Gothic. Later versions develop the theme of the Father’s pity for his Son (perhaps under the influence of the Pietà or Virgin of Pity), but that is not the case here. As Sarah Coakley comments, “the emphasis here… is not on an empathetic Father, but on a stern and merciful acceptance by him of the ‘satisfaction’ for sin effected in Christ’s death. And all the drama of … the Gnadenstuhl resides in the relationship of the Father and the Son: the Spirit, we might say, is virtually redundant to theme…. Hence it is not surprising to find the Spirit actually missing from the Gnadenstuhl visual type on occasion”. Is the Father accepting the sacrifice of his Son, or is he showing or even giving his Son to the faithful viewer, as one whose sacrifice has already been accepted? This showing or giving of his crucified Son has an obvious reference to its sacramental realization in the Mass, which was celebrated before this image. By the miracle of transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the crucified Son is made present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine, that it may be offered as the sacrifice of the mass.

Continuity and Change in the English Reformation

In the 16th century, this visual image, the Gnadenstuhl, disappears from English churches and altars, only to reappear in verbal form, still in a eucharistic context, in Cranmer’s Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion (1549, 1552, and its later revivals in 1559 and 1662). 

An objection needs to be addressed before proceeding further. There was a time when Anglo-Catholics promoted a romantic and aesthetic vision of the English reformation, as a “via media” between Geneva and Rome. Making ingenious use of the Ornaments Rubric and the furnishings of Elizabeth I’s chapel, they painted the English reformation as a kind of moderate catholic reform that (in original intention at least) was quite unlike the more ‘extreme’ continental reformation – and rather like the medievalizing ritualism that they themselves promoted. Though this view has a lingering popular influence in Anglican mythology and an undoubted effect on Anglican liturgy, it now commands little support among historians. The English reformation was not without its distinctive quirks of order, polity, and liturgy, quirks whose latent potential was to be taken up by the Catholic revival of the 19th century, but in all essential points of doctrine, the English church of the 16th century was altogether committed to the theological consensus of Protestant, and especially Reformed, orthodoxy, held in common by the reformed churches of the continent as well as the British isles. Anglicanism as a distinct strain of Christianity was not to emerge until the later 17th century.

This being so, one must also acknowledge a conservative aspect to the Protestant reformation, including its English version. This is most evident in the Reformers’ retention of the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of catholic antiquity, an adherence reflected in the frequent use of the three ancient Creeds in Cranmer’s liturgy: the Apostles’ Creed, said twice daily; the Nicene Creed, at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the Athanasian Creed so on thirteen occasions throughout the year. This conservativism also appears in the fact that their distinctive doctrines are revisions of the three great pillars of the medieval doctrine of grace, justification, predestination, and the sacraments. As Oliver O’Donovan has put it, in the doctrine of the sacraments, rather than rethinking it from the ground up, “they defended as much of the developed scholastic doctrine of the sacraments as they could, and altered it only when they felt they had to”. In the Church of England this general reformed conservativism was reinforced by the desire of the English reformers to maintain continuity with the recent past in things inessential – which largely accounts for the quirks of order, polity, and liturgy, which the catholic revival of the 19th century was to run with. 

In short, one does not have to adopt a mythological version of Anglican history to acknowledge that in the English reformation there are striking elements of continuity with the late medieval church, as well as striking elements of change. The disappearance of the Gnadenstuhl in its visual form, and its reappearance in a verbal form, is another significant instance of this phenomenon.

Cranmer’s Gnadenstuhl

Other reformed liturgies scrapped the Roman Eucharistic prayer, the Gelasian canon, whose language of sacrifice and offering was deeply associated with the objectionable late medieval doctrines of transubstantiation and the sacrifices of masses, “in the which” as Article XXXI puts it, “it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt”. Cranmer, however, took a different approach – retaining the language of sacrifice and offering, but recasting it in accord with the emerging reformed consensus of Eucharistic doctrine, and the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The sacrificial language no longer refers to the ritual action centered on the elements, but rather to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin which he offered on the cross, now commemorated (and not offered again) in the Lord’s Supper, and to the Church’s continual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for his sacrifice, which it offers in the Lord’s Supper.

Thus the very same elements that we find in the medieval image of the Gnadenstuhl are present also in Cranmer’s Eucharistic prayer: the crucified Son, the stern and merciful acceptance of his sacrifice by the Father in satisfaction for sin – or rather, the Father’s showing or giving of the Son in all the benefits of his sacrificial death to those partaking of the Sacrament. Cranmer’s Eucharistic prayer corresponds to the Gnadenstuhl even in the low visibility of the Spirit. My contention of this paper is that the very Gnadenstuhl that disappeared from English churches in the iconoclasm of the mid-16th century in fact lived on and flourished; but now in verbal form in the Cranmerian Order of Administration of the Lord’s Supper – with, of course, this critical difference, that it has been extracted from the context of medieval Eucharistic theology and practice and replaced within the context of reformed Eucharistic theology and practice. The Father gives the Son, not so that we may offer him anew in the mass, but so that we may receive him in all the virtue of his once-for-all and already accepted sacrifice for sin. 

In Cranmer’s rite, therefore, the verbal Gnadenstuhl comes first, with an acknowledgment of the cross as the work of the Father and the Son, of the eucharist as its memorial, a prayer for faithful receivers of the Sacrament to partake in Christ’s body and blood, and the institution narrative:

ALMIGHTY God oure heavenly father, whiche of thy tender mercye dyddest geve thine onely sonne Jesus Christ, to suffre death upon the crosse for our redempcion, who made there (by hys one oblacion of hymselfe once offered) a full, perfecte and sufficiente sacrifice, oblacion, and satisfaccion, for the synnes of the whole worlde, and dyd institute, and in hys holye Gospell commaund us to continue, a perpetuall memorye of that his precious death, untyll hys comynge agayne: Heare us O mercyefull father wee beeseche thee; and graunt that wee, receyving these thy creatures of bread and wyne, accordinge to thy sonne our Savioure Jesus Christ’s holy institucion, in remembraunce of his death and passion, maye be partakers of his most blessed body and bloud: who, in the same night that he was betrayed, tooke bread, and when he had geven thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his Disciples, sayinge: Take, eate, this is my bodye which is geven for you. Doe this in remembraunce of me. Lykewyse after supper he tooke the cup, and when he had geven thankes, he gave it to them, sayinge: Drink ye all of this, for this is my bloud of the new Testament, whiche is shed for you and for many, for remission of synnes: do this as oft as ye shah drinke it in remembraunce of me.

After which, in prompt obedience to the Lord’s command, the elements are immediately delivered to the communicants in this form:

Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving.

Drinke this in remembraunce that Christ’s bloude was shed for thee, and be thankefull.

They are received “in remembrance” because Christ died already, and once for all. Nonetheless, the recipients are to “feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving”, because he is present now and in the future. This note of thankful faith informs the prayers that follow communion; only here, only after receiving the sacramental elements, does the rite provide for the offering of the Church’s sacrifice, which is a self-offering in praise and thanksgiving for the benefits of Christ’s all-sufficient satisfaction for sin:

O LORDE and heavenly father, we thy humble servaunts entierly desire thy fatherly goodnes, mercifully to accept this our Sacrifice of prayse and thanksgeving: most humbly beseching thee to graunt, that by the merites and death of thy sonne Jesus Christe, and through fayth in his bloud, we and al thy whole church may obtayne remission of oure synnes, and all other benefytes of his Passion. And here we offre and presente unto thee, O lord, our selfes, our soules, and bodies, to be a reasonable holy, and lively Sacrifice unto thee: humbly beseching thee that al we which be partakers of this holy Communion, maye bee fulfylled with thy grace and heavenhy benediccion. And although we bee unworthy throughe oure manifolde sinnes to offre unto thee any Sacrifice: yet we beseche thee to accept this our bounden duetie and service, not weighing our merites, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom and with whom, in the unitie of the holy ghost, all honour and glory bee unto thee, O father almightie, world without ende. Amen.

Cranmer’s liturgy is sometimes taken to task – or timidly defended – for this narrow focus on the motif of sacrifice. Modern Eucharistic rites by contrast (especially in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the USA) have sought to minimize such language and to employ a much broader range of language and imagery from Scripture and the Church’s tradition. The result is that recognizable continuity with the theology and liturgy of the classical Prayer Books has disappeared. Moreover, among many clergy and in seminaries there is often resistance to the use or even exploration in thought the Biblical and traditional language of sin, satisfaction, and sacrifice. Yet Cranmer’s narrow focus on satisfactory sacrifice is not without a compelling logic. There are no doubt other ways of speaking of the saving act of God in Christ, as a victory over evil, for instance, a divine deliverance, or an inspiring example of human virtue. Yet victory over evil and divine deliverance is a matter between God and the powers of evil; moral example is a matter between Christ in his human nature and other men. Only sacrifice has to do with the relation of man to God, and therefore it alone accounts for the communion and fellowship of sinful men with the Father, accomplished by Christ, the God-man, who as man offered himself in death, and as God offers a sacrifice of infinite value. There is of course a place in the liturgy for other images of God’s saving act; but in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, it is sacrifice that matters, because it is communion with God that is sought, and it is his sacrifice, and his sacrifice alone, that establishes and sustains us in communion with God. As Augustine said, “the true sacrifice is done in every work which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship, every act, that is, which is directed to that final Good which makes possible our true felicity”. 

Cranmer follows Augustine in understanding that the sacrifice of Christ is a sacrifice in head and members, and that through the sacrifice of the head, the members learn to offer themselves. Nonetheless, in common with other reformers, he makes a much sharper distinction between the propitiatory sacrifice of the head and the gratulatory sacrifice of the members. For Cranmer the Gnadenstuhl – the Father’s free gift of the crucified Son in all the virtue of his accomplished and accepted sacrifice, shown forth in the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and received by means of faith alone – awakens an overwhelming gratitude to God, which is the dynamism and direction of the Christian life. This Eucharistic self-offering, this return of the creature to the Creator, has no other basis and cause than the Son’s own offering of himself for us to the Father, and in the Father’s acceptance of that offering to our benefit. Where it is shown forth, in Word and Sacrament, above all in the Lord’s Supper, it moves the faithful receivers to “offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee”.

It is commonly said in North America that the new Eucharistic prayers of the North American churches are more fully Trinitarian than Cranmer’s narrow focus on Christ and the cross because they rehearse the whole history of salvation from creation to eschaton. Yet if Cranmer’s focus is narrow, it is also deep. What he retains from the Gnadenstuhl is the awareness of the cross as the point where the operations of the Trinity ad extra, God’s work in the world, is integrated into the life of the theological or immanent Trinity, God in himself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The entire motion of the liturgy is one of return to God out of utmost alienation, through the going forth of his Word and Spirit, in which the sacrifice of the cross is the decisive moment. This is why the relocation of the Gloria in excelsis from its pre-Reformation place just before the Collect of the day, to its 1552 place after the post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving, is a master-stroke of liturgical craft. Not only is it psychologically appropriate, as the natural point for the release of joy, but it also dramatizes the end that we have attained by the sacrifice of Christ, which we are moved to proclaim, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace, good will towards men”. Man attains his end in God, and the congregation may therefore be dismissed with the authoritative declaration of God’s peace, which passeth all understanding, and which “[keeps] your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”. It is all God, God’s knowing and loving his own infinite goodness by his Word and Spirit, a knowing and loving of God in which the faithful are gathered, that we may rest in his peace also.

Mission and Liturgy

For Cranmer, the end of the liturgy, the action of God it celebrates, is not in the world, but in God, in the world’s finding its true end, the rest of the restless heart, in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ. Mission, witness, and service thus are not an alternatives to worship but arise out of it and return to it. Worship is the form of all our works of witness and service. The transformation of the world which we seek is found precisely in the world’s discovering its true end in the glorification and enjoyment of God, through the sacrifice of his Son. Worship otherwise risks becoming a kind of pep rally or consciousness-raising exercise, for some other agenda, however worthy. It is in the context of grateful self-offering that Cranmer situates the works which God has prepared for his elect to walk in, the works of the Christian life (Ephesians 2:10), and that is the frame within which any missional emphasis finds its proper place. This is why the minimization of sacrificial language in the newer rites of the North American churches is worrisome. One cannot but note the somewhat chilling dismissal of the last Cranmerian elements of Rite I in the 1979 American Prayer Book by the late Marion Hatchett: “it is time to relegate Eucharistic Prayer I to the appendix of historical documents”. Whatever else one might say about the English church’s Common Worship, one of its strongest features is the willingness to incorporate in its Eucharistic rites (and not just in the “traditional language” version) elements of Cranmerian language and theology of sacrifice and offering in recognizable forms. As the Episcopal Church in the USA looks toward a new revision of the 1979 Prayer Book, there is an opportunity for a fresh and more sympathetic apprehension of the Cranmerian tradition.


The late medieval church’s devotional and liturgical image known as the Gnadenstuhl or Throne of Mercy brought together the mysteries of the Trinity, the Atonement, and the Eucharist; and despite the iconoclasm of the Protestant reformers, the same mysteries are brought together in the Eucharistic prayers of the Cranmerian prayerbooks, a striking instance of the conservative aspect of the Protestant reformation, and of the continuities between late medieval and reformational church. At the same time, this continuity highlights the changes involved in the reshaping of the Gelasian canon and its motif of sacrifice, to exclude the late medieval Eucharistic doctrines, especially the propitiatory claims made for the ‘sacrifices of Masses’, in conformity with the emerging reformed consensus about the Eucharist, as a memorial of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin, and the Church’s own self-offering in praise and thanksgiving for his sacrifice. Cranmer’s focus on the motif of sacrifice may be narrow, but it accords with the end that is sought, communion with the triune God, participation in the life of the Trinity. It is on the cross that the economic outworkings of the Trinity in the world are united with the immanent or theological Trinity, in the Father’s giving of the Son, and the Son’s offering himself to the Father. As such, the motif of sacrifice articulated by Cranmer provides a frame within which the Church’s own mission of witness and service in the world may be better understood within a Trinitarian context. It is deeply revealing of the continuity and change embodied with characteristic genius and economy in the language and structure of Cranmer’s liturgical reform.