Ephrem of Edessa vs. Thomas Cranmer

February 27, 2012
Tim Schenck

Lent Madness continues this morning with an intriguing (aren't they all?) match-up between Ephrem of Edessa and Thomas Cranmer. Will the "Harp of the Holy Spirit" be played by the author of the first Book of Common Prayer? Only you and the next 24 hours will decide.

In recent action, David Oakerhater bested Martin of Porres by a nose. Or, technically speaking, it was by the hair of a nostril -- with over 2,100 votes cast, David won by a mere 15 votes. If you didn't think your vote counted, you were wrong!

Nicknamed ‘the harp of the Holy Spirit,’ Ephrem (306-373) was a renowned Syrian teacher, poet, orator and defender of the faith.

Ephrem was born in Nisibis, which is the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria. At 18 he was baptized by the Bishop of Nisibis and accompanied him to the famous Council of Nicea in 325.

Ephrem carved out a career as a teacher where he founded the School of Nisibis, which later became a center of learning of the Syriac Orthodox Church. It was here that Ephrem carved out his reputation as a writer, credited by one historian as having authored 3 million lines, such as this: “No one has seen or shall see the things which you have seen. The Lord himself has become the altar, priest, and bread, and the chalice of salvation. He alone suffices for all, yet none suffices for him. He is Altar and Lamb, victim and sacrifice, priest as well as food.”

More than 400 of Ephrem’s hymns still exist. His style can be traced to three traditions; Rabbinic Judaism, Greek science and philosophy, and the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism. Jerome wrote of him, “I have read in Greek a volume of his on the Holy Spirit; though it was only a translation, I recognized therein the sublime genius of the man.”

In 363, Ephrem retired to a cave in the hills above Edessa. Living on a sparse diet of bread, dried herbs, and water, he wrote and arranged hymns. Some were written to defend orthodoxy against the Gnostics. Ten years later, during a famine, Ephrem distributed food and money to the poor, eventually dying from exhaustion brought on by his ceaseless devotion to help others.

Collect for Ephrem of Edessa: Pour out on us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Chris Yaw

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-1556) and architect of the English Reformation. He was educated at Cambridge and, after ordination, became a diplomat in the service of King Henry VIII. In that role, Cranmer presented the case in favor of annulling Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to universities on the Continent. Henry, therefore, came to trust this priest who had embraced the message of the Reformation that was unfolding across the English Channel.

His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, while still out of the country, was quite a surprise. During his diplomatic mission to Nuremberg, he had married the niece of Andreas Osiander, the city’s leading Lutheran theologian, which signaled that he had cast his lot with the Reformers.

Cranmer returned to England, keeping quiet about his marriage, and was consecrated as a bishop in 1533. This happened with official papal cooperation. However, Cranmer quickly annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn could be recognized. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Cranmer’s godchild, would become the future Queen Elizabeth (the First).

With encouragement from Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief advisor in ecclesiastical affairs, Henry ordered the dissemination of Bibles with English translations to parish churches in 1537. After Henry’s death in 1547, a young boy ascended the throne as Edward VI, and liturgical reforms, such as the use of the language of the people, soon followed.

Those liturgical reforms included the Order of the Holy Communion (1548), which was meant to be inserted into the Latin Mass immediately after the priest’s communion, both to prepare the laity before their communion and to allow them to receive not only the bread but also the wine (i.e., communion in both kinds, which had been previously restricted to the clergy). The Book of Common Prayer (1549) extended the vernacular to the entire liturgy, and its first revision (1552) leaned a bit further into Protestantism.

After Edward’s death in 1553, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon ascended the throne as Queen Mary (the First). She was a devout Roman Catholic and had Cranmer arrested and tried for heresy. Weakened, broken, and sentenced to be burned at the stake, Cranmer recanted his Protestant beliefs. However, from the pulpit of the University Church in Oxford, he dramatically reversed himself and testified to those beliefs on the day of his execution, March 21, 1556.

Collect for Thomas Cranmer: Merciful God, through the work of Thomas Cranmer you renewed the worship of your Church by restoring the language of the people, and through his death you revealed your power in human weakness: Grant that by your grace we may always worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Neil Alan Willard


Ephrem of Edessa vs. Thomas Cranmer

  • Thomas Cranmer (58%, 1,051 Votes)
  • Ephrem of Edessa (42%, 774 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,825

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84 comments on “Ephrem of Edessa vs. Thomas Cranmer”

  1. This is a tough one. I tend to vote a straight Anglican ticket whenever possible, but feel a certain solidarity with the people of Syria, who are enduring such horrible suffering right now.

    1. I voted Ephraim. He is more spiritual and less political. It seems that Cranmer turned whichever way the wind blew and lied! That is a large sin. He wanted the glory and prestige of Canterbury. Perhaps he recanted at the end, but I would trust Ephraim because of his humility, honesty and faith to Christ's word. Ephraim was certainly was more mystical and spiritual and loved the Lord and His people more than himself.

  2. I'm trying _not_ to vote a straight Anglican ticket but as someone who chose the Episcopal Church as an adult I am so grateful for the Book of Common Prayer.
    Too bad we can't split our vote or say "it's a tie"?

  3. I expect a convincing victory today by the English Reformer, although the results could be very different if the contest were on a Roman home court. Cranmer's numerous recantations ordinarily might work against him, but he showed the ability to close out a game with his pre-execution return to form.

  4. If it's a toss up, I would vote for the Anglican. Otherwise, my vote goes to the one who, in my mind, bears a more saintly character. In this case, I would consider dying from exhaustion brought on by service to others exemplifies sainthood!

  5. This selection is a tough one but Cranmer's impact in the Reformation just seems to tip the scales in his favor. Both seem to have given their lives to God, literally.

  6. I wanted to vote for Cranmer exactly because he got it together at the end and paid the ulitmate price - he's a real model for those of us who sometimes waver. But, having been Orthodox before joining the Episcopal church, I couldn't resist voting for a fellow easterner - Ephren of Edessa.

  7. As a musician, Ephrem has a strong pull, but I can't vote against the writer of the BCP. And the story of him recanting his recant is one of my favorites.

  8. A poet AND a martyr, who can resist? Though I am happy to learn about Ephrem and his ceaseless devotion to the poor, I finally am swayed by +Cranmer's better beard. Perhaps he'll win not by a nostril hair but by a facial one.

  9. Ephrem of Edessa all the way. Cranmer was inconsistent, albeit in the court of Henry VII that was hardly a surprise. He ultimately got it right. Ephrem was unconcerned with his personal comfort or safety.

  10. I'm going with Cranmer - Anglican connection and gratitude for the BCP, but also I think more mischief than good came out of the Council of Nicea, and Ephram's songs were written in defense of Nicean orthodoxy. I do like Ephram's service unto death, but Cranmer gets my vote.

  11. As a a member of Jesus College Cambridge, where Thomas Cranmer was undergraduate and fellow, as well as living near to Dunstable Priory where Cranmer met to agree Henry VIII's divorce to Katherine of Aragon, i feel there is only one way I can vote...

  12. As a cradle Episcopalian, it was hard not to vote for Cranmer. I am so grateful for and so love the Book of Common Prayer. At the end of the day, it is what brings us all together.

  13. Yes, I have succumted and voted Anglican in this round. I have questioned some of Cranmers behaviours but he 'is' the father of my beloved BCP.

  14. Yes, I have succumbed and voted Anglican in this round. I have questioned some of Cranmers behaviours, but he 'is' the father of my beloved BCP.

  15. Come on, how could ANYone vote for a schismatic over the "harp of the Holy Spirit." And besides, Cranmer's beard is overrated. ZZ Top has already done that.

  16. This was a tough choice but I voted for Cranmer. First because the Book of Common Prayer is such a gift to the entire Church and a useful tool to anyone who opens it. Also his life shows how God can use us in the most unlikely and unusual circumstances.
    Ephrem was a faithful person. I would like to hear some of the hymns he wrote.

  17. I voted for Cranmer, because, well, if Neil Alan Willard says "vote," I say, "how often?" Seriously, though, anyone who can keep his marriage a secret is pretty impressive. I'm pretty sure I don't know any priests who could pull that off. And I know a lot of priests.

  18. Of course I revere the man who gave us the BCP, but there is something about the asceticism of Ephrem which strikes a chord is this match-up.

  19. Hard choice! Of course Cranmer is important. He was one of the former of the Anglican Church from which we grew. And I love the BCP. But "the harp of the Holy Spirit" I must listen to that still small voice that sings to me. I like Cranmer's humanity but I also like Ephrem's attending the Council, and his upholding of the orthodox view point.
    However, it will be interesting to see who I finally choose when I vote. Good food for thought here.

  20. Another difficult one. I certainly appreciate the BCP and access to the Bible but Cranmer had a few too many personal peculiarities for me; a wife he did not publicly recognize for 15 years, a vow (to the pope) he did not intend to honor, and his vacillation in recanting. Based on the individual's life I have to vote for Ephrem - -as shrouded in time as Ephrem's life may be.

  21. Much respect to Cranmer. But as an Orthodox Christian, I have to vote East. And besides, John Wesley called Ephrem "the most awakening of the ancients." I have to ask myself, "WWJWD?" I would like to think Wesley would vote Ephrem. Shh, don't wake me from my dream...

  22. This one is really hard. The BCP is so much who I am, but have to go with a fellow deacon who ended his life serving those in need. Ephrem, is someone who I could only pray to model my life and ministry on.

  23. although i sympathize with Cranmer's difficulty negotiating the horrible politics of his time, i like the image of fighting spiritual battles with music. i have a feeling that ancient Syria could be a dangerous place, too. so i'm going with Ephrem.