Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Steven Wedgeworth

On the Dangers of Writing Responsibly

CS Lewis, in his masterful work English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, takes the reader through an overview of the religious and controversial writings of that time.  He works through More, Tyndale, and Latimer, noting how each was more than willing to launch into biting satire and brusque prose.  Each of these men, though having their literary flaws, strike Lewis as still being quite admirable.  Thomas Cranmer, however, is less successful:

In all these works Cranmer writes a prose with which it is difficult to find any fault, but it gives curiously little pleasure. It never drags and never hurries; it never disappoints the ear; and (pace John Foxe) there is hardly a single sentence that leaves us in doubt of its meaning. He could have taught More and even Tyndale some things about the art of English composition: but they can be loved and he cannot. This is partly because while avoiding their vices he lacks their virtues. He is not stodgy and verbose like More: but then he has neither humour nor pathos. He is not digressive like Tyndale, but then he lacks Tyndale’s fire. The explanation is that Cranmer always writes in an official capacity. Everything he says has been threshed out in committee. We never see a thought growing: his business is to express the agreed point of view. Everyone who has tried to draw up a report knows how fatal such conditions are to good writing. Every phrase that really bites or flashes has to be crossed out in the end: it would offend one party, or be misunderstood by another, or unduly encourage a third. What remains when all the necessary erasures have been made is inevitably flat and grey. In Cranmer the wonder is that what remains is even so lively as it is. Compared with official publications either by Church of Civil Service in our own day, it is almost magnificent: but in such a book as this we are comparing it with real literature. By that standard it cannot rank high. It is praiseworthy: it is (if I may put it that way) devastatingly praiseworthy. What Cranmer might have written if the burden of responsibility had ever been lifted from his shoulders and he had made a book to please himself, we can only guess. He did his proper work and he did it very well, but I do not think I shall often re-read him. I had much rather hear Latimer thump his tub.

~English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford Paperbacks, 1973)195-196

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.