Sunday, 29 April 2018

A ROYAL EVANGELIST

          'Neither life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here, which 

          appertaineth unto mine own private commodity, be it never so dearly 
    
          beloved of me, but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win 
    
          any man to Christ'

     This is the sort of earnest declaration we might associate with the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century or with the high rhetoric of a modern American evangelistic preacher. In fact, these words appear in a remarkable little book published exactly five hundred years ago. It was entitled The Lamentation of a Sinner and it is remarkable for several reasons: 

1.  It was published by a woman under her own name - a thing unheard of before that time. English women simply did not write books. Such a thing would have been considered a rejection of the divine ordering of society. Certainly, there were some earlier significant contributions to religious literature by the likes of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich but they existed only in manuscript until later ages made them available to a wide public.

2.  It was an intense personal testimony of the writer's journey from formal religion - what she called 'dead, human, historical faith' - to the assurance of 'knowing Christ for my Saviour and Redeemer'.

3.   It was written (though not yet published) at a time when justification by faith was regarded as Lutheran heresy, punishable by death.

4.    It was written by the Queen of England.

For these reasons alone The Lamentation of a Sinner deserves its place in the library of Christian classics and should be better known.

The popular image of the author, Catherine Parr, is probably confined to the fact that she was the last of Henry VIII's six wives - the one who 'survived'. She does not register prominently in over-romanticised annals of Tudor court intrigue as one of the queens who flirted with danger by getting involved in politics. The traditional portrait of her is that of the dutiful wife who meekly nursed her irascible, overweight, semi-invalid husband during the last few years of his life. The reality is very different. Catherine was a feisty, attractive woman who, in the terms of the religious history of the age, was the most committed Protestant of all Henry's wives and did her cautious best to steer Henry further along the path of reform.

According to the story recorded by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, this was almost her undoing. Henry did not take kindly to being lectured by his wife on matters of religion, and the reactionary members of his Council saw this as an opportunity to accuse her of heresy and urge the king to authorise a thorough investigation and a search of her apartments for banned books. Catherine managed to escape the noose dangling before her (the full story is included in the, just published, The Queen and the Heretic) but it was a close run thing and one that C. J. Sansom's excellent fictionalisation, Lamentation, may well not have too much exaggerated.  Had Catherine gone the way of two of her queenly predecessors the course of the English Reformation could have been very different. It's one of the intriguing 'what-ifs' of British history.

What there is no doubt about - no doubt whatever - is Catherine Parr's commitment to the evangelical cause and her desire to do all in her power to further it.
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