By Rhys Laverty
Katherine Parr may have survived Henry VIII, but she’s had less luck with the Reformed tradition. In popular retellings of the English Reformation, members of the House of Tudor often come off as events rather than characters—influential, yet somehow inconsequential. When they do enter the story as flesh and blood, we’re inclined to question their faith because of their political interests. This problem, combined with her renown for simply being the one who “survived,” has left Katherine Parr largely forgotten by the Reformed. Yet Katherine played an important and active role in both Reformation politics and religion, especially in literature. In 1545, her Prayers Or Meditations made her the first woman published under her own name in English.
It is hugely fitting then that, in a time when Protestant Retrieval is waxing, Katherine has been recaptured for a contemporary audience with the republication of her work The Lamentation of a Sinner by New Whitchurch Press.
Named for Edward Whitchurch, printer of the first English Bible, New Whitchurch Press is an upstart British publishing house. Their mission is to retrieve neglected texts of the English Reformation by making them accessible and attractive. For accessibility, texts are pragmatically edited into roughly modern English (“readable if not refined,” in their own words); for attractiveness, the texts are presented with an elegant minimalism. NWP’s debut print publications are Parr’s Lamentation and Nicholas Ridley’s A Brief Declaration of the Lord’s Supper. Other printed texts are forthcoming, and an increasing number of digital works are appearing on their website.
Before mentioning the content of Lamentation, it must be said that NWP succeeds on attractiveness. The slim, 50-page volume is a pleasure to handle, even including a smart Chi Rho bookmark and folded info sheet about Katherine’s life and works. Such things aren’t just neat bonuses for bibliophiles; the success of other historic republication series, like Puritan Paperbacks or Popular Patristics, is in no small part a product of crisp, appealing aesthetics. Ultimately, it’s easier to get people to read old books if they look new. The artful formatting will also come as a relief to lovers of historical theology who can often find printed sources only in dated, poorly typeset editions.
Published in 1547, Lamentation came mere months after Henry VIII’s death and just a year before Katherine’s, and it proves an ideal place for NWP to begin its retrieval project. As well as works of theology, Protestants need to reclaim works of devotion. If those of us who prize the historic Reformed tradition hope to demonstrate that it can cultivate an inner life as rich as that which contemporary evangelicalism promises (but increasingly fails to deliver), we need books like this.
“If those of us who prize the historic Reformed tradition hope to demonstrate that it can cultivate an inner life as rich as that which contemporary evangelicalism promises, we need books like this.”
In Lamentation, we find a record of Katherine’s experience of key Reformation struggles—moving from Rome to Canterbury, the nature of the Gospel, and regrettable Protestant in-fighting. In our potted Reformation histories, we often take the outcome of these contentions for granted. However, Lamentation should remind readers that such conflicts, their outcomes yet undecided in 1547, sincerely animated the inner lives of Protestants past.
As the title suggests, Lamentation is a confession of sorts—one remarkably sincere and personal, if not intimate. Following a short preface, Katherine outlines her compulsion to “confess and declare to the world how ingrate, negligent, unkind and stubborn I have been to God my creator, and how beneficial, merciful and gentle he hath been always to me his creature, being such a miserable and wretched sinner” (8).
From there, Katherine gives something of a personal testimony. She laments her native Catholicism, and how she “sought for such riff-raff as the Bishop of Rome hath planted in his tyranny and kingdom, trusting with great confidence by the virtue and holiness of them, to receive full remission of [her sins]” (10-11). She describes a realisation of her helplessness before God, her need for the Spirit, and an embrace of sola fide: “faith is the foundation and ground of all other gifts, virtues, and graces.” (16)
Yet this is no “conversion narrative” in the contemporary “born-again” evangelical sense. Katherine declares, “I professed Christ in my baptism, when I began to live, but I swerve from him after baptism, in continuance of my living, even as the heathen which never had begun.” (12) For Katherine, her Christian life began at baptism, and her embrace of the Church of England was merely the reclamation of this. This is, of course, merely an application of the traditional Anglican understanding of baptism, but it is invigorating to see it understood and applied biographically in a Reformation context.
Katherine then gives a succinct yet rich exposition of the cross. She expounds it both as God’s loving act of atonement for sinners and as Christ’s victory over sin, the devil, adversity, and the world. Given that Reformed Protestants are still stuck in the false dichotomy of pitting atonement and victory against each other as “definitions” of the Gospel, it is vital that we return to our Reformation sources to see that such a dichotomy is alien to most, if not all, or our forefathers—and, evidently, foremothers. Perhaps, when bogged down in proof-texts from acres of Calvin and Luther, those stuck in such arguments would benefit from the holistic clarity packed into just a few pages by this Queen of England.
Fittingly, Katherine then moves into reflections on the religious contentions of the day. Henry makes his sole appearance here, being likened to Moses in opposition to the papal Pharaoh (a point which, even if entirely sincere, likely aimed to refute court conservatives who sought Katherine’s death in 1546, due to her evangelical influence on the king). Katherine bewails “the schisms, varieties, contentions, and disputations” splitting the church. (30-31) Rather than deep doctrinal divisions, she has in mind divisions caused by lack of charity or questionable motives. Katherine’s proposed solution consists in the rejection of outright error, charity in disagreement, and the need for good doctrine and clergy. Katherine is said to have had a strong influence upon her step-daughter Elizabeth, and the loose ecclesial program laid out here does seem to anticipate the relatively generous spirit of the later Elizabethan church and her apologists, such as Richard Hooker.
The struggles which animate Lamentation still dog Protestants today. There is much theological “heavy lifting” being done to reconnect contemporary Protestantism with its intellectual heritage. But devotional retrieval must accompany theological retrieval. To that end, New Whitchurch Press’ republication of The Lamentation of a Sinner is prescient. We need to give charitable but robust criticisms of Rome, reject unhistoric disputes over the Gospel, and learn how to navigate disagreements within Protestantism in good faith. Those issues must not, however, remain cerebral; they must rather move into the heart of all historically rooted Protestants, resulting in the kind of rich inner life evident in the Queen who penned this slim but affecting book.
Rhys Laverty (BA, University of Exeter) is a Graduate Diploma student at Union School of Theology. He podcasts about film and television on For Now We See. He lives in Chessington, UK with his wife and daughter.