Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 6 November 2011
6 November 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
On the 16th November, Her Majesty The Queen will be present here in Westminster Abbey at a national service to mark the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, the Authorised Version.
It has been a year of national and international celebration. And there is a particular connection with Westminster Abbey of which we are rightly proud, because two out of the six translation committees met here in the Jerusalem Chamber, and for that reason many other translators have begun their work here.
But in this series of sermons in November, I want to go a little further back and look at some of the precursors to the King James Version, to explore how it came about and to ask whether there are any lessons for us today.
This morning I begin with three key changes which took place two hundred years before even the King James Bible in 1611: technological advance, social reform and national identity.
I went to University in 1983: my cohort in school had been the first to do computer-based mathematics. I recall vividly a College friend telling me how his school had been one of the first to get its own computer – and how in order to install the machine in the 1970s they had had to commandeer a whole classroom! If you reach for your mobile phone now, I can guarantee you that your phone will have millions of times greater computing power than was held in that vast state-of-the-art computer.
A similar technological change happened between 1450 and 1500, when the new technology of printing was developed. Paper, which the Chinese has created in the 2nd century, made its way through Muslim countries by the 8th and arrived in Spain by 1074. The first paper-mill was established in Germany in 1390. Why was this so important? Up until then, vellum – the hide of a mammal – was used for all documents and needed a scribe to write in long-hand – a process so time-consuming and expensive that it was used only for legal writs or manuscript Bibles and prayer books. And worse than that, vellum didn’t absorb the ink, which could be easily washed off.
The arrival of paper, which absorbed the ink and allowed a permanent print, led to a race to produce the first moveable type-face and printing press. This was a story of commercial, capital venture – imagine yourself being asked in 1971 by a 16-year-old Steve Jobs if you would lend him the money to create a computer – and you start to get near to the risk.
The race was won by Johannes Gutenberg. But in less than twenty years, the presses began to roll in England and by 1473 William Caxton produced the first printed book in English, right here, in a house just outside Poet’s Corner, where you will find a commemorative plaque.
But here’s the rub: a computer in the 1970s filled a room, and now sits comfortably in your hand. A Gutenberg Bible in 1468 cost the equivalent of a town house, but in 50 years was an affordable luxury for many.
Alongside these technological advances, there were deep processes of social reform at work. Among them, one voice in particular, that of John Wycliffe (c 1330 – 84) was asking why the Bible could not be translated into English from the Latin version then in use. Was it really that lay people were unable to understand Scripture for themselves? Or was it that the Church had a vested interest in not allowing Scripture to speak for itself?
If you want to get a flavour of the opposition he faced, just listen to one of his critics, Henry Knighton, who makes a clumsy word-play on the language of Angels, and the language of the Angles (our Anglo-Saxon): “Wycliffe translated it from Latin into the Anglo-Saxon – not the Angelic – language! As a result, what was previously known only by learned clerics and those of good understanding has become common, and available to the laity – in fact, even to women who can read. As a result, the pearls of the gospel have been scattered and spread before swine”. Not a high moment in the history of political correctness!
From its roots, the movement to translate the Bible into English as also a social reform movement. It’s no surprise that this was also the era of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which Wycliffe disapproved of, but for which he carried the blame when the Archbishop of Canterbury was beheaded in the storming of the Tower of London.
And the third strand, alongside the technological advance and the social reform, was the development of an English-speaking identity.
In the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wycliffe was posthumously declared a heretic and in 1408 the Constitutions of Oxford made it illegal to translate the Bible into English. But by then, the tide had begun to turn.
In the 1300s the languages of the elite in England were French and Latin. English was reserved for the masses, the marginalised, the uneducated.
But a strange thing began to happen: the French spoken at court was actually Anglo-Norman, a throwback to William the Conqueror. The once all-powerful Normans saw power shift to Paris, where the language took a life of its own. By 1300, the royal children of England were being sent to court in Paris to learn French so that they didn’t sound like yokels.
The linguistic tide had turned: and it was matched on the field of battle where the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 marked a low-point in Anglo-French relations. By the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, English was the language of Government and the ruling classes: French was the tongue of the enemy. Latin was reserved for University and the Church.
By 1500, still more than 100 years before the King James Bible was even conceived of, the stage was set: technology had created the possibility of mass produced Bibles; social and religious reform fermented the desire for direct, unmediated access to Scripture; and a new national confidence put French to one side and made the Church’s love of Latin look out of date.
But before I end: let’s not forget that we too have lived in times of incredible change. It’s easy to stand in wonder at those momentous times and to recognise the hand of God, but in our own day it is globalisation, the financial crises of this decade, the Arab Spring – how is God present and speaking to us through these?