Commemorative sermon: William Tyndall

6 October 1994, St Paul's Cathedral
The Rt Revd Lord Runcie

All through this year there have been celebrations of the birth of William Tyndall. A birth is something we can readily celebrate: it is an occasion for parties, presents and greeting cards. Yet you will appreciate tonight we have something slightly different, something about which we are likely to have more ambiguous feelings. For on 6 October we remember not Tyndall's birth, but his death: a death that was a classical example of martyrdom: the execution of one lonely, helpless prisoner by the greatest political power of sixteenth-century Europe, the Holy Roman Empire. The form of death was as unpleasant as any of the multitude of deaths for religion that took place in that unhappy century: Tyndall was strangled and then his body was burnt at the stake.

So tonight, although this is the central act of a year of celebration, we commemorate such as we celebrate. We do so within the carefully structured liturgical form devised another great churchman of the Reformation who died at the stake for his beliefs two decades after Tyndall: Thomas Cranmer. It is a good setting, because a commemoration is always a thoughtful ceremony, and the memories that it will arouse are not likely to be straightforward. For commemoration is not just remembering a past event, as we might casually remember a pleasant day out, or remember to post a card for someone's birthday; it is a more solemn, systematic act. It involves an honest, careful assessment of ourselves, and what this past means for us.

This is particularly true in the cathedral church where we are gathered tonight. Consider the former members of the Dean and Chapter, sitting in their stalls in the old cathedral quire. In 1536, as the news reached them of the death of William Tyndall, not one of them is likely to have regretted that death. They would feel that justice had been done. There is Cuthbert Tunstall, a much-loved and learned Bishop of London in the 1520s. First he had snubbed Tyndall, when the young scholar had eagerly sought his financial backing in translating the Bible. Then, later on, Tunstall did indeed end up spending his money on Tyndall's Bible, but it was not to read it, but to burn it, in a great bonfire only a few score yards from this pulpit. He was helped in his burning of Bibles by one of my own predecessors as Archbishop of Canterbury, another godly and learned man. William Warham.

True commemoration, you see, involves judgement: and judgement is rarely painless. inside or outside a court of law, it seldom reveals a straightforward or an easy tale, and it is a particularly poignant exercise in a place so closely associated with William Tyndall's life. I hope I have said enough for you to appreciate that if we had not come to make our commemoration, the very stones of this place would cry out with the story. So often when we remember heroes and heroines of the sixteenth-century Reformation, especially when we remember their deaths, there is a sadness in remembering their hero- ism: because good and sincere men and women were among those who caused their deaths and did their best to frustrate their purposes. And do not think that one side has a

monopoly of righteousness: there was suffering and martyrdom for the traditional Church as well as for the Reform. William Tyndall's greatest enemy, Sir Thomas More also died a terrible, lonely death for the sake of his principles, a year before self, and only a mile from this place.

Judgement is uncomfortable and painful. However, in the framework of earthly time, the human judgement of history is still that of a child, because human understanding is still that of a child. Tyndall would have been the first to remind us that even the judgement of history pales into unimportance beside God's judgement of us all.

It was a desperate consciousness of the divine judgement and divine anger that touched off the Protestant Reformation. In his German convent, Martin Luther was driven to experience God's merciful grace in his life only by his first sense that he had been judged and found totally wanting. Tyndall much admired Luther and was inspired by his biblical translation. Yet he had his own twist to Luther's message. And it was his own work of translating the Bible which led him on to a different and fresh insight from Luther — and perhaps one more attuned to our ears. The clue to this is in the first of the readings we heard tonight from Deuteronomy. You may think this was a Many modern Christians do not find much spiritual consolation from the books of the law. We are inclined to associate them with detailed regulations from a long-dead society. It was in fact a terrible speech of judgement put in the mouth of Moses and ending with a thunderous condemnation of the Children of Israel for forgetting their God.

This was what Martin Luther found so terrifying. In fact throughout his life as a reformer, Luther found the whole of the Old Testament law terrifying. He said that God put his law in the Bible to remind human beings that they could never keep it all, so that without God's help they were lost for ever.

But Tyndall did not feel like that about the law. When he had finished his translation of the New Testament, he started on the Old, and naturally started at the beginning with the five books of the Law. Quickly he became fascinated by it, and Deuteronomy in particular. As he translated the book, he became seized He called it 'the most excellent of all the books of Moses' because he felt that it spoke to him as much about love as about judgement.

This is what Tyndall said about Deuteronomy: 'It is easy also and pure Gospel, that is to wit, a preaching of faith and love: deducing the love to God out of faith, and the love of a man's neighbour out of the love of God.' Easy and light: these were not words Martin Luther would have used about the law. And did you notice the word 'deducing'? It is a word nowadays we may associate with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and that is just right for what Tyndall means. He thinks that we can go on the commands of the Law to work out, with God's help, what God has given us reasonable things to do, and he has also given us the capacity : for ourselves, because he loves us. He wants us to use our reason as part of our effort to love him better, and love each other better.

He has no illusions about human nature; it is weak and imperfect, and always chasing after things that are out of reach. But he sees the task of faith as to cling on to the path set out by God in his love, and to keep steadily on, doing one's best God has given.

That leads us on to the second of our readings, one of the most familiar passages of the Bible. Straight away, from the reading, you will have heard how much we owe to Tyndall, who created the whole sound of that passage which has echoed in later versions of the Bible. Wedding couples are right to go to it for its literary beauty, and also for its talk of the love that they see in their own relationship. Yet Tyndall would have pointed out to the listener that it speaks of much more than that: it speaks of a love that structures the very pattern of the world, a love that is perfect knowledge, beyond the small efforts and partial visions of human life.

How directly that passage from Corinthians must have spoken to Tyndall! He did indeed himself have the tongues of men and angels. He understood not just English and German but also Greek and Hebrew, at a time when these gifts were far rarer than they are in twentieth-century England — and they are rare enough now. He was a gourmet of language a connoisseur of words, fascinated by the way in which they change and take new life and meanings from one generation to another.

Now there are countless millions who owe Tyndall a debt for his words alone. This is because he undertook his translation at a crucial time for the English language. All European languages faced a testing time in the sixteenth century. European cultures were experiencing what the new technology of printing could do to languages: it would standardize the way they were written — and gradually from that, the way they were spoken. In addition, languages faced a bombardment of new Latin and Greek words, because the European universities had found a new interest in ancient languages in the Renaissance. because of this, people were fascinated by the possibilities of coining words and receiv- ing them into their own tongues. Anyone who was producing an influential text at that date was therefore making choices that would form the speech of generations. Tyndall Cranmer and Shakespeare did this for the English language and, from one island off the European coast, their efforts have been spread around the world.

Yet Tyndall simply determined, in a famous phrase, to create a Bible that a ploughboy would understand. Ironically, his desire that his Bible should be popular and not literary the classical sense created a simple dialect which by its immediacy, clarity and vigour has shaped our culture as no other book or subsequent revision. 'The Lord was - Joseph — and he was a lucky fellow.' You can almost hear the Gloucestershire accent how much warmer than the flat 'He became a successful man'. Or 'Let not your heart be troubled' — it makes to contemporary version, 'Do not get worried or upset,' pale and inadequate.

At the same time, through Tyndall's text, St Paul reminds us that to be in love with words is not necessarily to be in touch with love. Much evil has been done by those who are good with words. All the rest of Tyndall's career is there in Paul's text as well. Tyndall moved mountains in his efforts to print his English Bible: outwitting the imperial- authorities as he fled from city to city in Germany and the Low Countries. He even cheated Tunstall by making him pay for Bibles to burn in London so that he could finance e the printing of another edition — there is consecrated cunning for us! He lived in poverty to put his money into his life's work — bestowing all his goods to feed the poor, deprived of the word of God in their own language. And finally he gave his body to be burnt in that prison outside Brussels.

Still without love it would not have been enough. When Tyndall came to comment on this chapter, this is what he said: 'For that one should love another, is all that God requireth of us; and therefore, if we desire spiritual gifts, he teacheth those gifts to be desired that help our neighbours.' It is exactly the same message as he had found in Deuteronomy. Undergirding everything was the love of God. From the love of God was 'deduced' the love of one's neighbour, flowing from it as logically as any deduction of Sherlock Holmes.

William Tyndall undertook his Bible translation because he loved both God and humanity. He would not have understood an humanism that separated out the two. He felt that it was God's purpose for the people whom he loved that they should learn, and grow, and that his why he devoted his life to nourishing them with the word of God. For this in its pages he found the teaching that was helping him to grow towards greater understanding. He did not claim that he had reached his goal, any more than the apostle Paul had done. He looked forward from childish 'unperfect' understanding that is all human beings achieve in this life, however wise and eloquent they may be. After this world of confusing reflections in a mirror, 'then shall we see face to face'.

William Tyndall's greatness, in which it seems to me is unique among his more famed contemporaries, lies in this. He allows the word of God in his translation to speak to our humanity — not simply to our religious agonizing or theological disputations.

So in this service we are not just paying homage to a cultural icon — though his stature has been too long overlooked. We are not simply lauding one of the controversialists of the Reformation — though he could exchange insults with the best of them. We are in the presence of a man who used his greatest gifts for other people because he realized his own human imperfections and laid them before a loving God.

In this year of celebration, and on this day of solemn commemoration, may we learn from his example and see how his teaching of the love of God can lighten our own unperfect knowledge and lead us with him in the ways of truth and godliness.

©1996 Tyndale Society


 

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