The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford: Commemoration Sermon

Hertford College, Sunday, 24 April 1994

Many will come to be grateful to the William Tyndale Quincentenary Trust and all associated with it for their initiative and efforts to give William Tyndale his proper place in English cultural life. It is quite extraordinary that the person who is, without exception, the most influential figure in the formation of English prose should be so little known and even less appreciated. We can hope and confidently expect that as a result of the series of commemorative events, of which this is the first, the extraordinary contribution of Tyndale to the formation of our language and literature will be more widely recognized. I am delighted to be here with so many others to dedicate the fine window to Tyndale in this Chapel.

Tonight I focus briefly on some of the qualities that made him a translator of such distinction. I begin with a quotation from Arnold Bennett. Bennett wrote:

You have said sometimes to yourself; 'If only I could write.' You were wrong. You ought to have said, 'If only I could think and feel.' When you have thought clearly and felt intensely, you have never had any difficulty in saying what you thought, though you may occasionally have had some difficulty in keeping it to yourself.

'When you have thought clearly' - Tyndale worked at his translation like any dedicated craftsman or wordsmith and he had superb skills for the task. It is said that he was fluent in seven languages. He was responsible not only for translating from the best Greek texts available at the time but for the very first direct translation into English of the Hebrew text. It was not as an inspired rustic but as a dedicated, talented scholar that he produced his translations, painstakingly working his way into the meaning of the text and thinking clearly about the most appropriate contemporary words to convey that meaning.

'And felt intensely' - Tyndale's writings reveal a man of intense feeling and deep conviction. His translation was not an exercise but a passion. The conviction behind it was of course his joyous discovery of New Testament faith and the overmastering desire to communicate this to others.

It is because of this combination of scholarship and conviction, clarity of thought and intensity of feeling that Tyndale's style has the quality of directness and immediacy that Professor Daniell has analyzed so helpfully and which is being increasingly admired when comparison is made with other versions of the Scriptures.

T.S. Eliot was another man who spent his life wrestling with words and meanings. In 'Little Gidding' he wrote:

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, 
An easy commerce of the old and the new, 
The common word exact without vulgarity, 
The formal word precise but not pedantic, 
The complete consort dancing together.

This is an ideal to which Tyndale's style well conformed; and we cannot h, that the characteristics admired, neither diffident nor ostentatious, an easy commerce of the old and the new, the common word exact without vulgarity and the for precise but not pedantic, are qualities which are as much moral and spiritual literary.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that when he was a boy of 14 he stood motionless inn wondering if it was possible to ask his way in what would be recognised at once, prose. As he wrote:

It was so hard to believe, after I had heard somebody read out let us say Pater's description of the Mona Lisa, that, 'Can you direct me to St. Peter's Square, Hammersmith' was under the circumstances the best possible prose.

A good prose style is one that conveys what you want to say. Tyndale had something that he wanted to say, that he strongly wanted to say and what he had to say shaped and sculpted the way he said it. His style was a servant of the text, transparent to it: the intrusive ego with its tendency towards literary affectation was kept out of the picture.

Tyndale went to the text, the best texts available in his day rather than the Latin vulgate. He pulled away the great creeper of fanciful allegorizing which had obscured the sense for so many centuries and through which the text had been seen and interpreted. He sought to wrestle with the words themselves. He thought the writings had a meaning themselves which could be unveiled, discovered and communicated. Post-modernist deconstructionism casts scorn on the idea of an author's meaning. Rather, it is suggested, the language which has shaped us will give its own meaning to what we read, there will be different meanings and the reader can have a kind of free play with the text.

We cannot of course dismiss the idea of a linguistic pair of spectacles through see the text, spectacles which have been culturally shaped. We can also welcome of the creativity of the reader. As we interact with the Scriptures the Spirit of make it truly creative interaction, one which has significance for us. It will be, as for Tyndale, an existential encounter, one involving our whole being, a matter of life and death. But what we receive from Scripture will not be arbitrary. It will be a response, what is given, to what is there. Grasping the meaning involves us, involves us deep, that meaning is not an imposition on the text or a projection upon it but an entering and a response to it.

Tyndale saw clearly enough that the Scriptures in his time were being seen through the filter of centuries of allegorical interpretation, and church doctrine whose purpose serve the vested interests and power of ecclesiastics as much as disclose the truth. There were too many juggling and feigned terms as he protested to More. Yet he himself did not approach the Scriptures from a neutral standpoint. On the contrary, he looked at with the aid of some basic Reformation convictions about the nature of faith, of salvation of repentance, of the Church. There is no neutral standpoint in approaching the Scriptures any more than there is about other writings and we need a hermeneutic of suspicion about our own presuppositions first as much as about late medieval or Reformation ones. For the Christian, this is nothing to be shy or embarrassed about. We do have presuppositions and assumptions. We stand within the community of faith which produced the Scriptures in the first place and it is that faith we bring to bear in trying to understand the text. We come to the Scriptures with a particular attitude of heart as much as mind. But what we discern there is there, not an invention or imposition of ours. And here we come close to the heart of the matter for Tyndale and all believers. For the Eternal Word meets us through human words. The Eternal Word which, as the prophet Jeremiah put it, exposes all lies, deceits, collusions and deceptions of the self as much as others. In contrast to such insubstantial straw the Word of God has an awesome reality about it. As Jeremiah put it, 'Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?' The same word had a similar effect on the first followers of Jesus. As we heard in tonight's reading, in Tyndale's own translation, two disciples on the road to Emmaus met a stranger who interpreted to them the Scriptures. At supper after they had recognised who he was they remarked, 'Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and as he opened to us the Scriptures?' We cannot miss the sense of discovery, of excitement, one which was assuredly shared by Tyndale as he worked on the same Scriptures.

The Eternal Word does not remain poised above time and space, aloof, distant and detached. The Eternal Word comes to us through human words as the divine mind enters into relationship with human minds and the divine heart wrestles with human hearts. This Eternal Word came and comes to the people of Israel through laws and words of wisdom and interpretation and prophetic insight shaping a community of faith. For a Christian the Word is manifested not only in a community but in a person, the Word made flesh to whom the words of the New Testament bear witness. The words of the Scriptures, the words of the community of faith and the words which bear witness to the person of faith are given. They are there. It is part of the miracle of the divine vulnerability that he not only puts himself at the mercy of human events but he puts his word at the mercy of human words, the words of preachers, writers, translators, communicators. The divine word has taken his chance, has set himself aflow on the ocean of human language. But there is a givenness about this, something there for each generation to come up against, stub not its toe but its heart and mind against. Tyndale came up against it and gave his life to it. In exile, harried from place to place, harried, persecuted and in the end burnt at the stake he yet gave himself to the task of discovering the meaning of those words and making the word live through the living language of his contemporaries.

The eternal is manifested in time; the Word is made through human words; the Word has been made flesh and to this human words hear witness. We give thanks to God for Tyndale's wrestling with those words, not only with his mind but with his whole life even unto death; for the way he made those words available and accessible to millions of English speaking people. And the implications of this for us? Especially for those of us whose business is with words as scholars, writers, preachers or simply those who try from time to time to share their deepest convictions? Perhaps you will forgive me if I quote not Tyndale but Eliot again from 'East Coker' when he talks about:

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure... 
And what one is striving after
has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope 
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions 
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain not loss. 
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

So in thanks for one whom one cannot hope to emulate and conscious of conditions that seem unpropitious we pray for the grace to try again as we wrestle with the words through which the Eternal Word touches and quickens us, to whom with the father and the Spirit be all glory now and for evermore. Amen.

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