Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York:
Sermon in York Minster, October 2nd 1994

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Who wrote those words? No doubt they derive directly or indirectly from Jesus. But who wrote them? St Matthew, you may say, or some unknown first century writer. We don't really know. But we know that the English words are William Tyndale's.

Or who wrote, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep”? Or who wrote, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”? Again, the words are William Tyndale's. In fact, some eighty per cent of the Authorised Version of the New Testament, and a large proportion of the Old Testament, come to us directly in Tyndale's words.

This October the Church celebrates the 500th year of his birth. This is incidentally why I am preaching here this morning on our new Dean's first Sunday with us, and I am sorry to take the pulpit from him. But I had agreed long before Raymond Furnell's appointment to take part in the thanksgiving for this extraordinary, and largely forgotten, Englishman.

Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English was not the first. John Wycliffe, who died a hundred years before Tyndale's birth, had made a translation from the old Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, and had been duly persecuted for it. It was an age when it was felt to be dangerous to put the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, as it might undermine the authority of the Church and might lead to idiosyncratic interpretations — as it certainly did in some cases. Wycliffe's translation had nothing like the vigour and directness of Tyndale's. This is how he began the Book of Genesis: “In the first made God naught of heaven and earth, the earth forsooth was vain within the void, and the darknesses were upon the face of the sea”. It doesn't quite work, does it? A Bible in those words would be highly unmemorable, even incomprehensible.

Tyndale was luckier in his times. Printing had just been invented, so a Bible need no longer be a rare and expensive luxury for the wealthy. There was therefore a strong incentive to produce a popular translation. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 had sent Byzantine scholars scurrying to the West, where they had revived the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. So it was possible to translate directly from the original texts. Tle great classical scholar Erasmus had himself produced a much more accurate Greek text of the New Testament than the one in the Vulgate. Add to this the vigour and sense of adventurousness generated by the Renaissance; add the fact that English as a language was just beginning to struggle free from the dominance of French and Latin. Add also Tyndale's own genius for words, and you can see why Tyndale's Bible was such an explosive event.

He paid for it with his life. He was not interested in translation for mere literary reasons. What he was translating was the word of life; the word which brought God's truth, as he said, to ploughboys as well as to priests; the word which undermined much of what was then taught by the Church in the days when Reformation was in the air. He was an uncompromising anti-Papalist preacher; and for his pains he had to live in exile on the continent for the last twelve years of his life, and eventually was strangled and burnt in Brussels at the age of forty-two in 1536. By that time thousands of his Bibles had been smuggled into England, but they too were captured and burnt, and today only one original copy survives. Tyndale's work and even his name were suppressed. But his words, please God, will live for ever. He not only shaped the Authorised Version of the Bible which was published seventy-five years after his death. He also shaped the English language — and made it usable for serious purposes, lively, vigorous, poetic, earthy.

Not all his phrases caught on: “The Lord was with Joseph and he was a lucky fellow” appears rather more soberly in the Authorised Version as a reference to Joseph's prosperity. The serpent's words to Eve, “Tush you shall not die”, became the much more gentlemanly “Ye shall not surely die.” Tyndale's marginal comments disappeared too, like this grim example of 16th century humour — a comment on the story of Aaron and the golden calf: “The Pope's bull slayeth more than Aaron's calf”.

Does all this matter? Does the actual language of the Bible matter over and above its meaning? Does it matter that we now bear and read the Bible mostly in pedestrian English, as befits those who live in a more pedestrian age? The meaning is generally clearer, but does it matter that the resonances are weaker?

Yes, it does matter. First, because it entails a disastrous loss of memory. The words and phrases which formed English culture are no longer understood in context, are no longer part of everybody's mental equipment. We no longer learn them and take them deep into ourselves. Phrases like “fight the good fight” or “salt of the earth” might just as well have come from some commentator in Sportsnight rather than from — you've guessed it — William Tyndale.

It matters secondly because if we lose Tyndale's work we lose poetry. And religion needs poetry because it needs words to fire our imaginations, to lift us beyond ourselves. Religion without poetry is like crumpets without butter: or if you want a more poetic image — like a bird without wings.

Thirdly, it matters because we are in danger of losing the vividness and directness of Tyndale's language. Modern English is flabby. We write about “situations” and “relationships” and other abstractions. Tyndale wrote for ploughboys and his words cut deep furrows in the minds of a whole nation for some 400 years.

One way of celebrating Tyndale's quincentenary would be to look at that old Authorised Version when you get home, and read a few of the great passages — the first Now chapter of Genesis, the opening words of St John's Gospel, the Beatitudes in Matthew Chapter 5. And then give thanks to God for the man who gave them to us in our own language, and shaped the language itself, and made it fit to be the language of worship.

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