Fourth Annual Lambeth Tyndale Lecture 1 October 1997

Chairman's Introduction

‘The first Lambeth Tyndale Lecture was given by the Archbishop himself the second by me: the third by the scholar Professor Carsten Peter Thiede — and tonight — well, we are really going on and up.

‘It is an honour for me to introduce the Right Honorable Frank Dobson MP. Mr Dobson has been a Member of Parliament for Holborn and St Pancras South for fifteen years. He joined the Labour Party in 1958 at the age of eighteen, from school in York and the LSE, and he has had a rich history of service, including being a Camden Borough Councillor and serving as Assistant Secretary to the Local Ombudsman: indeed, his instinct for needs at the grassroots make him a must for our Ploughboy Group — perhaps our next meeting will be in the Cabinet Office. In the Commons, he has had important Shadow positions, all with that common touch for how the real world lives, and also including Shadow Leader of the House. Since May he has, of course, been Secretary of State for Health.

‘I vividly recall that some months ago I happened to turn on Radio 4, and caught the last moments of Any Questions. I heard the questioner from the floor asking which one book would the members of the panel wish to save. Frank Dobson replied without hesitation “Tyndale's 1526 New Testament” to ringing cheers from my kitchen. The next panellist agreed. I wrote at once to Mr Dobson, who joined the Tyndale Society at once — and here he is tonight. Tyndale Society membership now penetrates to the very heart of the Cabinet.

‘I must explain that Mr Dobson has come to us directly from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. He has given us this time from that important conference, and more largely from the mammoth task of making the NHS work, without more money — a task which makes the Labours of Hercules look like doing the washing up. We are immensely grateful to you, and look forward to your lecture, Spread the Word — the Example of William Tyndale.

Frank Dobson's Speech

It is a great honour to be invited to deliver this Lambeth lecture, Spread the word — the example of William Tyndale.

I do so with trepidation as I am in the presence of scholars whose knowledge of Tyndale and his contemporaries is unchallenged. I am in the presence of clerics whose knowledge of theology extends to complex corners I don't even know exist. I am also in the presence of people whose philosophical insights into what I propose to talk about far exceed my own.

I am also painfully conscious that I am delivering my thoughts at Lambeth Palace, although I subscribe to no religious beliefs. You may suspect therefore that there is little good in me, even before I start. I hesitate to think what I will have proved to you by the time I finish.

I start from the belief that William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the New Testament is the most important book in the English language.

Its impact on the religious, political and social development of our country was just as great. It had a similar impact on our literature and even more on the development of the English language. For it elevated plain and pithy English to new heights - and coined phrases that ring down the centuries. It established the word patterns of spoken English as the staple of the plain written word, wherever plain English still survives.

So it was an important work. But it was more than that. It was a revolutionary work. It changed the world into which it was launched. And I believe that Tyndale intended that it should.

The intellectual ferment of the times and the availability of cheaper printing provided him with his opportunity. His scholarship and his almost unnerving instinct for the music of our language furnished him with the means. His commitment to spreading the word supplied his motive. And it's his motive which I believe put him squarely and famously on the right side of one of the great divisions which separate mankind.

And that's the division between people who like to keep their knowledge to themselves and the people who like to share their knowledge with other people.

I am a dedicated opponent of the knowledge hoarders. I am a strong supporter of tire knowledge spreaders. And William Tyndale was a knowledge spreader.

The hoarders of knowledge have a multiplicily of motives. Some recognise that knowledge is power. So they keep it to themselves for practical reasons to maintain a position of privilege or to sustain a mystique which surrounds their priesthood or monarchy, oligarchy or political in-group to give themselves unmerited advantage. Others keep knowledge to themselves for financial gain. Another group are motivated by snobbery. They feel that their eminence or singularity is undermined if others come to know and appreciate the thing, that they appreciate. Others simply can't help it. They get a kick out of being ‘on the inside’.

All these reasons for keeping knowledge from other people are harmful to the state of the nation. They always have been and they always will be. Any existing ‘establishment’ will always have an interest in perpetuating its power or privileges. So the hoarding of knowledge tends to be ‘conservative’ with a small ‘c’ — but it is not the monopoly of the right in politics. There have been, and still are. hoarders of knowledge in the middle ground of politics and on the left as well.

Let me start by looking at the hoarders of knowledge who do it to keep up their power or their mystique. These people feel threatened if there is a danger that their group's monopoly of certain knowledge will be broken. And they are right to feel threatened. History suggests that if they lose sole control of the levers of knowledge they will indeed lose power.

Look at William Tyndale's own impact on the times in which he lived. He is reported to have said to another scholar: ‘... if God spare my life, ere many years. I will cause a boy that drives the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost’.

I believe that to he one of the most revolutionary statements in the English language. If threatened both church and state, the political and the religious establishment They believed the sort of thing Tyndale was doing would bring about ‘the end of civilisation as they knew it’. And they were right. It did. Their analysis was correct. Their fears were justified.

They feared that if more and more people were able to read the Christian message for themselves it would lead to more and more of them questioning the established order. Not just the religious order, but the whole lot. and as Henry VIII was busily tying church and state together as never before, the link between the church and state and their consequent joint vulnerability was plain for all to see.

So the King and the rest of the Establishment set about trying to stop the spread of Tyndale's works. In the end they had him imprisoned and killed. As we all know, Henry VIII had no compunction about killing any threat to himself or his heirs. The possession of royal blood or a bishopric or scholarship was no deterrent. At times it seemed to goad him on.

As late as 1543, seven years after Tyndale was dead, Henry tried to pursue him beyond the grave. In 1543 he got Parliament to pass ‘An Act for the Advancement of I we Religion and the Abolishment of the Contrary’. When you read the Act you discover that Tyndale's New Testament was the contrary they were trying to abolish.

Indeed it specifically ordered that ‘the crafty, false and untrue translation of Tyndale’ by Act of Parliament to be ‘clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished and or bidden to be kept or used in this realm’.

It imposed penalties on anyone who read the Bible in English, even in private, without a licence from the King. The Act didn't prevent the English Bible or New Testament being read privately by the ‘highest and most honest sort’ — not an inevitable pairing then or now. But that exemption applied to ‘no women, nor ,artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeoman or under, husbandmen nor labourers’. For as the Act made clear, to read Tyndale's Bible led them to form ‘divers naughty and erroneous opinions’ which could lead to ‘the great unquietness of the realm’.

So those in authority tried their best to stifle the spread of Tyndale's gospels just as they had stifled the man himself before burning his body at the stake. But by then it was too late. The cat was out of the bag. The genie was out of the bottle.

There was no stopping the spread of the New Testament in English. Like the nuclear bomb, it couldn't be de-invented. It was now becoming a part of our culture, a part of the religious and political reality with which those in power had to deal. And it and its offspring, the King James Bible, were to turn the world upside down.

The English Bible based upon Tyndale's translation was the foundation of dissent — the basis of personal religious self-confidence. Providing he could read at all, the boy that drove the plough could have access to God's word without needing the sen ices of mediator or advocate. Over the next century and a half, the worst gars of those who tried to suppress Tyndale's Bible were realised. Their world was turned upside down. And his bible has contributed to the process. The divine right of kings suffered from its exposure to criticism, which drew on the bible. It never recovered from that close scrutiny.

Without an English bible, it's hard to believe that another unfashionable. unclubbable figure, Bunyan, would have written Pilgrim's Progress — he surely went to war — civil war — with a bible in his knapsack and he, as Kipling described him, was ‘the lowest of the low’. ‘A tinker out of Bedford, a vagrant oft in quod, a private under Fairfax, a Minister of God.’

Bunyan was both a product of a world turned upside down and one of those who did the turning. One of the lower sort of persons Henry VIII had in mind. Just the sort he but tried in vain to suppress.

The trouble for the upholders of any status quo who rely on a monopoly of knowledge is that their corpus of knowledge grows flaccid and weak. It cant defend itself and its users lose the capacity to defend it because they are unaccustomed to challenges other than from people like themselves. They may dispute with one another, but when they do that, all the disputants accept the in-group's set of rules — so when someone appears who acquires the knowledge without acquiring the conventional rules of civilised debate at the same time — when someone like that appears the effect is that of the vandal at the gates — and a knowledgeable vandal at that.

Contemporary wisdom in whatever age is vulnerable to attack unless it is subjected to tough criticism. As Milton said it so well, I'll quote him rather than burden you with a pedestrian paraphrase. He said in Areopagitica, ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed that never sallies out and sees her adversary ...’.

He was convinced that a worthwhile argument could not be won ‘without heat and dust’. So it's frequently the case that conventional wisdom buckles quickly under assault. And trying to suppress the challenge doesn't work. As Francis Bacon said. ‘a forbidden writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them that seek to tread it out.’

So it's clear that knowledge must be fighting fit - and that it won't stay that way it some group has a monopoly of it. It will be used for the benefit of the few rather than the many. And later it will be too weak even to protect the privileged. So I'm a truth spreader because I'm against privilege. And I'm a truth spreader because I like the truth and want to see it triumph.

Many improvements in our society have resulted from pulling back the curtains to reveal the doings of a privileged few. The scribblers who surreptitiously took notes in the gallery of the unreformed House of Commons and published the proceeding, did far more for English liberty than any of those they reported on.

William Russell's reports for the Times on the Crimean War did more to draw attention to the shortcomings of the conduct of military affairs and to provoke action to improve things than all the private musings of the officer corps were ever likely to have done. Wider knowledge of wrongdoing, inadequacy, inefficiency, ineffectiveness or waste will be uncomfortable for those involved, but it will benefit everybody in the long run. That's why we need to carry forward the spread of information.

The advancement of knowledge also requires that knowledge be spread. That of course is the basis of the patent laws. In exchange for a monopoly over the use of an invention or innovation, the originator of the idea is forced to put it on public record so that others in the same field can learn of the latest ideas and developments. As a result knowledge builds up and science and technology progresses.

It's well known that all sorts of organisations have knowledge, which they regard as commercially confidential — because, if the information were disclosed it could take away their commercial advantage over their competitors. This is understandable and reasonable but even this form of knowledge-hoarding can be harmful to the public.

In my job as Secretary of State for Health, I recently presented awards to nurses for innovations in caring for patients. New approaches that were better for patients and which saved money. When I asked of them what was being done to spread these good ideas, I was told by some of the nurses concerned that they had been told by the managers of their hospital not to spread their knowledge. Because if they did, it would undermine their hospital's competitive advantage over neighbouring hospitals.

When I told this story to a pair of distinguished heart surgeons they gave me examples of management efforts on similar grounds to prevent the spread of new techniques in heart surgery. So you can see why I am a knowledge spreader rather than a knowledge hoarder.

And that brings me to the snobbish boarders of knowledge — people who feel diminished if they feel their elevated taste is being shared by people outside their magic circle. The sort of people who liked tenors singing Nessun Dorma until it was popularised by Pavarotti for the Italia '90 World Cup.

I spotted another wonderful example a few weeks ago when a columnist in one of the broadsheet newspapers wrote disparagingly of all the people who had started to read the poetry of WH Auden simply because of the funeral reading in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. That poem had a dramatic impact because it is a good poem — relevant and illuminating — and well delivered. It brought Auden to people who had never heard his name. I thought that was wonderful.

But the snobs seem to feel that a work of art is diluted if it is widely appreciated. Surely anyone who really thinks Auden's poetry is good would want to spread it to others. Surely if a tenor has a wonderful voice and is singing a beautiful aria, the wonder and the beauty are not diminished because others are listening and liking what they hear. Surely the insight or lift to the human spirit which you can get from a poem or a play or a tune or a painting is not curtailed by the knowledge that thousands of others have experienced what we are experiencing. Surely a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled.

I'm glad to say that the new Government's approach to education, art and culture is quite the reverse of the snobbery of the knowledge boarders. We want to see them spread to the many — not confined to the few.

That's why we are determined to raise levels of literacy - to make sure that the modern equivalent of the plough boy will be able to read. Let's just stop a minute and think what our day would have been like if we couldn't read or write. Without literacy no-one can acquire knowledge let alone benefit from it. I'm sure Tyndale would have approved of our programme to equip everyone to acquire and benefit from contemporary knowledge. Equally our approach to art and culture is to open it up to everyone who is interested and to catch the interest of others who are not. That doesn't mean diluting standards. It means showing to more people what pleasures high standards of art can bring, raising expectations and making people dissatisfied with low standards — always on the look out for improvement and higher standards.

Then of course I come to the people who are boarders of knowledge because they can't help it. The people who believe their status is diminished — their uniqueness undermined if others know what they know — the ‘in-group’ people.

However old they are, they are the equivalent of the child in the school who says ‘I know something you don't know’.

They are to be found everywhere — in business, in universities and colleges, in politics, in the Civil Service, in the Church, the armed forces, trade unions. in voluntary organisations, in the media, local and national charities. They are everywhere.

I must confess that I don't really know what we can do about them. They have been there in every society, in every part of the world. I guess they will be around forever Perhaps it's best just to let them alone — marinating in the sense of their own importance — while the rest of us get on with our lives.

So you'll have gathered by now that I am in favour of spreading knowledge. That's not just because I have always believed the truth of Francis Bacon's statement that ‘knowledge itself is power’. It's also because I believe we can apply to knowledge what Bacon said about money: ‘money is like muck — not good except it he spread’.

I want to see knowledge spread to the many. That is not just good for the individual. It's good for all the rest of us. It's good for society. It's good for the economy. It's the only way we will be able to pay our way in the world.

It's a commonplace that we are living in the ‘information age’ and that those who do not command the skills to have access to information will get left behind. That doesn't just apply to individuals. It applies to whole countries.

So we have got to learn to spread the word by the newest means available. But it's not just a question of commanding the technology. Just having the means won't do the trick.

We also need the motivation. And I can say that the new Government has the motivation. We are determined to provide our people — all our people — with the means to gain all the knowledge they need or desire. We are committed to opening up the process of government to public scrutiny. We will pass a Freedom of Information Act. We are committed to building up the role of the House of Commons. We are strengthening its capacity to scrutinise the functioning of the Government.

That's not just right in principle. It is advantagious in practice. Even if some people a monopoly of knowledge, they never have a monopoly of wisdom. So the more people who know what's going on, the more people who have a say, the more likely ire to come to the right decisions.

But that will only happen if all the people have the necessary information at their disposal. And that is what we are determined to promote. The dissemination of information so that people can reach informed decisions.

I hope you won't think I am making a party political point when I say that the new Government is committed deeply and seriously to the spread of knowledge — so that it can benefit the many and not just the few. So that it can benefit the individual concerned but also the nation as a whole, by improving our chances of paying our way in the world and having a greater influence for good on world affairs.

We will be helped in this by the fact that English is, as the Prime Minister called it yesterday in his speech at Brighton, the world's first language. And so it is.

And that brings me back to William Tyndale. Because the dominance of English in world communications is owed in no small measure to Tyndale's crucial contribution the development of our language. That's why I feel so privileged to have been asked to deliver this lecture celebrating Tyndale's revolutionary contribution to the spread of knowledge and his inspiration to those like you and I who share his wish to read the word.

Chairman's Closing Remarks
After prolonged applause, the Chairman thanked the lecturer:

‘Mr Dobson, the applause speaks for itself. It has been exhilarating to hear of Tyndale, and his 1526 New Testament, at the head of a centuries-long revolution of knowledge, seen from 1997. The impact of that book has come to us so freshly. It has all been so gently given this evening, but your passionate commitment to freedom of information, coming from the very heart of government, has been an inspiration. You have shared the vigour of our knowledge with us, quoting (as far as I could tell, from memory) from Hilton, Bunyan, Kipling and Auden — it is marvellous to hear that John Milton was in the Prime Minister's speech at the party conference. You have given us a rare experience. We all thank you very much indeed.’

There followed further prolonged applause.

David Daniell

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