Address for the Tyndale Society/Prayer Book Society

St Dunstan's-in-the-West, Fleet Street, Tuesday 8th July 1997

It is for me a great privilege as well as a joy to be here this evening to preach at this first service jointly organised by the Tyndale Society and the Prayer Book Society. And it is particularly appropriate that we should he holding this service in St Dunstan's-in-the-West, since Professor Daniell reminds me that it was in an earlier St Dunstan's church on this site that Tyndale preached before. Realising that there was no place in all England where he could safely translate the New Testament from Greek into English, he sailed for Germany and an exile from which he never returned.

The Prayer Book Society this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. The Society is attracting new members by the day and I think I can safely say that, without it, the Book of Common Prayer would have been totally lost through wilful neglect or antagonism. The Tyndale Society, formed in January 1995, is younger but, through its conferences, lectures and its scholarly journal, Reformation, has already established a reputation and is growing in influence. This evening we are meeting together, for the first but, I hope, not for the last time, to celebrate and give thanks to Almighty God for the work and witness of two of the most remarkable Englishmen in our history, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer.

Happily we know more about both men now than we did a few years ago, thanks to the work of their biographers. In 1994 David Daniell produced the first biography of Tyndale for sixty years, published in the quincentenary year of his birth. Professor Daniell describes the more dramatic events of Tyndale's life, assesses his achievement as translator and expositor, and explores his influence on the theology and history of the reformation. It was due to the influence of this biography and the re-issue of the Tyndale Bible that the Tyndale Society came into being, with Professor Daniell as Chairman.

Then in 1996 we in the Prayer Book Society particularly welcomed the appearance of Diarmaid MacCulloch's masterly biography of Thomas Cranmer, the first biography for over thirty years, and one which makes use of previously unpublished material in the Vatican and Polish archives. This is a work of formidable size and scholarship in which Mr MacCulloch leads us through the maze of technological argument, compromise, political expediency and barbarism which accompanied that confused historical, religious and social upheaval which was the English Reformation, and shows us clearly across three centuries the essential man.

We have always known more about Cranmer than about Tyndale. Even the exact date of Tyndale's birth is uncertain, and the place of his birth is unknown, although it is thought to have been at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. He was educated at Oxford and ordained priest. He spent some time at Cambridge, and it is probably there that he came under the influence of Erasmus and the Protestant reformers. He realised that he reasonableness and honesty of a man who will avoid an agonising public death if he can do so. But for us, who by God's grace will never have to face so appalling a choice, there still comes that moment of decision, sometimes in small matters, more often in large, when prevarication and compromise have to stop and we can only say, in the words of Luther, ‘Here stand I. I can do no other’. In this moment Cranmer is our example and our inspiration.

So too with Tyndale. For me the moment which I remember most in the biography is of that cold, betrayed and doomed prisoner writing to ask for warm clothes and a Hebrew dictionary. He knew the death he was facing, but the work had to go on. And I like to think that he saw beyond the walls of his prison the hills and meadows of his native Gloucestershire, and could picture the turning soil behind the ploughboy - that ploughboy who, because of his work, could in knowledge of the scriptures be the equal of any bishop in Christendom. And if as Christians we believe that God has a purpose for each of us, however humble in the world's eyes that task may seem, then Tyndale's example of steadfast perseverance even to the end is as much an example and inspiration for us as it was celebration of the human spirit.

But it is our privilege and our joy as members of the Tyndale Society and the Prayer Book Society to do more than take courage and resolution from these examples of courage and perseverance. It is our task to ensure that what is most lasting about them - their work - is never forgotten. I find it astonishing that Tyndale, without whom we would never had had the King James Bible, is unknown to countless young people who go to university to read English: equally astonishing that there is an increasing number of children who leave school without ever hearing the King James Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, the greatest works of literature in the language. If Tyndale and Cranmer had not lived, I would not be speaking to you this evening in the language I am using. We would almost certainly not have had Shakespeare. English would not now be a world language and one of extraordinary richness, strength and versatility.

Praise for the Bible and the Prayer Book as literature would, of course, have been incomprehensible to Tyndale and to Cranmer. Tyndale was translating into the language of the common people the good news of man's salvation and the hope of everlasting life. Cranmer was setting out to establish a firm foundation for the reformed church in worship and theology. Yet, as a writer, I like to believe that both had a creator's joy in their genius, that they knew the supreme satisfaction of putting the right words in the right order and that, snuffing out their candles at the end of the working day and looking back at what they had achieved, they knew that it was good.

May we who enjoy so rich a heritage from their example and their genius resolve that their work shall be honoured and, above all, used both in private reading and in public worship, not only in this our generation, but for all generations to come.

©J P D James, 1997
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