Conference Report: The Reformed Church Tradition: Language. Music and Spirituality

October 31st was not a particularly clement day: but for those attending the Day Conference at Le Cenacle Spiritual Centre, Geneva it was a day enlivened by strong scholarship lightened by humour, allied with convivial fellowship over coffee and meals, culminating in a joint act of worship. Some participants had travelled long distances to be there; even for the Geneva-based delegates, a sense of anticipation pervaded the leisurely gathering for registration and, inevitably, coffee.

An introduction to the Conference theme as well as a welcome to the did shed speakers and attending audience was proffered by Valerie Offord in a short speech larded with witty, historical vignettes one of which linked the day's date (31 Oct. 98) with that purporting to be the date upon which Luther nailed his 95 theses against indulgences to the castle door of Wittenberg (31 Oct. 1517). The sense of being part of an on-going reformation tradition was strong. She was followed by the first main speaker, Professor David Daniell, Tyndale scholar and apologist, also Emeritus Professor of English at the University of London. His brief was evident from the outset, to urge the reinstatement of William Tyndale as a first rate scholar, translator and polemicist. To this end, he enthralled his audience by his lecture entitled Tyndale, Geneva and the English Bible.

Professor Daniell gave a thumbnail sketch of the parlous state of the English language up to the middle of the fifteenth century. The heights scaled by Shakespeare and the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible came in the second half of that century. Much of the latter is Tyndale's work, though unacknowledged plagiarism isn't a modem phenomenon! There was no solid body of literature in the vernacular; certainly no Bible as this had been expressly forbidden as a counter measure to the Lollards. In this instance, England was at odds with its neighbours in Continental Europe. Does anything change? We were introduced to William Tyndale (October 1494 -- October 1536) by a short, colourful biography from a man whose admiration, respect and devotion to his subject were evident. His argument was illustrated vividly by readings from several well-known passages from the Old and New Testaments in Tyndale's translation. These readings were powerful in their delivery and in their ability to move us to new understandings of their original textual meaning. Tyndale's scholarship is evident in his ability to handle the subtlety of the original Hebrew and Greek texts as he renders them into the vernacular speech of, and comprehensible to, the 'plough boy'. An overview of the history of the English Bible followed during which Professor Daniell highlighted the production of the Geneva Bible focusing on the edition revised by Lawrence Thompson in 1576. The audience was somewhat privileged as this was the first time that he had spoken about his new research. Thompson's Bible was versified so that it could be used with a concordance, with glosses, notes in the margin and indeed, in one edition it was complete with a study guide. 'To know the Geneva Bible is to know Tyndale's translation and his theology' asserts Prof. Daniell. Furthermore 'Geneva's margins debated the English language and its meaning'. When we broke for coffee, it was with a renewed sense of gratitude to William Tyndale who gave us not just the Bible in English but whose work formed the bedrock of English language and literature

In his second lecture after lunch Prof. Daniell donned his specialist hat and explored further the links between The Reformed Church and Shakespeare. He kindly agreed to discourse upon this topic at short notice substituting for Dr Alan Bartlett who was ill. It was a revelation to many of us to realise that Shakespeare, the man to whom we had been taught to look as the founding genius of the English language, himself owed much to the Reformation writers. The quintessential European whose ideas and vocabulary as revealed in his forty plays and three volumes of poetry displayed this identity profoundly. The four seminal features of Shakespearean England, underpinning his work, were used by Prof. Daniell to frame his lecture. These are, namely, the common activity of Bible reading; the explosion of creativity in the humanities and allied fields; the effect of Calvinism (re-read 'Hamlet' in the light of this insight); the revised Geneva (Thompson) Bible of 1576 which contained notes on the book of Revelation for the first time thus freeing the imagination of Milton and Shakespeare and many other writers. These, taken together, provided the backdrop against which Shakespeare's work should be viewed; a working paradigm within which each element can be seen to reinforce the other.

Our second speaker of the morning was someone well known to the Holy Trinity congregation members present but whose academic standing commands respect on a much wider stage, namely Prof. Francis Higman His provocatively titled paper, Who taught the French to think? The role of John Calvin lived up to promise. It was lively, informative and oh, so stimulating. We all felt involved in tracing the rhetorical figures and patterns of sentence construction used by Calvin and comparing these with those of his contemporaries' writings. T he analytical diagrams used by Prof. Higman to illustrate his argument following the strategy devised by Richard Sayce, linguist, grammarian and mentor to Prof. Higman) had the audience straining to see for themselves how many clauses/subordinate clauses et al. were in the text under scrutiny it was illuminating to realise that Calvin's mind-set was that of a trained lawyer not that of a theologian, in which discipline he was self-taught. A feature of his clear style, which made his work so accessible, was the hallmark of linear reasoning. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the French language was a superb vehicle for novels, descriptive pieces, meditative and emotional works but not hot on conveying abstract thought. Calvin invented the systematic use of the short, simple sentence that we find in modern French. So the Calvin era saw the beginning of the development of the French classical language structure which enabled Descartes, Pascal and others to write their philosophical treatises in such clarity. It was a thoroughly scholarly and entertaining account of the evolution of the French literary debating style and for those present, stimulated a lively question and answer period ably chaired by Dr. Falconer. Both Professors Daniell and Higman responded to questioning with off-the-cuff repartee which entertained and informed. Quotable quotes emerged: 'The Reformation saw the Bible alongside, not locked inside, the Church'. Questions ranged from Cranmer and Anglicanism through Reformation London, to a discussion of holiness both individual and communal; a closed versus an open community i.e. Geneva versus Antwerp and to a classical debating topic 'Which came first the church or the scriptures?'

With such a wealth of thought crowding our minds, we made our way to the chapel to unite in Choral evensong led by the choir of Holy Trinity. A fitting end to a day which had promised much and delivered the same. We were immensely grateful to those who had had the vision to plan this Day Conference and the perseverance to carry it through to its triumphal end in the face of large and unforeseen barriers. Those who were there will not forget it easily and those who were not able to come maybe have glimpsed something to whet their appetite for the next one.... if such there be!

Claire Spivey, November 1998

     This report was published in Holy Trinity Geneva Newsletter
     December 1998 issue no 272.