William Tyndale into the new Millennium

A memorable and most pleasant event took place on Saturday 19th June when the Tyndale Society and The British Library joined forces to stage a conference. This took place in the Conference Centre at the British Library.

Under the expert direction of Mary Clow, with an audience of more than eighty ‘Tyndalians’, in the new and superb auditorium with the latest in communication technology, and with the great and famous to instruct and entertain us, we were ‘lucky’ indeed.

But first a preview. Mary had persuaded Sean Rafferty of Radio 3’s ‘In tune’ to talk to Prunella Scales and Tim West about Tyndale. This was on Friday, the day before the conference, and to a wide radio audience. Prunella and Tim gave Tyndale a huge build up and Sean was soon using all the familiar phrases such as ‘to the Little Sodbury Manor born’. It was a joy to listen to.

Saturday opened with David Daniell welcoming us and giving, as he alone does so well, some pithy thoughts on Tyndale and his time. With an audience of mixed provenance this was especially welcome. From then on the conference proceeded with seamless logic to place William Tyndale in the context of the new millennium. Firstly with a demonstration by Clive Izard of the British Library, of his page turning computer program. A fine device, indeed, it is. Clive has created a virtual reality touch screen that shows rare books in full colour and in magnification. A cursory stroking of the screen and Hey Presto! the ‘pages’ turn. They curl slightly, a shadow falls and lengthens and the new ‘page’ is there. One can move forward and back through the book by touching the screen. It is also possible to select an area of the ‘page’ to zoom in on at a higher magnification. All that one cannot do to a rare manuscript in a glass case, one can do to its digital facsimile through this magnificent software package.

In the last century the Englishman would have subdued the natives and extended the Empire with such magic. Today the natives are probably quite happy surfing the Internet. Anyway for us in the Tyndale Society it was miraculous indeed. The good news, as Clive told us, is that the British Library will be putting Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament on the page-turner early in 2000.

With regret we learn that this cutting edge, British and exclusive, technology will not be on show in the Millennium Dome. The Play Zone will, however, have several dozen screens for the kids to jiggle with and learn about ... well, I can’t think what.

David Ireson then gave us a presentation of the final edition of ‘Let there be Light’. It is a show stopper. Wonderful and imaginative slides full of atmosphere, beautiful and informative text, a nice pace. This is David’s creation and deserves to be shown widely across the country. Members of the society who have not yet seen ‘Let there be Light’ should be urged to do so and further urged to place it before their local audiences - it is a truly professional piece of work.

At this point Simon Ward gave a reading from The Obedience of a Christian Man. It was masterly. Tyndale, one realised, had great wit, humour and a wonderful flow of ideas. Simon gave us all this and more, to the point where, despite the intervening five hundred years, we found ourselves chuckling as they must have done. With a Royal wedding taking place that very day we heard Tyndale’s advice to husbands, wives and fathers with more than usual interest. It was only afterwards that we learned that Simon Ward had returned from abroad a day before and prepared his reading in 24 hours. Such is the skill of great actors.

‘No Tyndale - no Shakespeare’ as the saying goes. Never more true than when Timothy West read passages from the Bard. We realised the power of the spoken word and the debt that Shakespeare clearly owed to Tyndale. In many households the Bible was probably the only book and was read aloud by someone who could read to those who could not. The sounds, the rhythms and cadences of Tyndale cry out in Shakespeare and Tim made us all realise this.

Prunella Scales gave us the final reading of the morning. Firstly from Tyndale’s introduction to the Old Testament, ‘WT to the Reader’. This is the patient but clearly exasperated outpouring of a man who has striven his best and scarcely comprehends the flow of invective against him. As he says, ‘when it hath but one simple literal sense whose light the owls cannot abide’. He wants the scripture ‘plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue’. Prunella gave us a powerful and passionate rendering of Tyndale’s despair. Next she read ‘A Prologue Showing the Use of the Scripture’ where Tyndale argues for acceptance of all sides of the biblical characters, Noah, Jacob, David and others, good and bad, which are a lesson to us all. ‘Suck out the pith of the Scripture’, he urges us. Lastly we heard the opening chapter of Genesis and we realised, yet again, the power, the clarity and the ultimate simplicity of the translation.

We were deeply grateful to this great husband and wife team who gave us such memorable readings. At two o'clock they flitted back to theatre-land and the realities of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party in Saturday’s matinée in the Piccadilly Theatre.

After lunch Mary Clow introduced the poet Christopher Logue to read a piece from his poem War Music. Homer endures. Probably translated into English more than 200 times, his is a story that cannot be ignored. In the early days of Christianity this posed problems for people brought up in the Greek Homeric tradition. Zeus and the pantheon of gods could not exist beside the image of one God or at most a Trinity. Mary explained this and its resolution to us in clear terms.

Christopher’s reading of his poem describes Patroclus and the events leading to his death. We shivered at the brutality of the Trojan war and, in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, realised. that Homer’s vision is not an arrow shot away from our modern hostilities.

Then a change of pace. We were shown a series of clips from religious films, many of them cartoons. Did they work? Perhaps everyone had their own view, I know I had mine. The cartoon genre began in the early 1930s, I believe, with the Three Little Pigs. Disney took over and colour drawing technology put us into one of the most enduring facets of twentieth century entertainment. Could this apply to a serious message is a question that is difficult to assess. Like Marshall Macluan’s The Medium is the Message we confuse content and method usually, I confess, to the detriment of the message. In these cartoon films one remembers the huge parting of the Red Sea, the slickness of the young David, the hot bare rocks of the Holy Land, but what was it all saying?

David Robinson a former critic of the Times, a film historian and Director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy discussed and introduced the 1964 Pasolini film, The Gospel according to St. Mathew. After the cartoons this was like a ‘moment of truth’. Ethereal, almost dreamlike in the filming the characters floated before us in. a stony landscape and one felt that this was how it was. Mary had an extraordinary beauty, both innocent and knowing in the face of a child who could scarcely have been more than sixteen. It seemed as if the quatrocento painters had unfairly aged her by ten years. ­The disciples had the faces and manner of real peasants and Pasolini must have enjoyed the casting sessions. Jesus, the actor of 35 years ago, was commanding almost hypnotic. Dark eyebrows meeting above the nose, gentle mouth and eyes which could occasionally flash with deep anger, the face was perfection, For those with Italian the voices were a joy to hear. When the film came to a close the audience remained quite silent for several moments. Pasolini had moved us.

The conference ended with David Daniell reading passages from Tyndale’s Bible, New and Old Testament. Many of us knew the text well but there can be no doubt that Tyndale becomes richer the more he is heard. ‘A fools paradise’ read David and we span the five hundred year chasm to the millennium with ease. And with equal ease Tyndale marches on into the twenty-first century.

We are all grateful to Mary Clow for arranging this superb day. To our guest speakers for giving their precious time. To our audience for supporting us. And to David Daniell who has been the inspiration that has propelled William Tyndale into wide public appreciation.

Sir Rowland Whitehead

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