Gloucester Cathedral Tyndale Lecture

The Tyndale lecture and Evensong, held in the Cathedral is now an annual event which seems to be going from strength to strength both in terms of quality and popularity.

The first week in October ended for me in two days of poetry; Thursday 5 October was National Poetry Day, celebrated on radio by the reading of a collection of sonnets – one by our own local poet and speaker, U A Fanthorpe. Then, on Friday 6 October, now William Tyndale’s special day on the church calendar, fifty or more of us gathered in the lofty panelled Laud chamber of the old deanery, for a feast of verse readings by U A Fanthorpe and her poet friend and collaborator, Dr Rosie Bailey.

Ms Fanthorpe’s ‘Half talk – half verse reading’ theme was Getting it across, and the readings, of the kind that some of us had come to anticipate with delight, were shared between the two voices. The theme was further divided into three parts: The importance of the message, Getting it across in the right or the wrong way, and What happens when the message is heard. The poet’s job, we were told, was again three-fold: Listening to people, Celebrating the riches of the English language, and Telling the truth in a way that makes it possible for people to understand.

The poems employed a wide range of subject, from personal experience, moving and questioning, to the hilarious and heart-stopping. The message could be hidden, spoiled or ignored by careless or downright bad listening. There was nothing new in this. We were reminded that the Old Testament was full of people who found it hard to hear and had to learn the hard way by experience. The strong souls however, knew where they were going and what was expected of them by God.

The first poem recounted a moving incident in the life of the poet and was the only one in which she figured as subject. It warned about our being too clever and set in our own opinions. The second poem, The Sonnet, featured a lecturer in English Literature who had failed through prejudice, to hear the real despairing voice of a poet, and was a wry comment upon the ‘task’ of literary criticism. Another set of verses aimed at distilling for us the kind and the voice of a soul very likely to have been familiar to William Tyndale. Amy Cook, road sweeper, post ‘person’, paper deliverer, etc., came over as someone who, though she may ‘never have had a chance’ and had pursued ‘so many dead end jobs’ was a sparky, truth-telling local Gloucestershire character. Incidentally, her voice is now permanently sealed in the archives of two universities.

Hearing the message was one consideration, Getting it across posed other problems, such as the nature and quality of the audience. Next came a very moving and amusing poem, this time written in the person of Jesus, pondering upon the receptivity of His close hearers, the ‘mystified, bored and mortal’ disciples who had to listen over and over to understand His message and parables. This was followed by a short Christmas card poem, written partly for friends who were not all habitual poetry readers. A simple yet wonderful image of the Christmas robin was drawn in verse which could easily be committed to memory.

Then, in Getting it Across the wrong way, we were treated to a shrewd commentary upon the cynical use of words – euphemisms, ‘weasel’ words, etc., of those abusing their power, – clever politicians, academics, lawyers and journalists. In A Young Person’s Guide to Arms, U A Fanthorpe has listed these for us in a set of ten aphorisms. There is no space here to recall all these in detail – even if I could remember them – but the words and phrases under scrutiny were, Enemy, Ethnic cleansing, ‘Eye for an eye’ retaliation, Collateral damage, Surgical strike, Concentration camp, Liquidate, Friendly fire, and Human shield. Enemies, it was concluded, ‘Never forget the past because it justifies what they are doing and seldom mention the future since there may not be any’.

The poet reminded us that the integrity of the word is like the soul’s integrity. Another example of getting it wrong and of misusing language came in the poem, Deus V Adam and Another; This was the hilarious account of the summing up for the defence of Adam and Eve in the case where they were accused of stealing forbidden fruit. This led on to What happens when the message is heard, and this last sequence of three poems retold the stories of men of great courage and vision who had carried out their callings at great personal cost. We were given the stories of Sir Robert Shirley of Staunton Harold in Leicestershire, who had the temerity to build a new church at the time of the Commonwealth, and who died later in prison for his reckless assumption of total responsibility. George Fox’s life and fate was encapsulated for us, in a most unforgettable and vivid poem. Finally, our pair of fine readers’ ‘performance’ of U A Fanthorpe’s long poem, Tyndale in Darkness brought this memorable afternoon to an end.[1]

In moving a vote of thanks to these two poets – for Dr Bailey has also recently published a small collection of her own verse – Professor David Daniell spoke for us all, Tyndale Society, Ploughboys’ Group, and every friend present, on our excitement at such a marvellous event. He told us that, several years ago, he had encountered the poem Road Rage by a U A Fanthorpe and had been looking for her collected poems ever since. Like all of us, he found the ‘lecture’ entrancing, and added that, though he had, in the course of his profession frequently to read and review theological and scholarly comments on Tyndale, he knew for a fact that ‘no one gets near him like the poets’. U A Fanthorpe and Dr Bailey had truly revealed the power of poetry to us.

After visits to the book tables where friends bought copies of the recently published original spelling edition of the Tyndale 1526 New Testament and volumes of poetry, many of us joined guided tours of Gloucester cathedral and found many secrets hidden away in the fabric!

At 5.30pm Sung Evensong in the choir was very well attended and there were looks of surprise on the faces of some of the younger choristers at so large a congregation! The precentor, Canon Neil Heavisides again presided and both readings were taken from the Tyndale translation. The choir gave us fine settings of the Magnificat and of the Ave Verum. The day concluded for some 24 of us with a hot supper in the cathedral undercroft restaurant before we headed home.

David Green, October 2000

  1. This poem is reproduced with the author’s permission on p.17 of this Journal.

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