Sermon given at Matins on the feast of Christ the King 2011
20 November 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
In 2011 churches, theatres and festivals have been celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, so-called because it was produced at the behest of King James I, following the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604. On Wednesday of this week, HM The Queen attended a national service of thanksgiving here in Westminster Abbey for this uniquely influential English translation of the Bible.
In this sermon series in November, I have been looking at some of the events and controversies which led to its creation in 1611. A fortnight ago I looked at the impact of the new technology of printing, and how English as a language gradually grew in confidence before displacing French in Government circles by the 1450s.
Today, I am taking a step further and considering how the Protestant Reformation, which did so much to encourage both worship and scripture in the mother tongue, arose in England.
But first I want to take you over the North Sea and back some twenty years. It is the very end of 1992, a bitterly cold year, and my first living in Holland. In fact, it is so cold that not only are the still waters of the canals frozen, but also the running channels of the inland waterways.
Coming from the warm and wet South West of England, this is new for me. I have never known prolonged cold, let alone prolonged ice, and I hear that my local river – along which barges ply their trade – has frozen over. With my toddler daughter in tow, I walk to the edge of the River Rotte to be met by groups of ice skaters gliding effortlessly over the frozen surface.
As it happens, Rotterdam – the city where the Rotte was finally dammed – was the birthplace in 1466 of one of the most influential figures in the European Reformation, Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Schooled by the Brothers of the Common Life, those followers of the spiritual enlightenment known as the Devotio Moderna, Erasmus is often considered the archetypal Renaissance man. Paris, Leuven, Cambridge, Basel were his homes from where he penned the 1503 ‘Handbook of the Christian Soldier’ and launched his assaults on the Church, calling for the reform of her Clergy.
Although Erasmus would have no part in the Reformation proper, nonetheless he could see that Scripture should be translated into the mother tongue of the hearer: “Christ wishes his mysteries to be made known as widely as possible”, he said. “I wish that the farm labourer might sing parts of them at his plough, that the weaver might hum them at his shuttle, and that the traveller might ease his weariness by reciting them”.
In the early 1500s, the Church was using almost universally the Vulgate Latin translation, most often in a 12th-century Paris Edition. Having been deeply impressed by the biblical learning of John Colet, later Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Erasmus set about mastering Greek and in 1516 produced his own edition of the Greek New Testament, together with a new Latin translation.
Just two short examples show how important a step this was. The Latin Vulgate translates Matthew 3.2, describing John the Baptist’s ministry: “Do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”. Erasmus translated this as “Repent”, a personal act of contrition, rather than the penitential system administered by the Church. Or the Latin of Luke 1.28 has the Virgin Mary described “Hail, O one that is full of Grace!” as if she were a reservoir of God’s grace which she could dispense. To Erasmus, this phrase simply indicated that Mary had found God’s favour.
Time will not allow me to describe my second linchpin of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s journey of faith but he realised by 1515 that the monastic life for which he had taken a vow would not provide the assurance of forgiveness which he craved. The discovery that God provided righteousness for salvation “made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light”.
The story of how Luther came to post his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is well-known. Johan Tetzel, a Dominican priest, arrived in the University City of Wittenberg, where Luther was a professor, selling indulgences to fund the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The jingle started to do the rounds: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / The soul from purgatory springs”. Luther was incensed and his Ninety-Five Theses were a dramatic, if rather academic broadside – in Latin!
The controversy landed Luther in deep water and he was tried locally in a Church court, but this gave him the opportunity to speak out for University Reform – this time, not in the Latin of the academic world but in his native German.
Within a few years, he broadened his appeal to the German Nobility, and by 1520 added an extra demand – that the Bible should be read and interpreted by the laity. And to do this, who did he turn to? He used the newly-prepared text of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Luther argued that the church had lost sight of the fundamental New Testament principle that Salvation is given by God as a gift and not earned as a reward, and that the key to the reform and renewal of the Church was to put the Bible into the hands of lay people.
If the German Reformation was directed against the church on a theological basis, the Reformation of the English Church was quite different in character.
As well as being a Canon of the Abbey, I also have the privilege of being Rector of St Margaret’s Church, the parish Church of Parliament. In the church’s East end, there is a fine stained glass window commemorating the betrothal of Catherine of Aragon to King Henry VIII. Do seek it out if you have time.
It was, of course, the impasse surrounding the granting of a divorce from that marriage which set in train a chain of events leading to the Succession Act (which enabled the Crown to pass to Henry’s children), to the Supremacy Act (which established Henry as the head of the new Church of England) and to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The rights and wrongs of this period in our history are beyond my scope this morning, but by December 1534, the Convocation of Canterbury was petitioning Henry for an English Bible to rival that available to their Lutheran counterparts on the Continent: “The Holy Scripture should be translated into the vulgar English tongue by certain good and learned men, to be nominated by His Majesty, and should be delivered to the people for their instruction”.
The story of William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and the Great Bible will have to wait until my final sermon next Sunday. But in the meantime, let me leave you with the question which runs through these three addresses.
If in the providence of God, the revolutions and reformations of that era were able to mobilise the Word of God in the shaping of a new social and political order, what might we say in our own day? Can we see in the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of China or even the Arab Spring, the hand of God at work?