Monday, 27 December 2010

Her Majesty's Christmas Broadcast: the King James Bible

"The Queen speaks about building communities through religion and sport during her annual 'Queen's Speech'." This is how the official website of the British Monarchy trailed this year's Christmas Broadcast. Much of the media coverage picked up on the "sport" and didn't give much attention to the "religion", though this might have been the result of the emphasis of the Monarchy's own advance coverage.

For the record, the full text of Her Majesty's Christmas Day Broadcast can be found here, and the video version here (yes, HM is on youtube). The video version includes clips of young people reading extracts from the nativity stories in the King James version of the Bible, that are absent from the written text.

I found the Queen's remarks about the King James version of the Bible interesting. Indeed, the recording of the Broadcast at Hampton Court was precisely because that was the location of the conference in 1604 at which the suggestion of a new English translation of the Bible was made.
Here at Hampton Court in 1604, he [James I of England and VI of Scotlnad] convened a conference of churchmen of all shades of opinion to discuss the future of Christianity in this country. The King agreed to commission a new translation of the Bible that was acceptable to all parties. This was to become the King James or Authorized Bible, which next year will be exactly four centuries old.

Acknowledged as a masterpiece of English prose and the most vivid translation of the scriptures, the glorious language of this Bible has survived the turbulence of history and given many of us the most widely-recognised and beautiful descriptions of the birth of Jesus Christ which we celebrate today.
The account of this same conference in Christopher Lee's book This Sceptred Isle, based on a BBC radio series of some years ago, is as follows. Lee's quotation is from Winston Churchill's history of Great Britain:
The bishops, fearful that the Puritan leaders would have their way with the new King, came up with a plan to load the forthcoming conference with moderate Puritan speakers rather than zealots. The result was a few changes with which the bishops could agree, certain disappointments for the Puritan leaders, but most of all, a declaration that brought non-conformist minsiters into some sort of line. There were few moments of accord in that conference; but the leader of the Puritan delegation, Dr John Reynolds, came up with a suggestion that particularly gained the King's attention, and whose results have had a lasting effect.

"Reynolds, President of the Oxford College of Corpus Christi, had asked, seemingly on the spur of the moment, if a new version of the Bible could be produced. The idea appealed to [King] James. Till now the clergy had relied on a number of different translations ... Each party and sect used the version which best suited its own views and doctrines"
Churchill observes that the resulting King James Bible "won an immediate and lasting triumph ...This may be deemed James's greatest achievement, for the impulse was largely his".

As the Queen observes, the intention of this translation was to produce a version of the Bible that was acceptable for use by Christians of differing shades of opinion in the England and Scotland of the time. In this sense it had a fundamental intention of working towards unity among Christians. In that light, the methodology adopted is interesting. According to Christopher Lee, again quoting Winston Churchill:
Tendentious renderings were forbidden, and marginal notes or glosses were prohibited except for cross references or to explain the meaning of Greek or Hebrew words which were difficult to translate. About three years passed in preliminary research, and the main work did not get under way till 1607.
The work was undertaken by 6 committees or "companies", two in Oxford, two in Cambridge and two in London. Each "company", a total of some 50 scholars and divines, was allocated a different part of the text to translate. The work of each company was scrutinised by the other companies, and then the whole text scrutinised by supervisory committee. At a time when there was no e-mail or internet (or, as Churchill points out, no official postal service or mechanical method of copying and duplicating texts) the companies finished their work between 1607 and 1609. [Aside: perhaps ICEL can learn something ...]

At a time when the place of religion in public life is very much a hot topic, one can see in the text of Her Majesty's broadcast the discretion that is typical of Queen Elizabeth. The section of the Christmas Broadcast referring to the place of sport in building communities was to be read, I think, in the context of the preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games. One can see the resonance between this and a contemporary political agenda, and the particular contribution that the Royal Family makes to this through the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Games in particular. A very discrete sentence at the end of the Queen's Broadcast asserts a place for religious belonging in society as whole, and a quotation from the King James version offers a suggestion of the contribution of Christianity to the common good:
People are capable of belonging to many communities, including a religious faith.
‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should to do to you, do ye even so to them’.
Roman Catholics were the target of legal penalty and religious persecution at the time that the King James version was produced, and so played no part in its production. With the development of an ecumenical sensitivity, we might now look back and see the unifying intent of the King James version as being flawed because of this exclusion of Catholics from its preparation. So what should our attitude to the 400th anniversary of the King James version be?

Whilst recognising that the anniversary is one that belongs particularly to the Established Church, and to the non-conformist tradition from which the suggestion for the new translation of the Bible came, I do think we should be willing to celebrate the anniversary as representing the presence of the Christian heritage of our lands in the present day. I think we can, too, give recognition to the move towards unity among other Christians that it represented, even though Catholics were not a part of its preparation. We might celebrate the anniversary by familiarising ourselves with the King James Bible's accounts of the key events of the Christian mystery - Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, and Pentecost. I think we can also recognise the beauty and splendour of the language of the translation. I cannot see why a Catholic parish should not, at some time during the anniversary year, use the texts of the King James Bible as a basis for a celebration of those three key events of the Christian mystery.

Catholic Analysis also comments on the King James version.

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