Lesson from a Translation

The following is the sermon preached by Dr. John Seel on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011. On this day, St. Stephen’s held a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, in which the church “went back in time” to 1611 and had a service as it would have been done in that year.

Today is Christ the King Sunday and one in which we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This is a slice of history unknown to most and irrelevant to the rest.

We are here today representing a great diversity of spiritual journeys. Some came to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church from Presbyterian backgrounds, others from the Roman Catholic Church, and others from a general life of diverse spiritual seeking. A few here are lifelong Episcopalians – but they are the minority. Most of us have little sense of what it means to be an Episcopalian a part from our experiences within this congregation. We’ve been socialized gently into the Prayer Book and the meaning of liturgy. Yet our ties to global Anglicanism – and Canterbury (the Vatican of Anglicanism) – is amorphous. Any ties to Henry VIII or James I are almost nonexistent. No doubt there are Anglophiles among us for whom discussions about the King James Bible over a spot of tea has great resonance. Most of us struggle to find the personal connection to the topic at hand.

Church politics is somewhat like the making of sausage. It is best not to know how it is made. And it usually does little to further one’s spiritual progress. Church politics tends to turn people off to organized religion. This is why the making of the King James Bible is such a miracle. It accomplished in a context of great tension and momentous consequence what few dreamed possible: it united a nation around a translation with enduring beauty and spiritual vitality.

The publication of the King James Bible in 1611 is one of the greatest contributions of the Anglican Church to Western civilization. It is to 17th century England what the baroque cathedrals were to an earlier age. As a literary achievement it ranks with Shakespeare’s plays. It’s spiritual achievement is far greater as it served as the most popular translation of Holy Scripture for over 250 years – for eight or nine generations.

One can also acknowledge that a celebration such as this would call us to reaffirm the need and practice of daily Bible reading. In an earlier era when Scripture memory was a regular practice, it was frequently the King James Bible that served as the translation of choice. Many great passages of Scripture have their resonance in the antiquated language of this Jacobean translation. Here is a medley of familiar passages in the KJB:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3)

 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

The goal of this translation was to combine great scholarship, accessible clarity, and regal majesty. It achieves this wonderfully. It is important to realize that even when it was translated, no one talked this way. It has its own special tenor and tonality from its inception.

But there is a lesson from the history of this translation that applies directly to the charge Margot gave us in her sermon last week. She said, “What precious assets has Jesus entrusted to this particular community of St. Stephens, and how might we step out in faithful risk-taking as a church family?” A key to this question can be found in the story of this translation. But first a brief lesson in English history.

The 16th century was the age of the Reformation – Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1532, and Calvin’s Institutes in 1536. In contrast, the 17th century was the age of science. Our story takes place in the turning of the page from one century to the next – approximately 1600 to 1611. Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII, had stabilized England as a quasi-Protestant country, breaking from the Roman Church, but not fully embracing the radicalism of the Protestant reformers. It was an unstable halfway house. Elizabeth died in 1603, without an apparent heir. Her cousin’s grandson, James VI of Scotland was crowned King James 1 of England.

James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a firebrand Catholic who later married a French Catholic king (though her married life is too complex and sordid to discuss here). In 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate her throne to her only surviving son, James, who was crowned King James VI of Scotland at age 13 months. Upon his coronation, the infant king never saw his mother again. She spent 19 years in various prisons and was finally beheaded for treason against the English throne.

James was raised by Presbyterian caretakers and taught by Puritan George Buchanan, one of the leading minds in Scotland. It was a lonely and tumultuous childhood. In 1600, he narrowly escaped kidnapping and murder from a Scottish earl. He was crowned King of England in 1603 upon Elizabeth I’s death. So at age 34, this child raised without parents, of a Catholic mother killed for treason, tutored by a Protestant scholar, facing political turmoil at home, is appointed King of England, where suppressed factions were emerging to jockey for the new King’s favor. The challenges facing the young King were enormous.

On top of this, London was during the summer of 1603 facing a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague. In 1600, London had a population of 75,000. In 1603 the plague killed 30,000 Londoners, more than the German Blitz in World War II. Not knowing the source of the plague, everyone was on edge and everyone was suspicious of everyone and everything. To get some context on timing, 1603 was also when Hamlet was first printed.

As James rode to London, he was met by a group of Puritan leaders who had a petition signed by 1,000 Puritan pastors urging his support for their reforms. He made no promises but did agree to schedule a formal conference to discuss the matter.

This supposed accommodation to the Puritan demands made the Bishops on edge. It was in this context that the idea of establishing a new translation emerged – one that would unify a deeply divided nation. Up until this time, each faction had its own preferred translation. The Anglicans preferred the Bishop’s Bible, the Puritans the Geneva Bible, and the Catholics the Douai-Rheims Bible. The Bishop’s Bible was viewed as based on poor scholarship and an awkward translation. For example, “Cast thy bread upon the waters,” was translated “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.” The Geneva Bible was a better translation but had anti-monarchial annotated marginal notes making it unacceptable to the King. A new translation was needed, the aim of which was to be an “irenicon” – an icon of peace and civility.

There was one additional hitch in the translation process – the 17th century equivalent of September 11 – the Gunpowder plot in 1606. This was an attempt by radical Catholics to kill all members of parliament and the king by placing 30 barrels of gunpowder under the parliament building. The plot was discovered just days before it was to be carried out. Whereas it could have inflamed anti-Catholic sentiment, it discredited extremism of any sort. Adam Nicholson writes that this terrorist plot “strengthened the vision on which the new Bible was already founded: it became more important than ever that England needed a version of scripture that would bind together its people, its church, and its king.”

In times like these civility and moderate voices rarely have a vocal advocate. In Washington, DC, it is said, “Moderates have no mailing lists.” Or “Walk the middle of the road and one will surely be run over.” The KJB became the shared effort that championed moderation – an irenicon.

Ours is a very different time. Religion is not so closely tied to the affairs of state – accept perhaps in Texas. Sectarian secularism aims to spare us from this kind of high-octane religious polarization. But partisanship persists – regional, political, and religious. Our enlightened sense of tolerance has made it no easier for our national leaders to move beyond a paralysis of action.

We jokingly say that a camel is a horse made by committee. We don’t really have great confidence that diverse people working in concert can create something of beauty and lasting significance. Such beauty and significance is what the 54 members of the translation committee achieved. Its enduring legacy is a direct product of the committee’s diversity. All sides were included in the committee except those with extreme views. The process of translation became the model of civility at a time when incivility had become the order of the day.

We have largely abandoned the frame of mind that created this translation. Notions of common good are supplanted by demands for individual rights. Special interests reign supreme. The fragmentation of cable news and the Internet blogging means that we tend to justify our own views by information from those who reinforce our views. The digital revolution is fragmenting our culture, economy, and values. Lobbyists have supplanted statesmen.

This church and this community stand with the King James Bible as a testament to a different way. An icon was viewed as a window to a deeper spiritual reality. So too is genuine Christian community. Few descriptions better reflect the nature of this church than “irenicon” – out of diversity and difference the reality of love that point to a transcendent source. Whether in Stop-n-Shop or on the ferry or on State’s Street, we may be the only translation of scripture, the only reality of Jesus that anyone will know in the course of their day. This brings us back to Margot’s charge: “What precious assets has Jesus entrusted to this particular community of St. Stephens, and how might we step out in faithful risk-taking as a church family?”

The King James Bible reminds us that out of social turmoil and polarizing diversity, God’s Word endures with power and beauty both on the page and in our lives. Let this anniversary be a reminder of whom we are called to in our day.


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