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Bible (Teaching)

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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12.30 pm

As we come to the great season of Christmas, throughout the country schools and churches have been celebrating with their festivals, especially those of nine lessons and carols. There is the great ninth lesson, the Christmas gospel, which recalls the opening words of Genesis:

"In the beginning was the Word."
My theme is yes, but what word? If someone is unlucky and goes to the wrong festival, the lesson will not open with the words that I have quoted. It will start with something like that which appears in the version set out in the New English Bible:
"When all things began, the Word already was."
That is a real catchy number to start such a lesson. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will be fortunate enough to have the Authorised Version, which contains the passage:
"There came wise men from the east to Jerusalem."
The same passage in the New English Bible reads:
"Astrologers from the east arrived in Jerusalem."
That is just like Russell Grant on a package tour. Then we have the angels saying to the shepherds:
"Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes."
The unlucky person will have instead:
"You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth."
The angels then sing:
"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men."
That has been changed in the Revised Standard Version as follows:
"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
In the New English Bible we find these words:
"Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth his peace for men on whom his favour rests."
Try asking angels to sing those words.

A vicar in Battersea told me the other day that when he went to the church festival of Christmas at the local primary school—one of the schools within his parish—there was plenty of Father Christmas and jingle bells, but not one reference to Jesus. He was told that such a reference might cause embarrassment to some of the pupils. If we ask children or students to recite their favourite passage or line from the Bible, we tend to get some pretty blank looks. I believe that the reason for that is that when the Bible is used in school or in church it is nearly always in the form of a modern version, which is entirely unmemorable and unpoetic. It is not surprising that phrases do not stick in the mind.

Yet we are talking about some of the greatest passages in English literature as well as one of the great ways of teaching in the Church. There is, however, an exception. Very few schools get away with teaching the Lord's prayer in anything other than something like the traditional way. The first line—
"Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name"—
has not yet given way in children's parlance to
"Our Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed",
or,
"Our Father in heaven. may your holy name be honoured."
Children the world over still repeat:
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
They do not repeat:
"Do not bring us to the test, but save us from the evil one",
or,
"Do not bring us to hard testing."
That sounds like something that they might have at the end of term or something done by an adult working in a steelworks. It is not something that will bring them to the Church and to Jesus.

So often one hears words that have a vague resemblance to something that one knew in the past, but it is not until one looks up the original that one realises what it was. For example—
"And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in Heaven."
That does not immediately strike one as resembling
"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in Heaven."
Recently I attended a church service where a passage was read that went this way:
"May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice! Show a gentle attitude towards everyone. The Lord is coming soon. Don't worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking Him with a thankful heart. And God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus. In conclusion, my brothers, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honourable. Put into practice what you learnt and received from Me, both from my words and from my actions."
Sure enough, last Sunday in my own church we had a different version that sounded a little more familiar:
"Rejoice in the Lord always;"—
it started all right—
"again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance."—
I began to get puzzled—
"The Lord is at hand. Have no anxieties about anything,"—
that did not sound quite right—
"but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
That gave me the clue. It was a passage that one knew but without the poetry:
"Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsover things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there by any praise, think on these things."
I recall that passage because it was recited week after week at my first school and it was recited at the end of term service. Just as one learnt a poem a week at that school, so one learnt the poetry and the music of biblical passages.

The way that words come is important. There was the famous occasion when King Charles I was told that the Bible had been printed without a vital word, the word "not". The nation was therefore exhorted to commit adultery. That cost the printer some £3,000 and the confiscation of his press. I sometimes wonder whether we should not do the same with some recent translations. It is good to have translations and commentaries to help our understanding, but I believe that we must keep the original poetry of the Authorised Version.

One could choose many examples. For example—
"When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; when I grew up I finished with childish things. At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face."
Something has been lost from the original, which was:
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face."
Those are the words that stick in one's memory. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew we read:
"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness."
In the New English Bible we read:
"Set your mind on God's Kingdom and His justice before everything else."
It does not even sound terribly good English. We can also contrast
"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof"
with
"Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious of itself."
According to the New English Bible, the same passage reads:
"Each day has troubles enough of its own."
Mrs. Dale's Diary—here we come, but not the Authorised Version.

We know about the mote that is in thy brother's eye and about the beam that is in thine own eye becoming the speck of sawdust and the great plank, according to the New English Bible, and about the Revised Version and the Good News Bible both having specks and logs.

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps one of the great pieces of literature and of the Bible. The translation that one often hears in churches and schools is not.
"blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
but "how blessed", which is totally pointless; the metre is gone. Churches and schools change
"blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted"
to:
"how blest are the sorrowful: they shall find consolation."
That sounds like somebody going down to the local after a Chelsea defeat.
"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth"
becomes
"how blest are those of a gentle spirit"
that sounds a bit wet—
"they shall have the earth for their possession",
which is a bit too literal.
"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled"
becomes
"how blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail:",
which seems pointless,
"they shall be satisfied"—
I suspect all too easily.
"Blessed are the merciful"
becomes
"blest are those who show mercy: mercy shall be shown to them."
That is pointless: only the poetry has gone.
"Blessed are the pure in heart"
becomes,
"how blest are those whose hearts are pure."
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God"
or, in the New English Bible; sexism reigns:
"God shall call them his sons."
The Good News Bible says,
"happy are those who mourn",
which is not what the authors of the Bible were trying to say.

There are many great pieces of literature. Arthur Bryant wrote about the period of Elizabethan England leading to the Jacobean succession. He said:
"At the moment when England's merchants and seamen were carrying her"—
Elizabeth's—
"life and influence into every ocean and continent, her writers were creating, out of a formerly rude vernacular, a literature, not only potentially, but already in achievement, as great as any yet known to history, even that of ancient Greece. Three contributions of supreme literary genius … One was the liturgy of the Anglican church, the other the authorised version of the Bible published under James I in 1611 … The third was the plays of William Shakespeare … Distilled by English scholars and divines from the successive translations and versions of the past century, it became natural for English men and women of all classes—including the humblest and least educated—to laird their speech and thought with its phrases and analogies."
That is the reality. One did not have to be a genius to appreciate the genius of the Authorised Version; it was picked up and it became part of one's daily life. Just as Vulgate became Tyndale's version, which became the authorised version accompanied by commentaries by J. B. Phillips and translations such as Revised Standard, the New English Bible and the Good News Bible, so Holinshed's "Chronicles" became Shakespeare and Lamb's "Tales", but Shakespeare remained; the Authorised Version did not.

The Church of England is in danger of destroying its liturgy and contribution to English literature, the King James version of the Bible. Churches and schools will ensure that they survive only if they are familiar to succeeding generations, just as Shakespeare is. It is read in the original; nobody thinks of putting on a modern language version of Shakespeare and I hope that they never do. Modern dress, maybe; modern staging, maybe; but the words will carry on.

The same is true with classical music. There may be the odd "Boston Pops" or "Nutrocker", but the real Beethoven and Haydn were introduced to generation after generation and children are learning the originals today, just as they are learning the original of Shakespeare.

I shall use Shakespeare to sum up what I am seeking to say in this short debate about the three pillars of literature—the liturgy, the Authorised Version of the Bible and Shakespeare. I hope that those in authority in Church and state will think of the passage in Hamlet where Hamlet talks to his mother about his father and his stepfather and compares the true father with the fake stepfather. He says:
"Look here, upon this picture, and on this: The counterfeit presentment of two brothers. See what a grace was seated on his brow: Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself; An eye like Mars, To threaten or command; A station like the herald Mercury, New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; A combination, and a form, indeed, Where every god did seem to set his seal."
The passage continues:
"Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed, And batten on this moor?"
I hope that the Minister will recognise that passage from his Stratford connections. It goes on to say:
"I must be cruel, only to be kind."
I am not seeking to write off with scorn the translations, many of which are worthy and many of which are good, in parts, but we must protect Shakespeare's language or it will die. We must also protect the Bible or that will die and my message to the lords of Church and school is "May they hear this prayer and let the cry of pain of those who mourn the joy and genius of the Authorised Version come unto them."

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

The House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) for raising this subject. This week we have debated important issues but none more important than this. The issue to which my hon. Friend has drawn our attention is the disinheritance of the children of our generation in consequence of the fact that too few teachers or clergy are nowadays accustomed or disposed to use the Authorised Version of the Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book.

Under the law there must be provision for the religious education of all registered pupils at maintained schools, and pupils must have the opportunity to take part in a daily act of collective worship at school.

In their study of English under the national curriculum pupils are required to read
"some of the works which have been most influential in shaping and refining the English language and its literature."
The Authorised Version is proposed as one of those works. So the study of the Authorised Version need not be confined to the catacombs of our educational system. Indeed, there are considerable numbers of teachers—just as there are of clergy—who believe that it is the natural and right thing to do to use the Authorised Version and the 1662 Prayer Book.

Two years ago the then editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, and the Prayer Book Society offered a prize in memory of Thomas Cranmer, to be competed for by schools whose pupils would recite passages from the Prayer Book. The finalists came from seven schools widely spread, and I understand that a more recent competition enlisted yet more schools. That shows that teachers in all parts of the country still love Cranmer's prayers and believe that children should learn passages of great writing by heart.

The first competition was drawn to the attention of the nation by virtue of a remarkable speech delivered at the presentation of the prize. It was a brilliant and impassioned defence of Cranmer, of the elevated use of language and of the necessity of tradition. The speech contained the following words:
"What we have to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is whether, by making the words less poetic you really do make them more democratic. Isn't there something rather patronising about the whole assumption? Banality … may be accessible for all, but so is a desert."
Those words were spoken encouragingly by a person whom we may expect in due course to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

I said that our children need not be disinherited, but my hon. Friend has pointed to the very real danger that many of them will be.

We wonder sadly why so many people repudiate their spiritual heritage. Elements of the explanation no doubt include the excessive pretensions of scientific rationalism, the deracinated character of a society endlessly unsettled by technological change, the cultural disintegration and anomie promoted by the mass media, the perversion of liberalism which rejects the principle of authority, the diffidence of those whom we might expect to exercise authority, the expectations cultivated in political prospectuses, the aesthetic nihilism fashionable in our age, the reductionism of modern philosophy, and the perennial tendence of human beings to bite the hand that has fed them. Perhaps, however, we can draw some bleak comfort from recognising that the hatred of beauty and tradition, and the sense of spiritual loss are not new. After all, the 1645 Prayer Book was made illegal and replaced by a directory of public worship. In 1655 Jeremy Taylor found himself driven to write:
"In this sad declension of religion the supplanters are gone out, and are digging down the foundations."
In the previous century, William Tyndale was driven out of England; copies of his translation of the New Testament were rounded by and burnt by Bishop Tunstall. Tyndall was strangled by order of the public authorities in, of all places, Brussels.

I might be tempted then to suppose that the confusion, to put it no lower, that characterises the language of the New English Bible reflects a state of affairs no worse than that of the 16th and 17th centuries. But it is dismaying to read the translator's preface to the 1961 New Testament which reads:
"In doing our work, we have constantly striven to follow our instructions and render the Greek, as we understand it, into the English of the present day, that is, into the natural vocabulary, constructions and rhythms of contemporary speech … since sound scholarship does not always carry with it a delicate sense of style, the Committee appointed a panel of literary advisers, to whom all the work of the translating panel has been submitted."
For one thing, the translators seem unaware that prose is not the same as speech. However, the most depressing factor is the dissociation of functions between scholars—"literary advisors"—and clergy—what a falling off from Lancelot Andrewes and the combination in him of such great learning, spiritual depth and literary genius.

Our modern egalitarians do their own cause a disservice in seeking to displace the Authorised Version. The Bible—in a version that compelled the imagination through its linguistic excellence—was once the common culture of our country and other English-speaking countries. In that time, the simple and the scholarly could equally be sages. Allen Bloom has described it by saying:
"My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible's commandments, and their explanation in the Bible's stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfilment of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and enobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material, not from outside or from an alien perspective, but believing as they did, while simply going deeper and providing guidance. There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief."
A change in American life may be seen to have been under way by the time Mrs. Scott Fitzgerald made her critical assessment of Ernest Hemingway's prose style as "pretty damned Biblical".

It is estimated that in 1611 about 6 million people spoke English; now perhaps 600 million do. But the grandeurs of the 1611 Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book could again be possessed by them as their heritage. The following phrases, of crystalline beauty, are from Tyndale's New Testament of 1534, carried forward into the Authorised Version:
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
Teachers can be confident that Tyndale's precise, simple English is entirely accessible and capable of being appropriated by those whose language is the English of today.

The following are phrases from Tyndale's translation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
"With God all things are possible … The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak … The burden and heat of the day … The salt of the earth".
They are modern English.

Tyndale, after all, translated from the Koine, the ordinary Greek of day-to-day transactions. His genius was to render the directness of that usage in the rhythmic and candenced English of the Renaissance, the language that was Shakespeare's immediate inheritance.

We do not insist that Shakespeare is rehashed in a modern translation. Shakespeare still pierces and moves those large numbers of people who read him and see his plays. The language of the Authorised Version is for the most part easier than Shakespeare's

But the great thing is to grow up with that language, so that it is part of one's consciousness. Every Sunday, for a good part of my childhood, I was obliged to attend matins at Winchester cathedral—the cathedral of Bishop Andrewes. When now I hear one of Cranmer's Collects I thrill with a sense of rightness and connectedness. The words of the 1662 Prayer Book have formed my sensibility as much as any other influence.

I applaud the teachers who continue to require their pupils to learn great texts by heart and I am glad that oracy forms part of the national curriculum. That metaphor, "by heart", is right, for what one possesses through such learning, while most often it cannot be paraphrased, informs one's whole apprehension of, and feeling for, the world.

Of course the Bible is not merely literature. To teach appreciation of the Bible only as an aesthetic experience is to diminish both it and those whom we teach. To regard the Bible as literature would indeed have been incomprehensible notion in the 17th century. It is written in what C. S. Lewis termed, writing of Milton, the language of ceremony. I hope that teachers will continue to make the Authorised Version part of the experience of worship as well as part of the curriculum. Then their pupils will be able to say in the words of Psalm 119—but let me make it clear that I do not expect them to learn the whole of the psalm—
"Thy testimonies have I claimed as mine heritage for ever: and why? They are the very joy of my heart."
I can express such hopes, but Ministers—those of the Crown anyway—cannot impose. I am told that a little while ago, a letter was received at Church house saying,
"We are doing God this term. Please send full details and pamphlets."
I do not know what reply was sent, but I should like to think that, among the details sent, was a commendation to the teacher to learn by heart—as every teacher surely should—Cranmer's Collect for the second Sunday in Advent:
"Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen."