An introduction to God’s own county
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes back to his roots
As I sat gently sipping a second celebratory mug of tepid tap water I continued to muse on the subject of special occasions. Anniversaries! Huh! What are you good for? (Absolutely nothin’ – say it again, yeah!)
Anniversaries merely provide an excuse for lazy columnists to assemble a lot of irrelevant fluff – the last refuge of a desperate writer in my opinion.
As I brooded in my lonely garret the cold wind blew through gaping gaps in the walls and a piece of paper was forced from its hiding place. As it crackled open I discovered, to my surprise, that 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James, or ‘Authorised’ Bible. This is the most influential book in the English language: it bequeathed us even more catchphrases than good ol’ Bill Shakespeare managed.
Suddenly I was filled with a burst of patriotic pride and inspiration – but possibly not for the reasons you imagine.
Now those of you who’ve been reading this column for a while (and paying attention) may have noticed that I’m not from these here parts. Nosireee, I’m from Gloucestershire – where the hills and the sky fit together exactly as they should. Oooo arrrrrr.
Now I know that Yorkshire is a special county and can boast that from here to Heaven is only a local ‘phone call, but we’re even closer in sunny Glos. We don’t need a ‘phone, we just speak up a bit.
Possibly it’s the way the clouds blow up the Severn Valley or the sun sets in the west but Gloucestershire nurtures a creative form of mind, a questioning attitude, an independent way of thinking and a deep understanding of the world.
Once upon a time I had ambitions to use those self-same mental attributes to become something really huge in the literary world – perhaps even the best-known living Gloucestershire author. This ambition was dented, firstly by the noisy arrival of Jilly Cooper and, secondly, by the phenomena of Harry Potter which somewhat raised the bar.
Everyone has heard of JK Rowling – she’s so famous that the Yorkshire Post once claimed she was born up here (in the same street as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and all the Apollo astronauts, no doubt).
I have to break your Yorkshire delusions on this one: she’s a Gloucestershire girl and always will be (Chipping Sodbury, to be precise, followed by a spell near the Forest of Dean).
However, I have to say that she’s probably not the most important Gloucestershire author of all – the best-known, undoubtedly but not the most important. You see, there’s another whose writings changed the world and the very way people think more than 400 years ago. I doubt that any single writer will ever be able to match his impact in the centuries to come.
It’s William Tyndale of whom I speak, a learned translator of the Bible into English who laid the foundations for the Protestant revolution. This swept away mediaeval Catholicism as the state religion in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. So how did Tyndale achieve all this merely by translating a book?
Well, you see, his was the first translation of the Bible into English to be printed and it immediately became widely available – a best-seller. It created waves, not just because he produced an accurate translation of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew texts but he did so in a style that was understandable to the common man – an idea that the Catholic Church hated.
Knowledge has always been power and in those days kings and princes used the foreign words of the Latin Bible to claim a ‘divine right’ to rule. This alien mumbo jumbo was uttered to justify laws and punishments, reinforcing the elite’s private and often selfish interpretation of scriptures. Ordinary humans, not knowing this language, must have thought the priests and magistrates were invoking some sort of magical incantations like ‘abracadabra’.
Thanks to Tyndale and the printing press, for the first time the words in the Bible weren’t in this private language of the educated elite. Now, if you could read, or listen to someone who could read, it was all there for you.
Tyndall gave the ‘ploughman in the field’ the opportunity to question his superiors and challenge their assumptions and claims. He virtually created a new understanding; that it was the ordinary churchgoer who was divine, not the church itself, and this shook the Catholic State to its foundations.
From this freed-thinking sprang Protestantism, the Reformation, the Church of England, and, indirectly, my present employment. His work formed the bulk of the 400 year old King James I Bible: in fact scholars estimate three quarters of its Old Testament and four-fifths of the New is directly lifted from Tyndale’s Bible – it took more than 50 of the most eminent scholars in Britain to do the rest.
However, his achievements didn’t generate the unbelievable worldly rewards that are daily bestowed on Ms Rowling,– oh no. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536 at the tender age of 42.
He must have had a rotten agent.
First published May 2011