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Sunday 29th May 2011 - St Augustine, King James and Archbishop Cranmer

Our story begins not 400 years ago with the King James Version, nor 462 years ago with the first Book of Common Prayer, but 1,410 years ago when the missionary monk Augustine was made the First Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen English and he settled at Canterbury which was the capital of the kingdom of Kent. King Aethelbert was cooperative and became a Christian and the mission expanded rapidly. However, when Augustine was made Archbishop he expected the Celtic bishops to accept his authority. They did not.

The celtic bishops saw St Augustine as a fellow Christian and were friendly and respectful. However, they had their own way of doing things and they didn’t want Augustine rules about the tonsure, the observance of Easter, asceticism, missionary endeavours, and how the church itself was organised. There were also political matters – the Welsh refused to accept a bishop who was supported by a Kentish king.
Of course the matter was settled fifty years after Augustine died, at the Synod of Whitby. King Oswy of Northumberland, C├Ždmon, the poet, St. Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, St. Wilfrid, Abbot of Ripon and other notables came to a political and ecclesiastical agreement.

There was no argument about the lordship of Christ or the Bible, the discussion was about the human organisation of religion, in this case, English Christianity.

900 years later, in the year 1549, two years after King Henry VIII died, the English Parliament passed an Act Of Uniformity which ordained that the First Book of Common Prayer was to come into use in all the churches in England on the feast of Pentecost, which was June 9th, 462 years ago. And the preface began like this, “There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted, as (among other things), it may plainly appear by the common prayers of the Church.”

The writers and compilers of the Book of Common Prayer wanted to make the worship of God and the reading of the Bible simple, understandable and appropriate. They wanted it to be in English so everybody in England could understand. They wanted the book to be used in every church so that all the Christians in England would worship God in the same way. And they wanted the readings from the Bible to follow the same pattern all over the country so that everybody would hear the whole Bible read all the way through.

They did this because they believed that after 1500 years, the church worship had become corrupted and needed to be restored to its original simplicity and sincerity. One passage of scripture that they may have taken to heart we heard today. From the letter of James, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” They asked the question, “How can we be doers of the word if all we hear is in Latin?” and “How can we understand the story of salvation if we only hear parts of the bible and even then, in the wrong order?”

The Book of Common Prayer was designed to put this right. But three years after the first book scholars from Europe raised some objections to the book – they thought it was too Catholic and they wanted to make it more Protestant. So Parliament issued a new Book of Common Prayer in 1552, but they were still arguing about it when the boy King Edward VI died, and Queen Mary abolished all the prayer books and insisted that the Roman Catholic worship should be followed. Then, after the Roman Catholic Queen Mary died in 1588, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth the First restored the prayer books and kept the peace by combining the Catholic and Protestant Prayer Books into one.

Now I hope that you understand that all the prayer books that were ever written reflect the politics and history of the time they were written. They reflect the struggles in Parliament and in the Church and are never perfect, however beautiful the language may be. There is always room for improvement.

The same sort of history lies behind the King James Version of the Bible. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, the last of the Welsh Tudor monarchs. James Stuart, who followed her, was James VI of Scotland and he became James I of England.

Not everybody was happy that a Scottish king ruled in England, so James, among other things, encouraged a new translation of the Bible which he hoped everyone in England would read. It was and remains a beautiful and careful translation. All the old scrolls and parchments and papers were studied by a committee of learned scholars, but James insisted that the translation should reflect his ideas of the King as a person chosen by God to rule over the people. The translators were honest, scholarly and careful, but they lived in a country which had a new king and the politics of Kingdom and Church influenced the words they chose.

Again, the King James Version is one of the most influential books ever written in English. It changed the way the English people spoke by giving them new words and new ways of expressing themselves. And because it was used throughout England, it meant that Englishmen learned to speak the same version and English and could understand one another.

But I must say, for all its good points, the King James version is not perfect. It can’t be. No translation can ever be perfect because the original writers, the translators and the readers all live in different times and places and will understand the words differently.

When you get home, compare the bible readings you’ve heard today with a modern translation and you will find that there are some surprising differences, even though both translations are careful, scholarly and Godly.

So what are we going to do? Does it mean that we can’t trust the bible we read? Of course not! We remember that the kingdom of heaven is like a person who brings out of their treasure things old and new. Our task is as the writers of the Authorised Version intended; our task is as the writers of the Prayer Book intended. They wanted people to meet the Risen Lord Jesus, they wanted people to be stirred up to godliness, they wanted people to profit more and more in the knowledge of God and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion. (BCP Preface)

All our prayer books and bible translations are like the figures of speech which Jesus used in talking to his disciples. The King James Version uses the word “proverbs”.

The news and the promise of the kingdom of God are greater than any words can express so Jesus used figures of speech or proverbs. But in today’s gospel he says to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you in proverbs; but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father.”

Here at St Luke’s we use figures of speech and proverbs; we use clothes and candles, we use stained glass and holy water; we use liturgical movement, singing and incense. We rejoice in these things in the same way the Prayer Book Society rejoices in the BCP; we rejoice in these things in the same way as we rejoice in the different translations of the Bible.

We are human and we cannot see God or meet God face to face. As humans we are limited and we relate best to words and story, pictures and action, and what we can sense with our five senses. But we live in the hope that we will one day see beyond these things to the reality of God. One day we hope to be able to exclaim with the disciples, “Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb. By this we believe that thou camest forth from God.”

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