Posted in Church of England, spirituality

The people’s King James – democratising words of power

Remember the reason why the King James Version of the Bible is called the Authorised Version. The title page says this:

The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments translated out of the original tongues: diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty’s special command: appointed to be read in Churches.

The KJV was to bring order to the variety of translations beginning to be available – some of which had a distinctly more Calvinist tone than King James felt comfortable with. It was to be a public version, which in its spoken recitation in church would bring coherence to the religious experience of the Church of England.  So this is authoritative language – language that come from somewhere else, that isn’t just like what you or I might say; it’s not there to be contested or argued with. It is language of power. Or at least it was. I suspect that nowadays it’s rather more likely to be the language of heritage. That would I think be the worst of all possible fates for the KJV. Heritage – it seems to me – calls on a sort of nostalgia, combined with a relief that this stuff isn’t real any more. It’s about enjoying royal history, because there’s no real power there any more to worry about. It’s about enjoying religious buildings because there’s no real God any more to demand anything of you. It’s about enjoying old language as it makes its appeal, its demand – while also being pleasantly immune to what it’s really trying to do.

If the translators of the KJV found out that this was what their translation had come to, I doubt not that they would call out as one man for it to be burned. If a translation of the Bible – through the very beauty of its language – serves to insulate people from the call of God, then it is no longer God’s book.

I feel uncomfortable with language of power: with language being used to impose authority. That was definitely part of the KJV’s original intention, and not the part I resonate with. But I am even more uncomfortable with language becoming a self-enclosed aesthetic experience which is no longer expected to have any relationship to the rest of life. It’s no longer language at all, in one sense – it’s no longer meaningful, just a rush of nonsense, albeit beautiful syllables.

But I don’t think it’s necessary yet for the translators of 1611 to rise from their graves and call for the destruction of their work. What they produced was better than a work of power; it was a work of beauty. That is why it has become such a key text for Christians well beyond the realms of King James and his authority, who would disdain the idea that a king should tell them which Bible to read: but nevertheless are deeply committed to the translation put out in his name. That is also why it is strong enough (I hope) not to be captured by the heritage industry. The triumph of the translators, building on the work of Tyndale and others, was to produce a Bible which remains a true classic text. A classic text in the sense that it is still alive – that it still questions the reader.

So what we did in St Mary’s to celebrate the King James Version, was designed to avoid it being experienced as a language of power (not likely, perhaps, but still to be avoided) – and more importantly, to avoid it being seen as just language of ‘heritage’. We still sing Book of Common Prayer Mattins every Sunday at St Mary’s, and it was the Mattins congregation who took the lead in our celebration. Several of its members volunteered to read a chosen passage, and talk about what it meant to them. You can hear us at The contributions are as varied as you might expect from an inner urban congregation. In keeping with my desire to democratise the KJV, I didn’t edit (still less censor!) anything anyone said. What comes out is the fact that this book still does the business. It’s not about King James, or about being Authorised, or about being old. It’s about God.