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.

Posted in Church of England

resurrection and hope in Stoke Newington

The death of Christianity has (again) been announced a little prematurely. Here in Stoke Newington, I really enjoy being in a parish with an alternative patron saint (anti-S Richard Dawkins, or maybe the Unblessed A C Grayling). Uncritical devotion to atheism is a refreshing and different sort of fundamentalism to confront, and much less embarrassing (for me personally) than the religious variety. There is quite an amusing irony in being told that religion is the cause of closed minds, violence and world wars – in an aggressive manner, by someone who clearly has not the first idea of what they’re attacking. Being true fundamentalists, questions about the religious affiliations of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot just bounce off.

Sometimes I feel like it’s those of us who go to church (as least, in this parish), who are the real challengers to fundamentalism. St Mary’s congregation are not inclined to lie supine under the teaching of their parish priest, then rise up and blindly follow his doctrinal instructions.  Mostly that’s a relief, though every now and again it would be nice … (no, not really). Stoke Newington has a long tradition of dissent (theological, political, every sort), and it’s alive and well in the conformist old Church of England. Both my curate and myself got challenged about the sermons we preached during Holy Week, in the nicest possible way. The church includes people of almost every possible theological outlook, and personal background. We’re black, white, old, young, QCs and cleaners.

Religion dying off? I don’t think so. And it’s not just the conservative varieties that can attract people, either. We’re growing, slowly but surely, even here in the heartlands of the new atheism. This Easter the church was more full than I remember during my years here, and that’s part of an upward trend. I was amazed, given the double bank holidays weekend, and the number of people I knew were away. Jut as well they were or we might have had trouble fitting everyone in (no, not really, not yet).

Resurrection and hope – if the church is true to its founder, then those two have to be around even when things are tough and there’s not much sign of either. St Mary’s (I’m told) was not in a great state a generation or two ago. But we’re still here, and still hopeful. Christ is risen indeed.

Posted in Books, spirituality

Letting God back into the city?

Just begun to read Discovering the Spirit in the City. Even though I’ve only read the first chapter, it’s already started me thinking. Philip Sheldrake writes on ‘Rebuilding the Human City’ – looking at some of the dehumanising forces in modern cities and how we can counteract them. I’m sure he’s right that the city needs humanising, but I think at the same time we’re also divinising it: not making it divine, but recognising again the presence of god and the city’s potential as a place for revealing God to us.

Sheldrake mentions the work of Michel de Certeau, and especially his essay ‘Walking in the City’. Though I’d already read it, I’d done so in purely political terms – I’d never really connected it before with the spirituality of the city. But starting to think in that way, it made me realise what strange and potentially transformative spaces churches are in the life of a city. As environments become more and more controlled: either private, locked, alarmed, or if public, patrolled and photographed – what do you make of an anomalous space that refuses to be either?

A church, for instance, which is open to all comers. No CCTV, no guards, a space open for anyone to come into on their own terms. Somewhere you can wander into and commit small arson in the form of lighting a candle; somewhere you could steal the hymn books if you wanted. Somewhere you can pray in whichever way you feel comfortable, or just go to sleep.

After a long period of consideration, that’s what we did here in Stoke Newington. We know that sometime someone’s going to damage things, but eighteen months in it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened is a constant trickle of people coming and finding to their surprise that they are trusted with our church. One lady has started cleaning the votive candle stand every week – she has no other connection with the congregation.

I hesitate to say it, but I think opening the church is as powerful a witness to the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith as is anything else we do here; and we do it just by failing to lock a couple of doors.