Imagine an Anglican Church riven with conflicts, in which the Low Church party was making increasingly strident demands of the ruling body, determined to extend its power and influence. No, it’s not the Anglican Church of 2011 in its upheavals over homosexuality. The year is 1611, and the Puritans are trying to win over King James I.
But James was a politically shrewd operator. Already he had demonstrated his ability by portraying the Gunpowder Plotters of 1605 not as Catholics but as terrorists (read ‘Muslims’ for ‘Catholics’ in 2011 and you get the picture). He’d also had considerable experience of the Puritan mindset in Scotland before he gained the English throne.
James dealt with the English Puritan demands through a special conference held at Hampton Court. He accepted just one of the demands: that there should be a new translation of the Bible, available for public reading in churches. Thus began work on the King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible.
James saw the project as a way of uniting his warring religious factions. He could not have known he was setting in train the publication of a book which would have the largest and widest readership in history.
The King James Version is 400 years old this year. Many of its phrases have become part of everyday speech: turn the other cheek, salt of the earth, in the twinkling of an eye, and many, many more. It is a cultural as well as a religious landmark not only in English life but worldwide: the King James Version was exported abroad along with the British Empire.
The translators worked from previous versions, such as that of Tyndale, and the earliest documents they had available to them at that time. They produced a version unsurpassed for the rhythm and musicality of its language. All Bible translations have two main aims: accuracy and accessibility. The producers of the King James Version were no different, and the principles they followed have been taken up in later translations. But by the 19th and 20th centuries it was clear that developments in biblical scholarship – literary, archeological, historical – brought a need for a greater accuracy of translation because of new knowledge, whilst the archaisms of 17th century English no longer spoke so readily to later generations.
So the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published in 1952, followed in later decades by a whole range of new translations. Over the past two decades one of these – the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – has gained acceptance as the most generally used in cathedrals and parish churches. It combines a faithfulness to the original texts with a contemporary idiom.
The NRSV is the version we shall be using from now on in our Communion services. The Communion readings are contained in a single lectern book, with all three readings – Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel – printed together for each Sunday of the three-year lectionary cycle. That means no more worries about finding the right page for lesson readers. The new book also has the introductory sentence for each reading.
Because the NRSV readings are now downloadable, we are also printing out the Communion readings in full in a new-style weekly sheet. Those who like to follow the reading in church will find it much easier than trying hurriedly to find the right page in the pew Bible. It also means the readings can be taken home for further reflection during the week.
The purpose of all this – in 1611 as in our own day – is to enable the Bible, the Word of God, to come alive in its readers and hearers: to comfort, to inspire, to challenge and to move to devotion. The Word of God needs to be heard more than ever in today’s world. The task for our generation is to do all we can to ensure that it is.