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The Bible in Society, with George Redgrave, UK Bible Society

Iyad Daoud introduced George Redgrave by explaining that our speaker for the evening has had a full career as a Teacher. Now retired, George Redgrave is very much associated with the Crawley Inter Faith Network and has been for some time, having photographed events that feature on the CIFN free standing publicity banner, originally taken together with a collection of pictures that formed the basis of an exhibition depicting various aspects of religious life in and around Crawley.

George is a volunteer representative for the Bible Society U.K. and is proud to wear the Bible Society sweatshirt with its distinctive badge. At the beginning of his presentation he listed some of the very diverse groups and communities he has engaged with over the years; including local study groups, Church communities, and exhibitions at which he has represented the Bible Society in an official capacity, particularly the annual Wintershall event. His interest and passion for the Bible and associated literature is patent.

George outlined briefly the structure of the Worldwide Bible Society and its affiliated network of organisations. He explained that the United Bible Society was established when George Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 – 1958, called a meeting in Sussex to co-ordinate the work of the national Bible societies. The modern Bible Society movement dates back to the foundation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, when a group of Christians sought to address the problem of the lack of affordable Bibles in the Welsh language for Welsh-speaking Christians. Since then it has flourished around the World, providing translations of the Bible in languages of all nations and dialects as the Society perceives the need for them. The main offices of the Bible Society are now situated in Swindon, Wiltshire.

George began by relating something of his infancy and youth. As the only child of his parents’ later years, he explained that his mother was slightly reluctant to allow him to go to school as soon as he became eligible. Nevertheless at the insistence of the School Board representative (education welfare officer) he was eventually introduced into the education system. He recalls that his favourite part of the school day was assembly.  Always an enjoyable experience, when the children all sat on the floor, usually the smallest at the front and joined in the hymns, prayers and listened to the Head teacher, who kept everyone spellbound by narrating some of the best stories from the Bible. George Redgrave represented the occasion he remembers vividly, when he was chosen to lead the procession into the Sunbeams assembly. He demonstrated his typical excitement and imagination from the age of about five and a half years – he created the special effect and atmosphere by imitating the sounding of a trumpet, marching boldly to the sound of his own accompaniment in order to add gravitas to the occasion.

By listening astutely George and his classmates accumulated a wide and detailed knowledge and understanding of the Bible and its literature. Stories like: David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, The Lost Sheep and many more, gave him a grounding in the literature of Christian Worship, mostly taken from the Authorised Version of the Bible. He pointed out that much of his formative education took place over fifty years or more ago, nevertheless what is interesting is that Christian schools are still able to provide a similar valuable formation in Moral and Religious Education. Organisations such as the Lighthouse Project assist in continuing this work today by performing and encouraging young people to join in the performance of Bible stories and material describing Christian themes in; schools, youth clubs and Churches around the country, bringing significance and purpose to the lives of ordinary people.

George was able to give a little insight into the way the language of the Bible permeated his literary development and indeed the kind of language we all use from time to time. He reminisced about how his teacher Miss Kenny, took the care and nurture of her pupils very seriously. She would write postcards to their homes to say ‘A little bird tells me how well you are progressing with your reading skills.’ This phrase ‘A little bird …..’  derives from a biblical reference: Ecclesiastes 10:20. It describes the source of undisclosed information. It has become part of English parlance as has Proverbs 7 : 2 – ‘The apple of your eye’ which describes something cherished above all else. I Corinthians 15: 52 identifies how things can change ‘in the twinkling of an eye.’ These phrases and many more like them passed into the English language very quickly, once William Tyndale produced the first ever English translation of the Bible in 1526. People began to repeat them in common usage and have done ever since.

The development of Christianity took place partly as a result of the prominence of the Hebrew Scriptures, throughout ancient history in the Middle East. The writings of the Law, the Prophets and Wisdom would have deeply influenced many generations of people. In the same way that phrases from the Bible became common in English, so the writings from over thousands of years have inevitably been absorbed by many communities and cultures. Likewise, the writings of Christianity have left their mark on the World, in much the same way as Islam and other ways of life. It is interesting to see the way in which one tradition adopts many of the influences of those that have gone before and the cross fertilisation of ideas that takes place. George Redgrave mentioned the frequency of which the name of Jesus is mentioned in the Koran for example. He went on to explain that much of the New Testament was passed on, having been written in Greek, because that was the language of the common people throughout that part of World, at that time. When it was translated into the language of the Roman World – Latin, it was called the ‘vulgate’ version – the common or vulgar tongue of the people.

In England the Christian Church, keen to maintain control over the people, was reluctant to allow access to vernacular translations. This led to the gradual growth of a dissenting community in the country, separated mostly by a divide that was created out class distinction and a lack of education for the poor. However Alfred King of the Saxons, as early as about 900 A.D. commissioned portions of the Bible for translation.

In the Fourteenth Century, John Wycliffe was concerned to satisfy people’s thirst for knowledge of God and throw off the influence of a Church authority whose teaching was not consistent with the principles contained in scripture. He published a translation of the Bible into comprehensive English that could be understood by common folk. Those who read it had to do so in secret, as only licensed clergy were allowed to have access to such works and to comment upon it. Being caught in possession of Wycliffe’s Bible meant certain execution. In 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Empire and many of the Christian communities fled into Europe, carrying many of the original manuscripts, containing the original writings of Christianity, which until that time had been lost to the West.

William Tyndale was able to further the work John Wycliffe started. He was able to translate and publish an English version of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament, using the Hebrew and Greek texts preserved in European universities, with the help of his associates and the new technology involved in the process of printing. He was able to convey the literature of the bible to common people, relatively cheaply. In 1536 Tyndale was publicly executed after having been charged with heresy. He was arrested by imperial authorities in Belgium and imprisoned for over 500 days in Vilvoorde Castle. On 6 October 1536, Tyndale was tried and convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake. By this time several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed. Sir Thomas Moore and others contributed to the completion of his work. Further efforts enabled the English translation by Miles Coverdale, John Rogers and Thomas Matthews to finalise the ‘Matthew’s Bible’.  Eventually, after much bloodshed and equivocation in 1537 Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, authorised Thomas Cromwell to legitimise the use of the English Bible in Churches up and down the country. People were enabled to read from the Bibles that were chained to the fabric of the Churches, but were forbidden to expound or comment upon the text and what it meant.

George Redgrave pointed out that after the death of Edward VI, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ came to the throne. She was intent upon preserving the Catholic faith and tradition and exacted a wave of retribution against Protestant reformers, including John Rogers, the first protestant martyr to die at the stake in Mary’s reign. George Redgrave became quite animated when he explained that he had worked out that very close to the school where he taught in Langley Green was the spot where in 1556 Thomas Dungate was arrested and taken away for questioning. He was eventually tried in Lewes and later put to death by being burned at the stake in East Grinstead, together with two others; Ann Tree from West Hoathly and a John Foreman, for their adherence to the reformed faith. The historical occasion is preserved in the name of one of the busy local neighbourhood roads –‘Martyrs Avenue.’ Those scholars, sympathetic to the cause of the reformation, escaped these difficult times by fleeing to Geneva and to the protection of those states that sided with the Protestant cause. The Geneva Bible 1560 version, was the fruit of their labours. When it was brought back to England, many were able to read it. It was not popular with the Church authorities because it included marginal commentary notes, which inevitably influenced the people who read it. The Bishop’s Bible 1568 on the other hand, a much more acceptable translation, became the forerunner of the King James version.

Mary I died childless in 1558 and very quickly after the coronation of Elizabeth I the English Church became prominent in asserting itself as the supreme Church authority. In Scotland, government under the rule of Mary Queen of Scots had been Catholic, but the country was under extreme pressure from the reformers to change. The publication of reformed translations was financed by the equivalent of modern day crowd funding. Eventually, after considerable efforts to gain the support of the people and after a failed attempt to impose herself in the battle of Langside, outside Glasgow, in May 1568, Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, to seek the protection of her cousin Elizabeth I. To the dismay of the Scots Queen and her supporters, she was arrested as she posed a distinct threat to the English throne. On the death of Elizabeth, there being no successor to the throne, it was necessary to send for James V of Scotland,  Mary Queen of Scot’s son, who was crowned James I of England.  James was brought up by Presbyterians in the reformed tradition. He called together a number of scholars in May 1601, to Burntisland, Fife, at which proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. This was the momentum that instigated the King James Authorised version of the Bible, which is still used and preferred by many, to this day. Such was the measure of learning at that time; of the original 54 men chosen to translate the King James Bible, only 47 finished the more than seven-year project, which was governed by very strict rules of translation. The translators were scholarly men who were experts in the biblical languages, and they were convinced of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.

From this point in England’s history, a number of different revisions of the authorised King James Bible were produced down through the years. A popular Bible known as the Thomas Fuller Bible became the version of choice for many, especially women. It was very much the role of the mother to become acquainted with Bible stories and to relate the details to their children. Another authorised version followed in 1769 and several more in the later years, until eventually we get to the New International Version of 1984. Alongside the development of the English Bible during the Middle Ages, other versions were produced in Europe. A great deal of interest was directed towards the Old Testament, when in more recent times archaeological evidence facilitated more authentic translations  from original Hebrew manuscripts.

In many societies interest in the Bible promoted the learning of reading. It became important to people, who wanted to secure their lives in their faith. Mary Jones (16 December 1784 – 28 December 1864) was a Welsh girl who, at the age of fifteen, walked twenty-six miles barefoot across the countryside to Bala, in Gwynedd to buy a copy of the Welsh Bible from Thomas Charles because she did not have one. Rev. Thomas Charles then used her story in proposing to the Religious Tract Society that it set up a new organisation to supply Wales with Bibles. The account was first set out in print in 1878 in Welsh and then in 1882 in English by the British and Foreign Bible Society, the author simply being credited as M.E.R. Together with the Welsh hymn writer Ann Griffiths (1776–1805), she became a national icon by the end of the nineteenth century, and was a significant figure in Welsh nonconformism. Later, William Wilberforce, social reformer and leading abolitionist became very much involved in the newly created British and Foreign Bible Society and its good work. Gradually the Catholic Church also became aware of the need to promote the reading of the Bible as an essential aid to spiritual development.

Study of The Bible has always been essential to students of English Literature. Many of the classical authors of the Victorian era and their novels were steeped in the language of the Bible.

George offered a further set of examples of the influence of the Bible on the English language:

He referred to the current weather as a Saint Luke’s summer i.e. a short period of warm weather around St Luke’s Day (18 October); an Indian summer.

He quoted some further poignant references :

‘The sins of the father’ : Exodus 34:7,

Fly in the ointment: Ecclesiastes 10:1

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme reminds us of the inscription on the stone of remembrance at Thiepval in Northern France from Ecclesiasticus 44: 14 ‘Their names liveth forevermore’.

George concluded his presentation and summed up by contending that from W.H.Auden and C.S.Lewis to the most up to date popular expressions in Music, the printing on bank notes and most visited monuments, The Bible provides the most common cultural, literary, artistic and linguistic resource in the World. He also noted it is the item most commonly shop lifted!

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­George Redgrave gave his response to the following questions :

What is the main objective of the Bible Society ?

To provide Bibles and Christian books for people who wish to acquaint themselves with the literature and ancient writings associated with their faith, wherever they live throughout the World, regardless of their language or dialect. George Redgrave suggested that more Bibles are being made available in China today than anywhere else in the World.

Does the bible have more influence in establishing a code by which Christians live or in developing a moral structure in society ?

The Bible has a multitude of influences throughout the World in many different directions, but essentially, it does evoke mostly positive values in people wherever they live.

What is the Bible Society’s policy regarding the interpretation of Biblical literature?

The quotation by Mark Twain : ‘It ain’t those parts of the ‘Bible I can’t understand that bothers me, it’s the parts I do understand…’ Is a suggestion that understanding is dependent upon an individual’s own interaction with the text. The Bible Society provides the literature, the rest is up to God’s providence.

Many questions arise from the variety of genres and styles of Biblical writings which have accumulated over a number of eras in history. It is not appropriate to be didactic in deliberating what it means, however it is obvious that it has had and continues to be, effective in making a difference throughout the World.

George Redgrave recommended a Bible reading programme, available through the Bible Society, which assists in promoting the reading of the Bible in the space of twelve months that includes periods of time to reflect on what is being read.

He concluded by discussing briefly more recent translations of the Bible that have been produced for the Albanian and Coptic Churches.

Iyad Daoud thanked George for his interesting and most entertaining presentation. The assembled listeners demonstrated their approval.

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Steve Innes 9th December 2016