The Church of England is now a citadel of advanced liberalism. It went over to secularism long ago, and its zealots intensify their hold upon doctrine and practice. The charge sheet includes, but is not confined to, support for the transgender lobby, for illegal immigrants, and for pandenominational movements. The Church smiles upon the “marriage” of gays and is open to their vows being solemnized in its buildings. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, is well remembered for advocating sharia and the rights of Muslims. He thought the coming of sharia, as a parallel system of civil law incorporated into Britain’s laws, to be “inevitable.” This was a quaint position for a leader of the Christian Church. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been assailed by spiritual doubts. He has said on ITV that he does not understand why fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. support Donald Trump. Welby was a prominent voice for the Remain campaign in the referendum, as were most bishops, and Remainers are still vocal and determined. A symbolic victory for them came in the recent general election, when the parliamentary constituency of Canterbury voted Labour—the first time since St. Thomas à Becket, it was said, that Canterbury had not voted right wing. But the rise of liberalism does not go unchallenged. African bishops will have no truck with homosexuality, knowing the enormous damage that AIDS has done to their communities. Church congregations in England continue to dwindle, save for the great festivals of Christmas and Easter. And yet Anglican clergy complain of the pressure to “grow their audience” (sic), a pressure that is leading to “clergy self-harm.” Episcopal target-setting enshrines one of the blights of corporate life. All this is evidence of the historic wave that is changing the nature of the Church of England. But secularism achieved its greatest triumph half a century ago, when the liberals set their ax to the root of the tree of the Anglican faith itself: the King James Bible.
Through a Glass Darkly is a striking title. Ingmar Bergman chose it for his 1961 film, following 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 in the King James Version. He would not have been attracted to “puzzling reflections in a mirror,” which is the New English Bible’s improvement on the original. That, however, was the choice of the vizier of vandalism, Tony Blair, in his address to the congregation mourning Princess Diana. Even that has not withstood time; the other day I attended a Catholic funeral service, in which “dim reflections in a mirror” was preferred.
From 1 Corinthians, in the same passage, comes greater wording. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” In the NEB, charity becomes love. The left has long had it in for charity, deeming it a charade of the well-to-do and usurping powers that belong to the state. And that was before charity morphed into charities, which fell into their current state of disrepute as mere organs of the state’s darlings, vested interests like overseas aid and wind power. For pop stars on concert parade, charity is a force multiplier. Love might seem to be beyond criticism, but the single word does conflate agape and eros—a distinction of some importance. It has the vast advantage of being without meaning, as in “All you need is love.”
T.S. Eliot’s strictures are well known: Of the NEB’s New Testament, he wrote that it “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” But what, actually, is the case for the NEB? An Anglican priest expounded it to me. The King James Version, he said, was great literature but a fourth-rate translation. The NEB was not great literature, but a superb translation. So the correction of some nuances in the Greek or Aramaic of two millennia ago outweighs the immense body of allusion and quotation through which the Authorized Version has embedded itself in the English language, and has gone far to define that language. Pedantry rules. But then, pedantry is so often a mask for something else.
The process can hardly be termed innocent, as if we were merely contemplating a trade union of translators looking to extend their work practices. The aim of translation here is demolition, not clarification. Where the NEB is merely banal, it has no hooks on the mind; the reader simply forgets the passage. The difficulties of understanding, such as they are claimed to be, give way to the difficulties of remembering. What replaces King James is the English of the sub-Mandarin class. “Wanting timelessness,” wrote Adam Nicolson, “they achieved the language of the memo.” The followers of the NEB, who hold the ground in most Anglican churches, have created a wilderness, and call it accuracy, direct communication, relevance. They present a Palmyrene threat to the grand literary edifice of the past.
You have to be able to quote the Bible as Lancelot Andrewes and his team created it. Robert Bolt did, in A Man For All Seasons. Sir Thomas More, learning that he has been betrayed by Robert Rich to become attorney-general for Wales, says “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales.” That final word packs the punch. But it is driven by the muscle of the preceding line. Bolt would not have fancied the later alternative: “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?” (Mark 8: 36-7) True self displaces soul in the dramatis personae of the mind. Self is a word in very wide currency today, in a way that soul is not. Everybody agrees that self is immensely important, while soul is debatable. Still, the word resonated not long ago, when Alexis Tsipras raged against the E.U. plan to make Greece “a warehouse of souls.” Allusions will not go away: You can’t do Belshazzar’s Feast without the words of the Old Testament, Authorized Version. Sir Osbert Sitwell did not err in his choice of text for Walton.
Prince Harry, in Kandahar, laid down a Remembrance Day wreath with these words: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. They will never be forgotten.” The sentiment is irreproachable. The wording limps after John 15:13 in the King James version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jeremy Thorpe preserved the bite and accuracy of the line, in his brilliant inversion for Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”) The Prince’s repeated one is not happy in current English, and it invites the mockery often aimed at a royal speech-habit. One also looks like a ruse to avoid man, which could imply that woman-soldiers do not also give their lives. Whatever its awkwardness, one has the solitary virtue of being gender-neutral. Whoever helped the Prince to draft the Kandahar rewording has an ear lined with tin.
The triumph of the English language, worldwide, coincides with its decline as a means of conveying ideas beyond the banal. And it coincides with Gramsci’s long march through the institutions. To glance at the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and its 38 pages devoted to the Authorized Bible is to understand the immense grip of that translation upon the English language, and the English-speaking peoples, with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations providing 46 pages of King James. That grip is fatally weakened by the New English Bible, in which three out of every four Sunday services were until recently conducted in my own town—in Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. The King James Bible is now banished from front-line use. The parish secretary writes to me: “All the services at Holy Trinity use modern language Common Worship liturgy with readings from the New Revised Standard Version bible. Usually at 2:30 every day, there is a reading from the King James bible.” When the NEB came in, it was billed as a useful modern adjunct to the Authorized Version. Nobody said that it was planned to shunt the Authorized Version into a siding and cover it with tarpaulins. The Church of England pursues its project of marginalizing the language that Shakespeare knew in its newly approved form (1611), a first edition of which is actually on display at his church. The Church’s leaders acquiesce in the denaturing of their founding text. Gramsci would applaud: The subversion of a great authority is more decisive than an overt, political challenge. He is vastly more successful than Che Guevara, hero of a million student digs posters. The quietest revolutions are the deadliest.
Despite all the modern translations, America retains her traditional hold upon the King James Bible. President Obama and President Trump made their inaugural oaths upon the Lincoln Bible. That Bible, the Authorized Version, was printed by Oxford University Press in 1853. Now handsomely bound, it was the Bible on which Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his First Inauguration in 1861. It is a sacred relic, strong testimony of America’s devotion to her own traditions and the great text of Christianity. “America’s national epic is the King James Bible,” says David Goldman (Standpoint, December 2017). The English language must at some point resume its natural vigor and emotional appeal. And that will mean setting aside the usurping claims of the New English Bible and its descendants, a linguistic dead end like Esperanto.