Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The King James Bible – “The greatest work of prose ever written in English”

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
25 October 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Today is Bible Sunday:

I must admit that I struggled to find a reason why we celebrate Bible Sunday

However, I did discover that, in 2017, Pope Francis called for one Sunday each year to be designated as “Bible Sunday” so people would

“Appreciate all the inexhaustible riches contained in the constant dialogue between the Lord and his people”

But the Bible is not easy:

A Canadian literary critic (Northrop Frye) described it as

“This huge, sprawling, tactless book sitting inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage…frustrating all our efforts to walk around it”

For believers, the Bible is seen as inspired by God

For non-believers it is, at least, acknowledged as a central document in Western culture

Indeed, none more so than the King James Bible which recently celebrated its fourth centenary

And it is about the King James Bible that I would like to preach about this morning

The King James Bible is of central importance for Bolton Priory as we are a “Prayer Book” Church

The Book of Common Prayer uses the King James Bible because it was the “Authorised” Bible at the time the Prayer Book was established in 1662

Technically it was a revision of the Bible having replaced the Bishops’ and Geneva Bibles

Above all however, it was the quality of its written word that elevated it above all others

It was revised with great care and attention

With six teams of translators in all

Three for the Old Testament and two for the New – with one for the Apocrypha

47 different translators in total, drawn from some of the finest scholars of the day

Above all, before each book of the Bible was approved, it had to be read out

And, as such it has an auditory quality like no other

It is little surprise therefore that, to this day, Oxford University Press sell 250,000 copies of the KJV a year.

On a cultural level, the KJV has been described as the “greatest work of prose ever written in English”

This great Jacobean text has enriched the English language in ways we do not even recognise and use without thinking

Expressions such as

All things to all men
At their wit’s end
Let there be light
The skin of my teeth
Double-edged sword
Woe is me

All stem from the King James Bible and enrich our language and society

It finds its way into all sectors of society, both young and old, rich and poor and across cultural divides

I did some of my own brief research into phrases from the KJV and was amazed by the results

  • Fall from Grace – is a 2020 Thriller released in January this year
  • Brother’s Keeper – is the name of a tattoo you can get, should you be so inclined
  • Blind leading the blind – is a meme
  • Drop in the bucket – is a new charity to help people out of water poverty

The King James Bible is all around us all the time and constantly being made new in every walk of life

But the King James Bible however is not just a cultural icon, it is part of our living faith

It is read, week in and week out, not only in English parishes but across the world

It starts the day, baptises infants, ties the knot and buries the dead

It consecrates ordinary life

Its language remains apart from the common tongue, discreetly hallowed

One fit to be spoken by God and to God

The beauty of its language is that it allows us to effortlessly reach up to heaven and down to earth

As one commentator said

“It is as if the words bow down to touch the things they refer to”

TS Eliot described the King James Bible as appealing to the “auditory imagination”

“a feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word”

And this auditory imagination enables us to penetrate the soul and reach what is deepest within us

It is so much more than mere words

But as well as hallowing our lives, it also contains within

“all that is necessary for our salvation” (Article 6 – 39 Articles of Religion)

In the preface to the King James Bible, the Bishop of Gloucester wrote

 “It is…a whole armourie of weapons. Both offensive and defensive, whereby we might save ourselves and put our enemy to flight”

“In a word, it is a fountain of most pure water springing up into everlasting light”

It is a Bible which “removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by water”

The King James Bible does no less than let us drink freely of the water of life

And what as testament that is on Bible Sunday

It is of course so hard to capture the essence of a Book

A Book so vast and so old

However, I leave you with the story which expresses all that I have said and speaks volumes in its own right

The author Adam Nicholson, who wrote a history of the King James Bible,

In it he told a story of a young boy who drowned off the Outer Hebrides

The boy fell off a fishing boat into the sea and was unable to shed his boots

As a result, the waters consumed him

When the author visited his grave there was just a passage from Psalm 77 on the gravestone

“Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in great waters: and thy footsteps are not known”

As the author remarked  

“That is not consolation, nor the muffling of experience by religion: it is the heightening and realising of experience through language, a statement of the cruelty of things and the unknowable purpose of the universe”