Trinity 20 (Bible Sunday)
27 October 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
On the 12th October the film Official Secrets had its debut
We are planning to go and see it on Tuesday at the Plaza in Skipton
The film stars Keira Knightley, Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes and tells the story of GCHQ whistle-blower Katharine Gun,
In the run up to the Iraq War, whilst working for GCHQ, she was party to an email which sought to unlawfully influence the workings of the UN Security Council
The email urged sympathetic countries to spy on members of the UN Security Council to help facilitate a resolution to go to war.
In an effort to prevent an illegal war, Gun decided to leak the document.
She was arrested and faced trial for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
Her crime, however the State might want to dress it up, was to tell the truth to the world
And telling the truth can be very dangerous indeed
The battle for truth resonates, peculiarly, with our own age
Most of us in this Church have a direct link to the Second World War – either recalling it first hand or through our parents
As well as the enormous physical damage, there was an assault on information
Information was distorted and supressed, to manipulate whole nations to commit unspeakable atrocities
As a result, at the end of the War, the International Community sought to make information as freely available as possible
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.
The rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights form part of our post war political consensus
A consensus that, in so many ways, is fast breaking down
Freedom of information however remains a perpetual battleground between the individual and the State
And there have been some of notable cases in past decade
First, Edward Snowden who copied and then enabled the publication of highly classified information from the National Security Agency
His information was, allegedly, so serious that GCHQ went round to the Headquarters of the Guardian and smashed their hard drives
Snowden is now living in exile in Moscow
Then Julian Assange who leaked a document called “Reykjavik 13” in 2010
As a result, he is now in HMP Belmarsh, awaiting extradition proceedings to the US
Even this week, as I began to write this sermon, all the major newspapers in Australia had blacked out their front pages
This was a protest against Government attempts to criminalise journalists for reporting so called “national secrets”
These so called “secrets” are, again, something which the State feels uncomfortable in revealing- involving surveillance and alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan
Truth remains as contentious and dangerous as ever
Whatever issues we are wrestling with in our daily life, I am always fascinated by the parallels in the Church
The Church has generally been there before and freedom of information is no exception
For well over a thousand years the Church’s kept its most precious information secret
That secret was the Bible –
However, not only was it kept secret, it was encrypted
Being written in Latin ensured that the vast majority of the population had no access as they could barely read and write in their own language, never mind someone else’s
The Church even gave out disinformation such as saying the language of the New Testament had always been Latin, whereas, in fact it had been Greek
When it came to deciphering this information, there were no backdoors
Two brave souls in England however tried to reveal this truth to the public
The first was John Wycliffe, Master of Balliol College Oxford in the 1380’s who championed the translation of the Bible into English
His motive was simple: “it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence”.
However, Catholic England had the harshest controls over information in Europe
Wycliffe was constantly dogged by legal proceedings and a Synod was convened in England which denounced him
Even after his after his death, he was declared a heretic at the Council of Constance
As a result, his bones were exhumed from consecrated ground, burned and then thrown into the River Swift in Lutterworth
Obviously no hard drives were smashed in the C14, but the Bibles were burnt so comprehensively that one had to go to Bohemia to read a copy
Possession in England would result in almost certain death
The next attempt at producing an English translation of the Bible was made by John Tyndale and, this time, treated with even greater harshness
He too wanted to translate and publish the New Testament but had to go to Germany to do so
However, his printers in Cologne were raided by the authorities and /it is said/that Tyndale only managed to get to Matthew 22 before he was closed down
Tyndale had to flee further into Germany to the safe Lutheran City of Worms to continue his work
Undaunted, he completed his translation and then smuggled Bibles down the Rhine disguised in bales of cloth
They were then shipped to England
He translated all four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one epistles and the Book of Revelation
It was a remarkable achievement
This translation of the Bible into English enabled ordinary men and women to read and understand the Bible
As Tyndale himself said
“If God spares my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than the Pope”.
This however was seditious stuff and politically very threatening
Tyndale himself was also able to enter into the debate over Henry’s marriage
He could now follow, and comment on, the arguments put forward by the State based on the Book of Leviticus
He eventually moved to Antwerp where he could be among English merchants with easy access to England
However, he was betrayed
He was tried on a charge of heresy and condemned to death
Tyndale “was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned”.
His final words, spoken at the stake, were reported as
“Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes
Within four years however, English translations of the Bible were published at the King’s behest, including Henry’s official “Great Bible”.
All were based on Tyndale’s work.
Today we give thanks, not only for the Bible, but for those brave men and women who have been involved in the struggle to translate and distribute the Bible to this day
As with so many rights, including Human Rights, we tend to forget the personal cost and struggle which has won them on our behalf
In the intervening years there have been many other brave souls and organisations including those who have smuggled Bibles into the Soviet block and Communist China
To quote from the reading this morning, those who translated and distributed the Bible
“Have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed”
Like Jacob, some have s been injured in so doing.
Others have lost their lives
But as well as the point about the struggle, the most important point is about truth and the attempts to bury it
The late Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had this to say about such attempts to bury the truth of Bible
“Even when the winners have rewritten the history, where a language and civilisation have been destroyed, what is suppressed and buried still so often returns….The buried truth finds its way in from the margins and laps against the shore”
John Wycliffe put it far more directly
“I believe that in the end the truth will conquer”.
Not only will the truth prevail in our secular lives where the State tries to supress it
But the Word of the Lord will always prevail
On this Bible Sunday, when we celebrate the Word made Flesh, we remember,above all
“The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and of truth” (John 1:14)