The King James Bible, like the new Mass translation, would have been condemned as ‘inaccessible’

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, poses with the 400-year-old King James Bible (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)

This year we are all supposed to be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, otherwise known as the Authorised Version. It is four centuries since King James VI and I (as he should properly be called) commissioned what was to become the standard English translation of the Bible. Of course the King James Bible is a Protestant Bible, and its publication stirred the Catholic Church into producing the Douai Bible for English Catholics, or so the story goes, but in fact the Douai Bible precedes the Authorised Version by several years, and may well have been an influence on it. Again, while the King James Bible dates from 1611, it drew on the work of Miles Coverdale and William Tyndale, who had worked about 80 years earlier. Moreover, as I have discovered through reading an excellent book produced to mark the anniversary, this drawing on older sources was done quite deliberately. In other words, the translators of the King James Bible did not want to use up-to-date English, but deliberately chose archaic language.

The book I have been reading is called Celebrating the King James Version and consists of a series of devotional readings and commentary by Rachel Boulding, who is the deputy editor of the Church Times. The book makes a good case for the idea that the King James anniversary is more than just a matter of Anglican celebration; insofar as the King Kames Version is a masterpiece of English prose, it is to be celebrated by everyone who speaks the language. The King James Version shows us to what heights language can rise. It is the opposite of what Ms Boulding calls “Gas Board English”.

Ironically, though of course he would not see it that way, even Professor Dawkins is celebrating, though he does warn us that “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource”.

The mention of Gas Board English is particularly significant for Catholics right now, facing as we do the imminent new translation of the Roman Missal. As the bishops’ recent pastoral letter made clear, the new translation is trying to do what the King James translators did so well, namely create a suitable language that will express transcendent truths. This is by no means easy, but it can be done. It is interesting to note that those who seemingly oppose the new translation would presumably also have opposed the King James Version as archaic and no doubt “inaccessible”: but, and here is the key point, the King James Version, which has lasted 400 years, is anything but inaccessible. It has been a huge success, and opened up the Bible to countless generations.

Let us hope that the new translation of the Roman Missal may do the same and open up the transcendent mystery that is the Mass to people of our own time, as well as to many generations to come.