One of my favorite bumper stickers reads “The separation of church and state is good for both.” These words recognize that there is great danger when governments direct the work of faith communities and that disaster lurks when faith communities derive their authority from governmental support. I was reminded of this by a recent visit to “Eight Centuries of God’s Word: The English Bible 1249-2017 A.D.” One of the central characters in the history of the English Bible is the translator William Tyndale. The website “British Learning” provides this summary of his good, yet at the time, seditious, work.
William Tyndale’s Bible was the first English language Bible to appear in print. During the 1500s, the very idea of an English language Bible was shocking and subversive. This is because, for centuries, the English Church had been governed from Rome, and church services were by law conducted in Latin. Most people in Europe were unable to speak Latin, and so could not understand the Bible directly. The Church therefore acted as the mediator between God and the people, with Priests interpreting the Bible on behalf of their congregations.
By Tyndale’s day, vernacular Bibles (those written in local languages) were available in parts of Europe, where they added fuel to the fight for the Reformation, a political crisis that resulted in the splitting of Christianity into Catholic and Protestant Churches. But in England it was still strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into English. Tyndale believed that ordinary people should be able to read (or listen to) the Bible in a language they could understand, but his Bible was highly illegal. The book was banned and Tyndale was eventually executed. An astonishing number of Tyndale’s translated phrases are still in use today, including:
‘flowing with milk and honey’
‘the apple of his eye’
‘signs of the times’
‘eat, drink and be merry’
‘the salt of the earth’
Many historians note that the 1611 Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible relied heavily on Tyndale’s 1525 “illegal” complete translation of the New Testament as well as his partial translation of the Old Testament. It was for this translation that he was executed by an unholy alliance of the church and the state. This alliance deemed his work “a pestiferous and most pernicious poison.” In retrospect it is stunning to note that what was most objectionable to the powerful were Tyndale’s use of the words congregation instead of church, repent instead of penance, love instead of charity and elders instead of priests. I reference Tyndale because it is easy to take the gift of the English Bible for granted, because his story stands as a caution against a melding of church and state and because his work is a reminder that there are occasions when there is conflict between that which is legal and that which is good, just and ethical.
I would submit that our discussion about becoming a Sanctuary Congregation is an example of this conflict. When the law says “all persons who entered this country illegally must be deported” it is entirely appropriate for the church to say “there is a higher law of divine justice and it is that law to which we must adhere. Thus, in the name of protecting families, caring for children and recognizing that people often flee their homelands simply to save their lives, we will work to change the law, mitigate against the negative impacts of the law and, as a last resort, disobey the law.”
Simply put, I find it very hard to honor the courage of William Tyndale in the early 16th century without asking “What does faithful courage require of us in the early 21st century?”