Stepping into the liturgical pit

 

The fury and commotion with which our Christian ancestors conducted their religious debates is, despite our experience of modern fundamentalism, still shocking. One simply cannot imagine, say, the present Archbishop of Dublin, engaged in a theological fracas with an unruly cleric, condemning him as "merda, stercus, lutum and coenum [shit, dung, filth and excrement\]".

Whatever he might feel in the silence of his own heart, it is simply not done any more. Yet these are the words of chancellor Sir Thomas More.

It is equally unlikely that a modern European state would become so exercised over a matter of religious dogma. However, Lutheranism cannot be properly understood as a purely religious reformation. Certainly, Luther attacked Roman Catholic teaching - its sacraments, its structure, its right to interpret sacred scripture, the papacy. But in England, and in all nations in Christendom, church and state operated parallel legal and mutually beneficial taxation systems; the church was second in wealth only to the king; many positions of honour and power in the state were filled by churchmen; and the uni- versities were overwhelmingly cler-ical. Therefore an attack on the church was also, in effect, an assault on the state. Hence, when Luther proposed his 95 theses, the establishment set upon him like hungry pit-bull terriers.

The subject of this fascinating biography, William Tyndale, stepped into their pit, too - without ever fully knowing where he was going.

His initial heresy was to dare to translate the New Testament into English. It is difficult now to estimate how revolutionary this concept was. Those who could read, or hear, for the very first time the words of God in their own language, in their entirety, felt liberated, fired, called by its teachings. And to a people used to the sophistry of the Church's justification for all kinds of repressive measures, even the notion that the meek shall inherit the Earth had dangerous levelling undertones.

Tyndale was driven by a belief in the power of ordinary words. He avoided Latinisms and believed that the sentence structure of English was much better suited to translations from Greek and Hebrew than from Latin. The power and freshness of those words disturb us still: "The spirite is willynge, but the flesshe is weeke," he wrote. "The Lord blesse the and keep the", "The Lorde is a man of war".

William Tyndale was an extraordinary man. Already learned in Latin and Greek when he fled England, he knew he needed to learn German in order to make use of Luther's translations and tracts. He did so, on the run, in difficult circumstances. Later, having launched the missile of his New Testament into England, he set about learning Hebrew in order to translate the Pentateuch. He successfully evaded his arch-enemy, Sir Thomas More, and the ubiquitous network of spies, informers and heretic-hunters that sought him throughout Germany and the Low Countries, although his closest friends and allies were caught and burned at the stake.

Yet he had that naivety and single-mindedness that often characterises evangelicals, an unwillingness to engage with the world as experienced by everyone else, which led him to miss his best chances as England moved inexorably towards reformation.

More, on the other hand, is characterised by Moynahan as a "burner" - meaning that, unlike his predecessor as chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, he was partial to the fire. Moynahan is not sympathetic to More, and it is difficult to escape the impression that he is deliberately casting him in the role of villain. He is incessantly depicted as taking a perverse pleasure in the details of heretic-burning, a pleasure described as "demonic" at one point. In a sense too, Moynahan seems to be conscious of toppling the gentle, teasing, humane More of Bolt's A Man For All Seasons.

But, from the point of view of readability, this counterpointing of hero and villain is a clever device. If God Spare My Life is a thriller, a history and a biography all rolled in one, and the copious quotations from Tyndale's many works and those of his enemies lend a fierce dynamism to the language. We feel the heat of their anger and smell the fire.

In time, of course, More and his clerical friends were themselves to feel the force of that Biblical counsel to "Iudge not that ye be not iudged", for More was in the Tower of London awaiting his own execution when Tyndale was eventually taken. "And after the fyre of Smythfelde, hell doth receyue them, where the wretches burne for euer," More had written - heretics being burnt at Smithfield, then and now London's meat market - though it was not in Smithfield but in Brussels that Tyndale died. The story of his capture is the climax of the thriller, but the real interest of this fascinating book lies elsewhere, in the effect Tyndale's Testament had on the language itself.

Tyndale was virtually inventing English as a printed language. His was the first "bestseller" in English, and the Bible in its various translations has remained the best seller of them all. Thus it may be said that Tyndale's vivid, fiery, verb-orientated prose has become the very stuff of our thoughts. When we say "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", "eat drink and be merry", "the salt of the earth", or "the powers that be", we are echoing him. Although it is impossible now to know how much was forged by him personally, it is certain that in bringing one of the world's oldest stories to his countrymen, he did not neglect the words his own country childhood had given him.

If God Spare My Life. By Brian Moynahan. Little, Brown, 422 pp.

£17.99 sterling

William Wall is a novelist and poet. His most recent novel is Alice Falling