David Simpson MP secured a debate on the AV in the House of Commons on 9 December 2009
David Simpson (Upper Bann) DUP: It is a pleasure, Mr. Hancock, to speak under your chairmanship. I feel that I ought to begin with an expression of disappointment. On three separate occasions I have raised the matter of the 400th anniversary of the authorised or King James Bible with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The most recent occasion was in October. It was disappointing that the Department stated that it would not mark the anniversary. That is especially so because I believe that it runs contrary to the Department's remit.
Under the heading "What we do" the Department's website states:
"We encourage and help the tourism industry to improve what it has to offer for all our visitors and to promote a positive image abroad."
We have the opportunity to attract many thousands of visitors from the United States and elsewhere, yet there are no plans to take advantage of that. The website says that the Department "Sets arts policy" and that it seeks to
"Broaden access for all to a rich and varied artistic and cultural life".
Here we have the single greatest piece of literature in the English language—the highest peak of all English literature—yet the Department says that it will not mark the anniversary.
With reference to the historic environment, the Department's website states that it is responsible for the promotion of historic national treasures, including the royal palaces. One of those is Hampton Court, where, in 1604, King James called the Hampton Court conference, which commissioned the King James Bible. Surely during such a year as 2011, and in connection with such an anniversary, more could be made of Hampton Court; and surely the Department could help to highlight Hampton Court and its role in producing the King James Bible.
The Department's refusal to mark the anniversary is a failure fully to discharge its own remit. However, it is much more than that. I believe that it lets down the nation. I am therefore grateful to the powers that be that we are able to debate the matter today. Of course, the phrase "the powers that be" is part of our language and speech only because of the King James version of the Bible. That is one of the many reasons why the 400th anniversary is so important, and why it should be commemorated.
The King James Bible is the greatest and most influential piece of literature in the English language. Poet laureate Andrew Motion said of it:
"To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity."
The great Winston Churchill noted that the scholars who produced it had forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world. David Crystal said that it
"did something that nobody else had done, or nothing else had done in the history of the language previously. Not even Shakespeare had managed to do as much…no other text in the history of the English language has done as much as the Bible to shape our modern idiom".
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. He illuminates a number of people who have paid outstanding tributes to the King James version. Does he not agree that Queen Victoria most famously said that it was the secret of England's greatness?
David Simpson: I agree with my hon. Friend about Her Majesty's words. This great country of ours has unfortunately moved away from many of those principles, but we certainly remember what she said.
Whenever we speak of putting words in someone's mouth, of seeing the writing on the wall or of casting the first stone we are quoting the King James Bible. When we speak of the salt of the earth or of the staff of life, we do likewise. When we speak of a thorn in the flesh or of being at our wits' end, we do the same. When we talk of an eye for an eye or of a lamb to the slaughter, it is because of the King James Bible.
When we talk of fighting the good fight or of going from strength to strength, it is because the King James Bible said it first. Whenever we mention babes and sucklings or the apple of our eye, we are merely repeating what has already been said in the King James Bible. When we say that someone is reaping what they sowed or that a leopard cannot change its spots, or we speak of the blind leading the blind, we are merely saying today what the King James Bible said first.
It is not only our literature and language that has been influenced by the King James Bible. It has had an extraordinary and beneficial influence upon political and constitutional affairs. It was the Bible of Milton and of the Protectorate; later, it was the Bible of the Glorious Revolution, which gave us a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It was the Bible of Whitefield and the Wesleys that saved this realm from the brutality and blood of the French revolution. It was the Bible carried by the founding fathers of the United States that helped to forge that land and give the world that great democratic powerhouse.
The King James Bible has also had an immense influence for good in social affairs. Hospitals were built, orphanages established and charities created as a result of its influence. The hungry were fed, the sick nursed and the poor given shelter, as people responded to its call to act.
Beyond all that, however, and above every other consideration, we must return to what is the highest and greatest of all of the benefits that the King James Bible has brought to men. Yes, the hungry were fed; but far greater than that, so were hungry souls. Yes, the sick were nursed; but so, too, were the spiritually sick, bruised and wounded. Yes, the poor were given shelter; but so were the poor and broken in soul. Lives that lay in ruins were made whole, and souls that were held in bondage were set at liberty. That was the greatest legacy and gift to the world of the King James Bible.
I commend the work of the 2011 Trust and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I also congratulate the BBC on its assurance that this important anniversary will be marked right across its output. We now need the Government to signal that they will do all that they can to commemorate the anniversary.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on his eloquent speech in support of the need to commemorate this 400th anniversary. Last Thursday in business questions, the Opposition called on the Government to take some kind of commemorative action, so there is consensus across the board for the Government to do something on this important anniversary.
David Simpson: I agree, and it is imperative that the Government recognise both this great anniversary and the spiritual work of the King James Bible. I trust that we will get a favourable response from the Minister today.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) in saying that it is a pleasure, Mr. Hancock, to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate on such an important subject. We talk about a lot of things in the House of Commons and in Westminster Hall, but there is nothing more precious that we could speak about than the Scriptures of holy truth. The authorised or King James Bible has been used under God to change the world, and many, many lives throughout the world, and much more importantly, it has changed them for the better. Charles Dickens said:
"The New Testament is the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world."
George Washington said:
"It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."
I wish that many other Governments would remember that as well.
Abraham Lincoln said:
"It is the best Book which God has given to man."
"The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature, with a power that conquers all that oppose it."
That is certainly a warning to everyone who opposes it.
In each case, the Bible that was referred to was the authorised or King James Bible. C. S. Lewis said that whenever we use words such as "beautiful", "long-suffering", "peacemaker" or "scapegoat", it is down to the influence of the King James Bible. However, it is not only in the words or the many phrases in our language, some of which my hon. Friend has already alluded to, that the force and influence of the King James Bible is felt, but in the very rhythm of our language-the very way that we breathe and pause, and rise and fall as we speak. Why do we speak of chariots rather than chargers, of swords rather than pikes, of trumpets rather than bugles? Why have such things become our form of speaking? If we researched the matter, I believe that we would find that it is the influence of the beautiful language of the King James Bible.
We simply cannot account for the history of this nation-its culture, society, literature, language, political institutions and laws-if we ignore the contribution of the King James Bible. This single volume towers above every other document that pertains to the United Kingdom, and dwarfs every other document relating to this House. However, those matters, important as they are and as worthy of commemoration and celebration as they are, are all secondary whenever we come to consider this book.
9 Dec 2009 : Column 100WH
John Wesley said:
"I am a creature of a day. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God. I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book."
Without apology, and as a Member of this House, I concur with every word that John Wesley said, and I say, "Give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book."
Just as we cannot properly consider or fully understand the history of these islands without taking account of the influence of the King James Bible, so we cannot properly consider or fully understand that influence without taking account of the divine mind behind the book, or of the reason why God bequeathed it to us. It was for not just its great literary value, though that value is priceless; its language, though its language is the grandest yet simplest form of speech in our tongue; its cultural richness, though it has inspired and enthused succeeding generations; and it was not just for good government, though its principles are just and pure. Although all those things are reason enough for the Government to commemorate this anniversary, there is one thing greater: this book lives. It has been burned, but there is not the smell of fire about it. It has been buried, but no man has ever kept it in the grave. It beats, throbs and pulsates with the very life of God. This book sets men free.
This may be an unusual debate for the House, and it is not often that I wish we remembered more frequently where we have come from and the very basis and heart of our democracy. However, this book takes the lowest, meanest, vilest and basest of men, and changes their lives completely. It changes them not only outwardly, but inwardly, utterly and everlastingly.
The Government should unashamedly shout from the rooftops that this 400th anniversary is something that the United Kingdom should proudly commemorate. They should not try to put it into the corner or speak of it silently. I urge the Minister to
"set her mind on things above"
and agree with my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members that we should mark this very, very special anniversary. It is my honour and privilege to support what my hon. Friend said.
Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Dr. McCrea, for a very moving and interesting contribution.
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I, too, welcome this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing the slot, and I also appreciate the passionate and heartfelt way in which both he and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) spoke about the matter. Although I do not share their belief, I share their view about the importance of the Bible as a vital part of our history. I hope that I can allay some of their concerns during my contribution.
I have just finished reading "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel, which won the Booker prize this year. The story is set in the time of Henry VIII. There is quite a lot in the book about the story of the first printed
9 Dec 2009 : Column 101WH
English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale. That version was seen as complete heresy by the Church, particularly because Tyndale acted unilaterally and had not sought the permission of the Church authorities. I commend the book to hon. Members. People were burned at the stake for that particular version. Tyndale was burned at the stake and others were beheaded. People were burned and lost their lives simply for possessing the book. There have been a number of versions of the English Bible: the great Bible of 1539, which Henry VIII commissioned; the more controversial Geneva Bible, which was largely based on Tyndale's version but had many marginal notes that interpreted the text from a strict post-Reformation standpoint; the bishops' Bible of 1568; and the Douay-Rheims Bible of 1582. Therefore, we have quite a history in the evolution of the Bible that we have today.
It is worth remembering how that Bible was produced. There were 54 translators-a lot of people-who were divided into groups that took consecutive books. They were instructed to consult one another closely, to ensure that there would be the consistency of style that we now appreciate. They were also instructed not to take too much from the Geneva version, which was seen as more controversial. They were told not to be opinionated in the notes that they made. All that they were to do was purely to clarify the meanings of the Greek and Hebrew terms. Hon. Members have quoted many comments on the King James Bible today. The one that I like is the description of it as
"the noblest monument of English prose".
I think that anyone who reads it feels that it is so. Biblical phrases that might occur to politicians reflecting on the expenses scandal might include
"the fat of the land",
"how are the mighty fallen!"
However, I prefer to think that "all things must pass". Now, at Christmas, let us
"eat, drink, and be merry."
There is something we can all take from the Bible.
It is hugely important to make the most of celebrations and commemorations of our history, whether of the Bible or other things, so I am slightly bemused by the impression that the hon. Member for Upper Bann gained of the Government's attitude. Such occasions are fantastically important in gaining a shared understanding of the past, which helps us to build a stronger common purpose for the present and the future, and therefore helps to sustain community cohesion, which is important in the hon. Gentleman's community and throughout Great Britain. In my time in my present post I have sought out such dates of commemoration and celebration, because they become important hooks for shared understanding of the past and our history; they are important for building the shared values that we want and that make Britain such an open and tolerant society.
Perhaps I can draw to hon. Members' attention several occasions on which we have worked hard to use celebrations and commemorations in that way. A couple of years ago, the Government put a lot of effort regarding events on the abolition of the slave trade. We had to think about some quite difficult issues in our past, but that helped to open up an understanding that tackled some
9 Dec 2009 : Column 102WH
of the discrimination in society today and helped us to build values for the future. Before my year off on compassionate leave, I was involved in working towards the Darwin bicentenary celebrations. I do not know how the hon. Gentlemen feel about that, but it was an important occasion and was fantastically successful. Darwin has been everywhere this year.
Dr. McCrea: While it is very important to talk about the other celebrations, what we want to know is what the Government will do to celebrate the great event of the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the scriptures. That is the nub of the issue.
Margaret Hodge: I am going to come to that, but I wanted to put the Bible celebrations into context among other occasions. I just wanted to mention, also, that a lot has been happening this year in connection with the accession of Henry VIII.
The Government do not themselves run the events for commemorations-and that particularly applies to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is a tiny Department, most of whose money goes out to various agencies and funded organisations, which work with us but independently of us. That is important in the artistic and cultural world. We do not run events, but facilitate them. The Department tries to make the appropriate links and bring about appropriate working together, to ensure that things are properly commemorated. We are doing that for the Bible anniversary.
The 2011 Trust, which the hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned, is very important. Just as we did not do the work on the Darwin commemoration, which was mainly done by the Natural History museum-I know that Darwin may be a bit contentious-so the 2011 Trust will take the leading role, supported by the Government, for all the purposes that I have outlined. We are not standing back. The trust is pulling together events, publications and literature to celebrate the impact of the Bible on our history and language, in this country in particular, and throughout the English-speaking world. I am interested in its suggestions on commissioning new music and literature and encouraging study days in cities along James's route from Scotland to London, and its plans to develop educational projects in schools, publish new texts and support exhibitions in London and around the country where the translations were made.
Equally, the British Library-an institution that we fund and sponsor-is making plans for one of the two copies of the King James Bible that it holds to be a star item in a forthcoming exhibition called "The Making of the English", which will, we hope, be launched in November 2010 and run to April 2011. It will explore the English language and its national and international diversity. Iconic collection items will be set alongside everyday texts, to show the many social, cultural and historical strands from which our language is woven. The King James Bible will be featured alongside other important treasures, such as "Beowulf", Shakespeare's folios, Johnson's dictionary, Austen manuscripts, Scott's diaries and recordings of speeches by Pankhurst, Churchill and Gandhi. I have been privileged, as a Minister, to see and listen to some of those exhibits. The exhibition will be very exciting, and will also display hand-written letters, recipes, posters, lists of slang, trading records, adverts, children's books, dialect recordings, text messages and web pages.
9 Dec 2009 : Column 103WH
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Are those exhibits to be shown all over the United Kingdom, or just in London?
Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman is right to bring that up. The exhibition is to be in the British Library; but the British Library excels at digitising many of its collections and exhibitions, and I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point, and see what plans there are for digitisation of that exhibition. The British Library also intends to run some public events.
There is also a role for the BBC, which is sponsored by my Department and funded from the licence fee. It will showcase the King James Bible on television, radio and online, to mark the 400th anniversary. A cornerstone of its programming will be a brand new documentary on BBC 2 in 2011.
David Simpson: I thank the Minister for the information that she has given today, which is a breath of fresh air; we appreciate it. I know that BBC Northern Ireland has said it will commemorate the anniversary. Will that happen on the mainland as well?
Margaret Hodge: Yes. I am told that it will be an hour-long documentary, which will be presented by Lord Melvyn Bragg. It will explore the King James Bible as a remarkable work of faith and a historic piece of literature that has shaped our language, history and culture. I hope that that echoes some of the aspirations expressed by hon. Members. The documentary will also consider the Bible's extraordinary legacy and how, as it spread to the new world and the colonies, it helped to shape the world.
I hope that I have given hon. Members some comfort, but if they have other ideas, they are welcome to let us know. The fact that Government do not front something does not mean that we do not work to support it. I share with the hon. Gentlemen the understanding of the importance of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and I hope that it will help us to build the community cohesion that we all want throughout Britain.