Christopher Trundle on the remarkable influence of Myles Coverdale’s translations
It is fair to say that Anglo-Catholics are not generally keen on the Reformation; I remember hearing a monk who had spent some time in South Africa joking that he didn’t bother to teach the seminarians there about the Reformation as he felt it would be bad for them! I think it is important, though, to consider the ways in which the reformed parts of our heritage have shaped our expression of the Catholic faith. One monumental influence is, of course, worship in the vernacular, and in particular the enduring value of Archbishop Cranmer’s translations.
A skilled writer
This month’s candidate for consideration, though, is Myles Coverdale (1488–1568), a man who certainly influenced Cranmer. A skilled writer and Augustinian Friar who spent much of his life on the Continent learning from some of the most important reformers of the day, he is most famous for his translation of the Psalms preserved in the 1662 Prayer Book.
It cannot be said at first glance that there is much which points to a lively Catholic faith – indeed he fled to the Continent several times during his life, notably after the execution of Cromwell and during the reign of Queen Mary. He was Bishop of Exeter from 1551 until Mary ascended the throne, when he was deposed and imprisoned before being allowed to leave the country. He was not re-instated as Bishop of Exeter upon his return during the reign ofElizabeth, possibly because of his objections to the wearing of vestments. He was, interestingly, rector of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, from 1563/4 until 1566.
But nonetheless, his influence on the Anglican tradition, and on AngloCatholics in particular, is remarkable. It was Coverdale (and not Tyndale) who produced the first complete English Bible at Zurich, and the Great Bible of 1539 included much of his material; notable passages would also make it into the Authorized Version years later. His best-known and most lasting work, though, was certainly the Psalter, familiar to generations of Anglicans.
Coverdale’s more surprising influence, however, lies in his exquisite translation of the Roman Canon, which, was written when still an Augustinian Friar. Although not identical, the traditional language rendering of the Roman Canon in the American Book of Divine Worship owes much to Coverdale’s translation of the Sarum Use – and with this literary descendent we are on sure ground when talking about Anglican patrimony, for it has both been authorized by the last Pope and had also been in use in various guises by Anglo-Catholics for years before.
As we prepare for the arrival of the new translation of the Roman Missal it would be well worth spending a few moments reading Coverdale’s translation, and so approaching the liturgy of the western Church by way of one of the greatest parts of our Anglican heritage – the English language.
This extract of the Roman Canon which follows is from the 1684 edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
‘Therefore most gracious Father, through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, we humbly beseech thee, and we desire that thou accept and bless these gifts, these presents, these holy and unspotted sacrifices, which first of all we offer unto thee for thy holy Catholic Church; that thou vouchsafe to pacify, keep, unite,
and govern it throughout the whole world, with thy servant our Pope N. and our Bishop N. and our King N. and all true believers, and such as have the catholic and apostolic faith in due estimation.’