Communication, Control and The Church
From Wycliffe and Tyndale to the World Wide Web
by Martha Ainsworth
As Jesus was drawing near, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen... and some of the Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
From earliest times, communication has been an essential part of the fabric of Christian life. We are called to tell out the Good News. Communication, in writing, preaching and teaching, has been one of the Church’s greatest glories. Yet it has also presented the Church with some of its greatest challenges as it has struggled with the issue of control.
John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were Protestant reformers, and they were also communicators. In an effort to communicate the Gospel to more people, each of them made a translation of the Bible; but they did so without the permission of ecclesiastical authorities, and caught hell for it from the Church’s governance. Their stories have particular relevance for the Church today as it faces - and either embraces or rejects - newly developing paradigms of communication exemplified in the Internet and the World Wide Web.
For a prologue, we can look to the book of Acts. It appears that the need for religious authorities to control communication has been an issue since the earliest days of church history. The chief priests and elders worry what to do about Peter and the apostles, who are communicating some distinctly unauthorized Good News to the people. Peter consistently rejects human authority in favor of the authority of God, which, predictably, enrages the high priests, who have no control over him. But Gamaliel advises the council not to expend energy in an attempt to gain control over the actions of the apostles, and instead leaves it to the Holy Spirit. “Let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39) Peter subverted ecclesiastical authority to communicate the Good News directly to the people, as he was impelled to do by the Holy Spirit.
Thirteen centuries later, a similar rejection of temporal authority shook the world once again. John Wycliffe, 1330-1384, was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. His teaching that authority comes from God, rather than the Church, made him (like Peter) very unpopular with ecclesiastical authorities. Wycliffe and his associates defied church tradition by translating the Latin Bible into English, declaring in the preface, “The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” In 1382 Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic; in 1409 the Church ordered all copies of his Bible and other writings to be surrendered and burned. Wycliffe so angered the powers of the Church that although he died of natural causes, 44 years after his death the Council of Constance ordered that his bones be dug up and burned at the stake.
The Protestant Reformation would almost certainly never have continued without the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1450 (the effects of which are often compared to the effect the World Wide Web is having in our own day). Information could be distributed by and among ordinary people at relatively little expense and without the control of the Church hierarchy. It enabled Martin Luther (1483-1546) to publish his writings, and a German translation of the Bible (1532), in spite of his excommunication by the Church.
Writing about those turbulent times, Robert Cramer points out, “Institutional defensive control mechanisms had to be devised. A whole new kind of negative energy was expended as more and more people got their hands on the stuff that had kept authority in the hands of the few.” This is most notably demonstrated in the issuance of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1543, and a similar Index of 1559, forbidding Roman Catholics to read certain books.
William Tyndale (1492-1536) determined to translate the Bible into English and extend scriptural knowledge among the common people of England. Unable to find support from the Church in England, he fled to Germany where he met Martin Luther and completed his translation of the New Testament, the book of Jonah and the Pentateuch into English, published between 1526 and 1535. Despite the condemnation of the Church and efforts by the Archbishop of Canterbury to buy up and destroy all the copies of Tyndale’s Bible, many copies were smuggled into England. Tyndale, too, was condemned as a heretic and was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
However by this time the Reformation was in full force in England, and only three years after Tyndale’s death, rather than forbidding the Bible in English, the authorities of the new Church of England ordered a copy to be placed in every church. The Church attempted to decree which English version of the Bible it “authorized”, beginning with Coverdale’s Great Bible of 1539 (most of which was Tyndale’s work) and culminating in the Authorized Version of 1611 (commonly known as the King James Bible). However the Church was never again to enjoy the sort of power and control it had in the Middle Ages; newly empowered, the people made their own choices from several translations then available, and it took many years for the King James Bible to gain popular acceptance.
It is interesting to trace the ultimate effect of Tyndale’s work, and to note that about eighty percent of his translation survives in the King James Bible. Today we commemorate him in our calendar of saints, recalling his “consuming passion” and “strength to persevere” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, p. 339). He is considered a primary architect of the modern English language.
Once again we may contemplate the redistribution of power caused by the invention of the printing press. The printing press made it possible for people to publish their works outside the control of church authorities; and it gave ordinary people the power to make choices. Cramer writes, “What happened the first time a revolution in media drastically impacted the church? Authority moved from prescriptive to proscriptive, from source of morals and wisdom to a defense of itself as the only trustworthy authority. Defensiveness calls up controls only to see challenging structures emerge... as access to presses grew, so did the number and kinds of sources of authority. If you controlled a press you were an authority. The appearance of multiple authorities made the church focus upon its own authority, expending much energy with, at best, mixed results.”
The World Wide Web has created a proliferation of such “multiple authorities”. This new information revolution has made it possible for all kinds of people to widely disseminate all kinds of information, ideas and opinions. Information is shared by ordinary people unrelated to power structures, and is judged on its own merit rather than by the imprimatur of temporal authority. Attempts to control the flow of ideas and information are largely ignored; Web publishers seek neither the permission nor the forgiveness of their subjects. It is chaos. It is anarchy. And it is an enormously exciting opportunity for the spread of the Gospel.
The question is, how will the Church react? Will it once again give more attention to control than to conversion? Will there be an Index Prohibitorum of proscribed websites? Will church leaders use propaganda and rhetoric in an attempt to burn unauthorized authors at the stake of public opinion? Or does Gamaliel’s trust in the Holy Spirit have something to say to the Church today?
The communication enabled by the World Wide Web is horizontal, rather than vertical; it is not something a hierarchy can control from the top down. The theology of fourfold ministry that emphasizes the ministry of the baptized blooms in the age of the Internet, where the Church is its members, rather than its governance. Communication is the ministry of all the baptized, not the sole prerogative of those in authority. This is the paradigm of communication that the Church must embrace. Cramer concludes, “Any institutions still depending largely upon one-way, downward media and techniques of governance more and more are simply ignored.” Insights on authority and communication given us by Peter, Gamaliel, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and William Tyndale are more relevant than ever as the World Wide Web propels us into the next chapter of the transformation wrought by Johann Gutenberg.
Bruce, F. F. The History of the Bible in English : From the Earliest Versions to Today. Oxford University Press, 1978.
Connolly, W. Kenneth. The Indestructible Book : The Bible, Its Translators, and Their Sacrifices. Baker Book House, 1996.
Cramer, Robert F. “Church Cybernets : Promise or Threat?” in Church & Society, November/December 1997.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press As an Agent of Change : Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Westerhoff, Carolyn. Calling : A Song for the Baptized. Cowley Publications, 1994.