Sermon given in Truro Cathedral at the launch of the New Testament in Cornish
Sunday 28th November 2004A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service in Truro Cathedral to launch the New Testament in Cornish.
'The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the Chaldean, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician traders in tin'. Not all that many people will recall Sherlock Holmes' brief fascination with Cornish (it's described in 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot', if any enthusiasts want to follow it up – one of the very best of the late stories); but this deadpan observation by Dr Watson reminds us that even Holmes' powers of deduction had their off-days.
Still, he wasn't by any means alone in entertaining bizarre theories about the origins of Cornish. Earlier nineteenth century folklorists had had a wonderful time speculating about the origins of the name 'Marazion' (which obviously means 'the sorrow of Zion'; well, as a matter of fact, it does, in Hebrew). Penzance and the Mount were evidently yet another likely location for the much-travelled lost tribes of Israel, lamenting their homeland and consoling themselves by commerce. Is not Marazion's other ancient name 'Market-jew'?
Professional philologists are always spoilsports, who want to point out boring truths, such as the fact that Marazion and Market-jew are both versions of a very prosaic and entirely native Celtic name from the early Middle Ages ('John's market' – or perhaps 'Jones' Superstore'...). In the same dreary fashion, scholars have explained away the derivation of Cornwall's name from the Trojan hero Corineus, who defeated the giant Gogmagog in a wrestling match; and have concluded that balefires probably have nothing to do with the storm god of the Canaanites. Against fantasies like these, the world of fact does indeed look pretty grey.
But we love to think of ourselves as somehow connected with a bigger and more romantic history. The idea that we might be long-lost heirs to something or other, kidnapped princes and princesses is compelling; surely we deserve more than this provincial life, to quote one of Walt Disney's heroines? And the impulse to believe that we are the descendants of Trojans fleeing from the fall of Troy, or of lost Hebrew tribes, the idea that we speak a language which conceals ancient dignity and ancient secrets – it's wellnigh irresistible. Believing that the real romance is somehow in the prosaic and everyday is a lot harder. In the early Christian centuries, people found it really hard to face the possibility that a holy book might be written in ordinary (sometimes rather bad) Greek. The New Testament was written not in the elegant idiom of the classroom or the theatre but in the very ordinary tongue of the streets and shops. Even Christians were sometimes a bit embarrassed by the fact that the Holy Spirit apparently spoke with a fearfully common accent, and they worked out all sorts of theories about how the simple language of the Bible was really a complicated code for deeper spiritual truths. People still love codes, as you'll have noticed, and some enthusiasts still try to turn the Bible into a coded message, giving exact information about the end of the world. And I won't even mention the glorious claptrap of the 'da Vinci code', a wonderful example of the fact that, as has been said, when people stop believing in Christianity, they don't believe in nothing - they'll believe anything...
The Christian gospel has always sought to reconnect us with the everyday, the material, the ordinary, the local. God has become human – that is what we are getting ready to celebrate in the Advent season. God has spoken to us in the language we most readily understand; he has stood alongside us and has learned human speech. He has won our trust by sharing our world. He can even speak the language of fear and inner anguish and desolation, as he does on the cross, and we can think, yes, he knows us, he knows what is in us, as St John's gospel says. And one result of this is that our 'ordinary' language becomes extraordinary. Just as ordinary people become extraordinary when we see them as made in God's image, so our words become extraordinary when we think that God incarnate, God in human form, used human words and made them communicate the force and glory of God's own life. Reading the Bible is not reading a book that's extraordinary because it is so well-written or so inspiring; it's reading ordinary words, sometimes words that pile up on each other with excitement or the sense of immense mystery, that God has taken up to tell us who he is and who we are. And the Bible makes full sense to us only as we begin to see that this is how God works – by making the ordinary transparent to eternal truth – 'treasure in clay pots', tresor yn lestri a bri. As one early Christian said, when God becomes human, 'he does divine things humanly and human things divinely'. So when Christ dies for us on the cross, he suffers humanly, but at the same time acts divinely; because this is an act of sacrificial love, it sets us free as only God can do.
So the truth about us is actually even more romantic than any legends of lost tribes and kidnapped princes. We are indeed the lost children of God's people; we are indeed princes and princesses brought up unaware of our dignity. God comes alongside us and speaks in our ear a word that shocks us and brings us up short: you are my child, the earth is your inheritance. But to claim that inheritance, you must walk the way of God's unique and firstborn Son, in trust, in love and in self-forgetfulness, poverty of spirit. The words are spoken in the everyday language of men and women, spoken in the almost casual way that Jesus so often has in the gospel – here is the truth, listen if you can. But they are words that change everything.
And so it is that, as the gospel goes out into all the world, Christians labour so intensely to let it speak in the real language of men and women: here are strange and terrible matters that will strip you of all you thought you knew or could do, but they are spoken in such a way that you will know they are rooted in the same world you live in. A message from heaven is not a message from Mars, because the God of heaven has become a native of earth. The great translators, Jerome, Tyndale, Bishop William Morgan, our local hero Henry Martyn, all began from that conviction. They wanted people to 'hear in their own tongue the marvellous works of God', as the Acts of the Apostles puts it. They wanted people to discover their own words, their own language, their own identity in a new way: if they could hear God speaking in their language, they could see unexpected glories in that language. No speech, no culture, is cut off from the possibility of bearing God's news, however much it will test that language to the limit, even break it and remake it.
No, the dignity and romance of Cornish, or any other language, is nothing to do with ancient Phoenicians or even lost tribes of Israel. It is in the hidden possibilities of all human speech to make God known when the single great story of the Word made flesh is told. So the glory of Cornish is to be Cornish – not third-hand Aramaic. The glory of each one of us is to be the person God made us to be – not a fantasy hero. God's healing and saving touch is a reality that can kindle every human situation into fire. And today we celebrate a long-delayed local kindling, with delight and gratitude. Here too, in this language too, in this place, with these people, God is real and local, terrifying and converting, familiar and beloved. May his words be heard gladly by all the extraordinary 'ordinary people' whose lives God wants to enfold in his mercy. 'The common people heard him gladly': Ha'n routh veur a woslowi orto yn lawen. 'All of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things God has done': ni a's klyw ow kewsel y'gan yethow a oberow meur Dyw.
© Rowan Williams 2004