Edited By Piers Pennington and Matthew Sperling
Kathryn Murphy - Hill’s Conversions 61
Kathryn Murphy Hill’s Conversions In a sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2008 at Trinity College, Cam- bridge, Geof frey Hill spoke, appropriately, on Christian repentance. He approached his topic via Reformation semantic disputes, beginning with a debate between Thomas More and William Tyndale on whether the Greek word μετάνοια, frequent in the New Testament, should be trans- lated ‘penance’ or ‘repentance’. Rather than entering the lists on either side, Hill instead approved their alertness to verbal distinction, and the intimate interconnection of matters linguistic and doctrinal in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English: ‘our language at that time could sustain nuance and fine distinction in ways not now sustainable or understood. Who now cares for the authority of metanoia or whether it is translated as penance or repentance?’1 The modern failings are twofold: a lack of ethical sensitivity and recognition of the necessity of penitence; and a failure of responsibility and discrimination in the use of words. One answer to the rhetorical question – who cares? – is, of course, Geof frey Hill. The OED’s compound definition of metanoia in part confirms Hill’s complaint at modern semantic laxity, by eliding the nuance of the dispute: ‘The act or process of changing one’s mind…spec. penitence, repentance; reorientation of one’s way of life, spiritual conversion’.2 For More and Tyn- dale, penitence and repentance were not equivalent, the former implying a Catholic ceremonial duty, the latter a Lutheran internalisation of guilt. 1 Geof frey Hill, Ash Wednesday Sermon, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, 6 February 2008,...
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