It was my good fortune to be a resident of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, “Geordie land”, for two periods of ministry. On the first occasion, over and above my regular pastoral ministry I was a part-time chaplain in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, a large teaching hospital associated with the University. Patients came to us from all over the North of England. When I did my ward round, I was frequently asking patients, “Where do you come from?” A reply might be “Ashington” or “Hexham” or “Blyth” or “Cullercoats” or some other town or village in the hospital’s catchment area. But that was not the answer I sought; I knew that already from the card in my hand giving notice of admission. So I would respond, “Yes, of course – but where do you hail from originally?” The response might be “Cumbria” or “Dumfries” or “Aberdeen” or “Edinburgh” or “York” or “London” or even “Toronto” or some other part of the world. Their accent gave the show away! The staff, the medics particularly, were a cosmopolitan lot, among them many Scots voices were to be heard. Apart from the initial three years as a Probationer, stationed on the Moray Firth, my entire ministry was served in the North East of England. Whether it be town or country, I would come across Scots who had “emigrated” across the border and were now occupying key positions; doctors, nurses, local government officers, Trade Union officials, policemen and even parsons (like myself), to name a few. Again and again, on some issue or other in Scotland, the representative spokespersons are not natives: the way they speak gives the show away – they are English or some other nationality. There have been times when one wondered how England would survive without the Scots! However to be fair, how would Scotland cope without the English! (Are we speaking Referendum?!)
When on occasion my pedigree has been the topic of discussion, I have been astonished to be identified as a Welshman and my wife, while shopping in England, was told from behind the counter how nice it was to hear her lovely Irish accent! Accents resist attempts to change who we are by the way we speak. The young lady, eighteen years old, left home from Scotland where the Doric was spoken for a job in the Civil Service in London. Three months later she came home with a new accent, so she thought. Within a few days her accent was a hybrid – she couldn’t help it. My wife’s Dad was born in Woolwich and moved to Scotland when he was nine years old with the families of the men employed by the Woolwich Arsenal who were transferred to the new torpedo factory in Scotland. When I knew him he spoke as one born and bred on the Scottish side of the border. I am told that when he was in the company of his siblings or fellow-workers, in spite of the passing of the years, he was a Cockney – as he was as a boy.
Peter, the Peter of Jesus’ disciple band on the night Jesus was betrayed, watched what was happening to his Master, the Master he had promised never to betray, but along with his fellow disciples, he contrived to keep out of sight. They did not want to suffer the same fate as Jesus. But Peter was recognised by two observant servant women who knew him to be one of Jesus’ men. Peter denied all knowledge of Jesus but he did not manage to hoodwink the girl whose finger pointed to him. “You are certainly one of them” she insisted, “your accent betrays you.” Let us hope and pray that at any time the way we speak of our faith may never be of betrayal.
Speech is not only a means of exposing our native environs, it can reveal what our interests are; what are our ambitions; where our heart lies; the kind of things we talk about. Go to any town or city not sure of the way to where you want to be and stop a passer-by for directions; you may be told to look for a certain pub, your landmark on the way, your guide – pub person. Or you may be told to watch for certain churches to keep you from straying – your guide goes to church (?) When we had a dog (a much-loved Basset Hound), my wife walked her on the moor behind our house, to be joined there by a handful of “sister” dog walkers. I understand the main topics seldom changed: the youngest of them still at school, her ambition to be a vet, spoke of little else than dogs. Two of the women knew all about the clubs and pubs in the city centre, and so on. Above all else their speech betrayed them to be more than dog-owners, they were dog lovers. Our speech paints pictures of who we are and what we are, where we are and where we are going, even when we are failing, like Simon Peter. He could not get over the fact that in a moment of fear and cowardice he had betrayed his Lord, until post-Resurrection, the Risen Christ took him aside at the Lakeside, spoke to him and asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more these?” Thus Jesus gave the errant disciple the opportunity to reveal the real Peter – not just the old Peter, but a new Peter, one who more than ever was fit for purpose. What a difference to Peter the words of Jesus made, and no doubt the way he spoke them, just as the hymn-writer wrote in another context, reassuringly in “accents clear and still.”
“Peter if you love me that much, shepherd my sheep.”
“The way you speak gives you away” (GNB Matthew 26:69-73)
“Your accent gives you away” (The Message)
The disciple is an ambassador of Christ, and what we say and how we say it when speaking on his behalf will be a potent witness and testimony to our Master and Friend.