Alison Joyce Rector of St Bride's Church Fleet Street London

The power of speech

Written by
The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce
Rector of St Bride's
Sunday 12th September, 2021

Listen to Sermon

I once heard it said that the Anglican definition of confidentiality was: ‘telling only one person at a time’ – although that may not in fact be the original use of that particular expression. In an article in the Sunday Telegraph of 30th January 1977, Oliver Franks referred to what he described as ‘a secret in the Oxford sense: you may tell it to only one person at a time.’

Whichever of these versions is indeed the original, I find that that quip to be both witty and painful in equal measure, because I am sure that we all recognise the truth about that specific human phenomenon and the ease with which we can succumb to that particular temptation. And prompted by our first reading this morning, I start with this thought because we all need to be reminded occasionally of the fact that the Church and its members are as capable as anyone else of inflicting damage through the medium of speech: whether through breaching confidences, gossip, thoughtless remarks, or even deliberate unkindness and cruelty. Our reading from the Letter of James, written to a young Church community at the dawn of the Christian era, gives us a startling reminder of this all-too-human weakness, when it states: ‘no human being can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.’

The act of speaking is of course incredibly easy – we do it all the time, mostly without thinking very much about it. Whereas, as some of us know to our cost, taking back what we have said, once we have uttered it aloud… now, that is a very different matter. As the American politician Adlai Stevenson wrote: ‘Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them.’

And we sometimes fail to see the hurt, or the lasting harm that we can do, through the way we speak to people. I myself have had to learn some very difficult lessons over the years, as a result of having said things carelessly or thoughtlessly – or, worst of all, quite deliberately.

When I was training for ordination, one of my fellow students was deeply unpopular and greatly disliked by the rest of us, because he was regarded as smarmy, ambitious, and overtly sycophantic to those in authority. If ever a visiting Bishop came to our college, you could guarantee that this particular student would manage to engineer it so that, rather creepily, he got to sit next to him at dinner – as a result of which he really did become an object of contempt.

Anyway, we had a college meeting one day at which the student in question was giving a report on something in an irritatingly self-aggrandising way – and by responding with a rather cleverly honed, deeply sarcastic comment (of which I am ashamed to admit I was rather proud of at the time), I absolutely demolished him – exposing him to the ridicule and the hilarity of the rest of the student body, who took great delight in his humiliation.

But the following day, I started to pick up reports that he really had been hit very hard by what I had said, and that he was devastated by what had happened. At first I shrugged it off – telling myself that, after all, he did have it coming. But as the hours progressed, so my sense of shame and guilt increased increased – until eventually I felt compelled to go to his room, to talk to him, to apologise for what I had done, and to ask for his forgiveness. Which ended up being really quite a profound and significant encounter for both of us. And it certainly had a lasting impact on the way in which I related to him, and spoke about him, subsequently. And in the process, I had to face up to the fact that I was capable of having that kind of impact on another human being through something that I had said. It can be hard to see yourself in that light.

And of course, I have also been on the receiving end of that kind of utterance from time to time. When you wear a dog collar (with all that this represents) you can often find yourself functioning as a lightning conductor for other people’s anger and disaffection. But it can happen on the personal as well as the professional level. I once had a very close friend, with whom I got on extremely well. We had similar interests, she was great company, and we had a lot in common. The problem was that if ever she was stressed, anxious, angry or disaffected, she would routinely take it out on the nearest person available (which was often me) – with a torrent of what I can only now describe as violence and abuse. It was verbal, rather than physical – but it was still devastating. At first I was deeply upset by it; then I attempted to be calm and rational and talk her through it; but eventually I came to recognise that I was simply not prepared to be the verbal punchbag any more, or to be humiliated in that kind of way – and so in the end I simply withdrew from that friendship. I suspect that that particular individual would be astonished to hear me recount this now – because I don’t think she ever for one moment paused to reflect on her conduct and its impact, and its consequences. Which is quite troubling.

It is interesting isn’t it, that the Christian faith is very much a religion of the Word – not merely of the written word (the Bible), but also of the spoken word. According to the opening of the Book of Genesis, God brought the whole of Creation into being through the medium of speech: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’ – and there was light. And those powerful, mysterious and astonishing words at the start of St John’s Gospel add a whole other dimension to all of this, when we hear: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ In Christ we see the Word made Flesh – the one who came and dwelt among us and was one of us.

And what kind of Word was he? In his book The Humble Church, Martyn Percy makes two really interesting observations in relation to this. Firstly, he draws an interesting distinction between humility and humiliation: ‘Humility is something done by us for others. Humiliation is something done to us by others.’ (Though of course we also have the capacity to dish out the humiliation, as well as to be its recipients.) But he also goes on to describe Jesus, not only as the Word of God, but the Verb of God. A verb is a doing word, as most of us learnt in primary school – and so Jesus as the Verb ‘expresses what God is doing.’

So what kind of Verb is he? What kind of verbs are we called to be, as his disciples? For an answer we need look no further than our Gospel reading – which takes us back to the themes of humility and humiliation. Jesus alerts his followers to the startling truth that his Messiahship will be one marked by rejection and suffering; the paradox that he has come not with power, but powerlessness, absorbing all the hatred and the anger and the resentment and the pride that inhabits the human heart, and in its place speaking forth and living forth only love.

And in the meantime, what do we speak forth and live forth? Are we aware of the power we, too, can exercise, by what we say, and how we say it? As our reading from James puts it, ‘from the same mouth come blessing and cursing.’ Do our words edify or vilify? What do the things that we say reveal about who we truly are, and what is written in our hearts? And when we feel humiliated, as Christ was humiliated, how do we respond? Are we prepared to shoulder the burden of that without retaliation, as he did? Because we have to exercise a choice:

‘Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can saltwater yield fresh.’


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