Language Timothy!

Readers of a certain age may well remember the 1980’s BBC sitcom ‘Sorry,’ which was centred around the character Timothy Lumsden played by Ronnie Corbett. Lumsden, in his early 40’s still lived at home with his domineering mother Phyllis, and henpecked Father Sidney. Perhaps the most memorable catchphrase of the series was Sidney’s ‘Language Timothy,’ typically said as a response to something Timothy mentioned that had been misunderstood as something inappropriate or offensive. And of course, that was the point; often what had been said was not inappropriate or offensive, but it had been misunderstood as being so. How easily we can be misunderstood.

On a personal level, one of the gifts of working with RM is that I am able to interact with a broad spectrum of denominations, streams of churches and individuals. Working with such a great variety of traditions is I think, both crucial and exciting, but it does mean that as I approach each different conversation I often have to think carefully about my language, and in particular the use of certain words or phrases that can easily have quite different or nuanced meanings, depending upon your denomination or tradition.


Let me give you an example; how about the word ‘ecumenical’? To some people that’s a really positive word relating to, or representing, the whole body of the church working towards worldwide unity. To others it’s seen as a watering down of the true gospel message and partnering with people of very different theological persuasion. And while we’re at it, how about that word gospel? What do we really mean when we use the word? Then more recently we’ve encountered pioneers; I’m finding that to be a bit of a marmite word at the moment. To some folk pioneers are maverick, almost seen as anti-church, yet to others pioneering is very much seen as the future, as traditional models of church are challenged. I could go on; how about apostle, evangelism; and what do we really mean by mission? Is it a generic term for sharing Christian love, or a bunch of week-long special events at a local church? I’m sure there are many more words and terms that can easily be misunderstood as they roll off the tongue and are weighted or nuanced by our particular tradition - feel free to tell me of your experiences.


My point here is not to argue for or against the usage of any particular words or phrases contained within the so called ‘Language of Zion’ dictionary, but I am arguing for a deeper listening and greater understanding across the wider church as we seek to partner in meaningful ways. Perhaps this is especially important in the rural context, where the only church in your community might appear to speak a very different language from the one you’ve been used to!


In 2 Timothy 2 we encounter Paul reminding Timothy to remain steadfast and ‘strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,’ he also reminds him to ‘pursue righteousness, grace, love and peace,’ to remind people of these things, and to ‘command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them’ (2 Timothy 2:14). Words are powerful, the language we use is important, but let’s heed Paul’s advice to Timothy; listen well, and seek first and foremost to develop a deeper understanding. Finally, and on a very practical level, next time a fellow Christian uses a word or phrase that jars a little or challenges your understanding, just remember… ‘Language Timothy!’


Alistair Birkett

Director: Scotland & Northern England