*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

With the gift of tongues: clergy who stammer

by
10 March 2023

As clergy with stammers, Calum Burke and Jamie Hawkey want to encourage others in the same situation

alamy

Calum Burke

I’VE been stammering ever since I started talking. My stammer has always been with me and part of me. I sometimes describe it as my best and worst friend. As a child, I was less aware of it. When I started school, however, it was clear that I spoke differently from my peers. Stammerers find all kinds of ways to conceal and hide their stammer, not feeling it safe to show the world who they really are.

This means that we live with a high level of guilt and shame connected with not being able to live authentically. For me, this has meant missing many opportunities because of fear. It has been the elephant in the room in many of my relationships.

During the vocations process, I wish I had had the confidence to be more open about my speech. It’s hard, though, in interview circumstances, to know how open you should be, because of the fear of rejection. So, although it was mentioned in my BAP papers, I didn’t then have the confidence to articulate my feelings about my stammering.

The Revd Calum Burke

There were two big moments of change for me at theological college. First, I discovered to my surprise that I wasn’t the only stammerer in the world. (This is half a joke.) In the year above me was a fellow ordinand who stammered, and I felt so encouraged. Meeting this person opened up a world of possibilities to me.

Second, one morning it was my turn to lead morning prayer in our college chapel. I always found this experience genuinely frightening, because it was in front of all my lecturers and peers.

Despite knowing the liturgy well, I found myself getting stuck. At that moment, I had what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. I looked down at myself and sensed God saying: “I called you knowing that you stammered; it’s not a surprise to me.” I knew from this moment that I had to learn to live more openly and authentically with my stammer. As a priest, I often ask others to live authentically and vulnerably; I had to model this myself.

I’ve found self-help groups to be a massive support and help. I like the openness and solidarity that is formed in a stammering self-help group. It’s one of the only meetings I go to where I don’t need to explain or hide my stammer. The Cambridge self-help group gave me the confidence to set up something similar for clergy.

At various points in my life, I’ve engaged in speech therapy. In the stammering community, there are mixed feelings about the place of speech therapy, as many have had bad experiences. I recently had a very positive experience with a City Lit course on public speaking. I found many of the techniques helpful, especially the vocal warm-ups.

Something I’ve been doing a lot more recently is “outing myself”. I’ve found this especially helpful when I’m doing an occasional office, and people don’t know I stammer. I find it puts the congregation and me at ease. I usually say something like: “You’re very blessed to be hearing my voice today. I’m one of the one per cent in the world who stammer; so you’re fortunate today!”

 

EVERY day feels like challenge when you stammer, and so much of that challenge is hidden. I still find weddings the most challenging, because I feel the pressure to give everyone a good day — and not break the law.

In my experience, most people have been really encouraging. I’ve had so much positive feedback about my speech, especially from those who face obvious brokenness. Hearing my voice reminds me that it’s OK to be a bit broken.
I’m also not prepared to hide myself, as in the old days.

All this being said, I put various practices such as breathing, posture, and learning scripts into practice. Reading the Gospel in a service feels like the most challenging part of my job: I can switch words in and out when I preach, but I can’t do this when reading out loud.

For many years, I arrogantly thought that I was the only one in the whole world who stammered. I hadn’t really met anyone else who sounded like me. When I was ordained in 2021, I knew I wanted to encourage other people who stammer. The job can be lonely and isolating, with so much speech involved. I wanted to create a supportive space for myself and other stammerers.

I wanted the meeting to be a mix of theological reflection, and a space for clergy to share their experiences. I was delighted that Bishop Chris Goldsmith, head of the Church of England’s Ministry Team, joined us to listen to our experiences. We ended our time together with evensong at the Abbey. The anthem was “Love bade me welcome”. We had spent quite a of time reflecting on shame and self-acceptance; this hymn felt like a really moving way to end our time.

Every stammer is different, and every stammerer is different. It’s been really great over the past decade to witness the Church becoming more open to different kinds and shapes of vocations. I hope there is the same openness to people who stammer, because our voices often get missed.

 

James Hawkey

I DON’T remember a time when I didn’t stammer, although it ebbs and flows quite a lot. It started to get a lot better in my late teens, after a lot of bullying and even more frustration.

Until just a few years ago, I wouldn’t even make a small intervention at a conference without drafting it out in full on the back of an envelope first. You get to know your own vowel-and-consonant traps: what works and what doesn’t.

These days, I don’t stammer much. But the effects of it are with you all the time, in ways that are hard to explain. For example, I often wonder whether I am being clear in conversation, whether I’m being properly understood, and so on. Non-verbal communication is important to me, as is singing, poetry, and art in general.

I can’t say it ever put me off the priesthood, although I have had some really tricky moments, especially early on. But, in many ways, I’ve found that having an obvious vulnerability can be helpful pastorally. I have great friends, and a good sense of humour, as well as a keen sense of the irony that it appeared I was being strongly drawn into a way of life where a lot of public speaking was part of the package.

Canon James Hawkey

There have been several challenging moments when, for a couple of seconds, I have felt I simply can’t say what is put in front of me — and at some pretty high-profile occasions. But I have mechanisms for dealing with that, and I don’t think anyone else would know. Then there was the time I was preaching at a friend’s wedding, and I simply could not say the word “eloquence”!

It’s been encouraging, realising that this is just part of me, and that in some ways I’m probably a better, more caring, more empathetic person as a result of it all. It’s hugely moving to be in solidarity with people in a similar situation.

I remember one moment with some Iraqi young people who had lost their homes and livelihoods to IS. One of them began to talk about the challenges of reconstruction, and I immediately recognised the signs in how he was speaking. He didn’t actually stutter, but when you know, you know. And I suddenly felt that I understood just a tiny, tiny little bit more about what he was dealing with.

 

THERE are words I simply never risk using. I think most people with stammers know their own traps. And, if I can feel myself in dangerous territory, I simply empty my lungs of breath and kick-start the sentence from my diaphragm. But the physical sensation of the emotional side of things is with me in my gut, most of the time, in almost every interaction, and that can be tough if you’re tired.

I love lecturing, preaching, and broadcasting, and have learned that people tend to be kind. Also, with a script and a strong sense of rhetoric in public speaking, I don’t think anything is too risky.

I vividly remember the moment I realised that Moses had a speech impediment. And Paul’s teaching that “power is perfected in weakness” has been particularly important. A wonderful priest when I was growing up, who had a stammer, was a role model for me. He stood behind me in solidarity, with his hand on my shoulder, when I was first reading in church as a young teenager.

Calum and I were both on the podcast “Stammer Stories”, and thought it would be good to spend time with people struggling with similar issues in our context. I hope that from meeting together we’ll find solidarity and a sense of not being alone. We’ve also had some great conversations with senior staff in MinDiv about supporting ordinands and clergy who struggle with their speech.

I’d like the Church to know about clergy and church members with stammers that it’s tough. But it’s also just part of life for us. Everyone has something to deal with. Please, no stigma. Talk to us about it. But don’t let it define us. And don’t finish our sentences!

 

The Revd Calum Burke is Assistant Curate of St Thomas and St Luke (Top Church), Dudley.

Canon James Hawkey is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and Visiting Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London.

For details of future meetings, please contact calum@topchurch.co.uk

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

You are able to read this for FREE as part of Church Times Promotional Month, where for the whole of March, we are offering unlimited web access to the newspaper.

From next month to explore the Church Times website fully, you will need to sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers will return to only being able to read four articles for free each month.