Silence (3): Why are we so afraid of silence in public worship?

Preparing for this blog over the last few months I’ve been noticing the use of silence in public worship. Like many clergy I am quite often leading worship but – probably more often than most – I am a guest preacher or attending worship led by others. On such occasions, I am always interested in the opportunities given for silence during worship. These opportunities are normally introduced by an invitation along the lines of ‘We observe a moment of silence‘, ‘We pray in silence‘, ‘In silence we pray for …’, ‘In silence we call to mind our sins…‘. My practice on these occasions is to begin counting my in-breaths which is the best way I know of stilling my mind. On about a quarter of occasions, there is actually no opportunity given for silence at all – I don’t even get to breathe in and out once; on about half of occasions I can count two or sometimes three in- and out- breaths; on about a quarter of occasions I’ve been able to count four or five breaths; never more.

This is my third blog on silence, writing about silence in school, in my own personal use of silence in praying of the Daily Office and now considering silence in public worship. As I’ve said before, at the Taize Community in France the three times a day worship, with thousands of young people includes lengthy periods of silence, usually around twelve minutes. Young people I have taken to Taize have spoken of those times as the most important in their experience there. The practice of Mindfulness in schools is growing and it is almost impossible to walk down any high street without seeing adverts in shops for mindfulness or meditation classes. The Mindfulness sections of most bookshops is many times larger than the Religion and certainly the Christianity shelves.

Our fear of silence in church is an opportunity missed for mission. Silence can be an opportunity to meet God, to develop our personal relationship with God, to encounter a God to whom we are naked, unadorned by words, unshackled of cultural baggage or prior experience, released from the prejudice aroused by so much religious language.

My own experience is that it is somewhere after five minutes that silence really begins to deepen and we pass beyond the wriggly phase to something more profound.

So how can we develop the use of silence in our corporate worship?

I think there are a few things we can do. At Taize no public teaching is ever given on how to use the silence, I think that would not work in most of our parish settings. At Taize there is a community of around a hundred monks at the centre of the church, they model the silence and keep it strong. I suspect that silence can only become strong in our Sunday worship when significant numbers in the congregation have experience of it at other times. Mindfulness teaching, use of the Jesus Prayer, Julian Groups, during the week, retreat days, pilgrimages etc all give the opportunity to experience silence with the most committed members of our congregations.

There are probably also issues about when we do silence in public worship. The usual places are as part of the penitential rite and sometimes near the end of the intercessions. Occasionally after the ‘Let us pray’ at the Collect and post-communion, and more rarely after the Eucharistic Prayer.

In most churches these are occasions when people are standing. I don’t think standing is good for anything except a short silence. I would recommend that the silence at these points is considerably longer than that currently practised, 30 seconds would work and hardly be extreme. It needs to indicate this in the service booklet and the minister needs to tell people that silence is to occur. ‘Let us pray for a moment in silence …’. Silence at transition points in the liturgy also needs to be deliberate and used to create a sense of calm and expectation rather than panic. The observance of the Advent and Lent prohibitions on use of the organ other than to accompany singing give further opportunities for silence. I suspect one of the reasons that many people are attracted to monastic worship is the mindful way in which it is conducted without a need to fill every pause with noise, or hurry to the next thing.

Some churches observe a period of silence after the sermon, this works well logistically – the congregation are sat down and it gives them time to reflect. Personally, though I would rather the silence followed the Gospel and preceded the sermon. Silence at its best is not a mulling over of what has been said but a deep listening to the Lord. This would be a good point for a ten-minute silence with the president leading the people into the silence, encouraging sitting still; explaining that it will last ten minutes. Perhaps a gong could be used at the end to announce the sermon.

Silence at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer is tempting but probably only because the President feels she or he has been talking a lot. It actually interrupts the flow of the liturgy and reduces the obvious connection between the bread offered and the ‘daily bread’ for which we pray. If anything it is precisely because the President has been the one doing the talking that the people need to say their bit, not just the great Amen, but the prayer of all Christians.

The second point at which I think an extended silence could be well used is after communion; the President sat down and again introducing the silence and leading the congregation into and out of the silence.

Quakers and many others know the power of observing times of silence. Help needs to be given to understand that shared silence is shared attentiveness, so the sound of children playing or crying is not something to avoid or disapprove of, but another opportunity for noticing and loving.

I am not a parish priest so have not had the opportunity to introduce this sort of silence over a long period of time. However, in all the parishes where I have assisted, I have used silence on retreats, pilgrimages, evening groups, Quiet Days and occasionally in Sunday worship. I have never had anything but strongly positive feedback. Our lives are cluttered and full of noise. There is a hunger for silence, a deep need for space and stillness. We need not be afraid. Silence is a threshold into which many can step before they make the commitment of faith. It is a safe ground that provides relief from the over stimulation of our lives. We are depriving our friends and families, our brothers and sisters of an opportunity to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’, to hear the still small voice, to let go of the interior monologue and listen to God. Silence is profoundly Eucharistic because it is utterly sacrificial, the giving up of the need to speak, to control; the letting go of self, the attending to otherness.

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