CHURCHES struggle to meet
two human longings, each of which is placed in us by God. On the
one hand, people long for community, with all its energy and
messiness. On the other, we long for stillness in an ever more
noisy and distracted world. It is hard to reconcile these longings
- and thus it is tempting to tailor one kind of church to the
"contemplative" types, and another to the noisier "activists".
The practice of Jesus
calls us beyond this separation. There can be no doubt that Jesus
was a "contemplative". Again and again, he leaves the noise and
confusion of the crowds to be alone with his heavenly Father. He is
sceptical about the excessive use of words in prayer, whether they
are liturgical formulae or free-form intercessions.
For all that, the Gospels
depict Jesus's ministry as one that is full of urgency. He is
unafraid of activity and noise. He is criticised for being a
"glutton and a drunkard". He welcomes children when the adults
dismiss them as a distraction. Jesus challenges our stereotypes of
contemplative prayer; but he challenges us not to treat it as the
preserve of a particular personality type - still less as a means
of escape from the realities of life.
Silence is not an evasion
of the world around us. To be silent before God is a profoundly
counter-cultural act. It is to prioritise communion above output
and achievements, and to recognise that mission is first and
foremost God's activity - that, before we act, we must first
discern how and where God is at work.
It is Jesus's communion
with his Father which enables him to know when to act, and when to
refrain from action; to see into the hearts of those he meets, and
to recognise the Father speaking through them.
It is easy to extol the
virtues of silence in a pious-sounding, abstract way - and much
harder to work it out in the messiness of parish life. My own
context is St Peter's, Bethnal Green, in the East End of London.
This is a "cross-tradition church plant", which means that a group
of Charismatic Evangelicals now worship with the original
It is an inner-city
church with a growing children's ministry, a noisy and extensive
sharing of the Peace, and a long tradition of lively parish
socials. Silence will not happen here by accident, but needs to be
pursued intentionally. Jesus's own example offers the congregation
three key signposts as we seek to do this.
First, Jesus's teaching
on prayer is for all. It is not aimed at a contemplative élite.
This is a challenge to the Church today. We need to offer teaching
on prayer which is equally accessible. One of our neighbours is the
London Buddhist Centre. It is striking how much demand there is for
what that centre offers: simple, practical teaching on how to still
both the body and the clamour of thoughts that swirl around in our
There is a wealth of
equally practical Christian wisdom on these questions, not least
the Orthodox Churches' teaching about the Jesus prayer, and the
work of writers such as Dom John Main and Mother Mary Clare. Our
preaching and teaching need to be informed by theirs, and to
reflect their clarity, practicality, and unpretentiousness.
Second, Jesus's example
challenges us to include children fully in the life and worship of
the Church. As most congregations recognise, the full inclusion of
children involves more than simply their silent presence at worship
designed for adults. Equally, it surely means more than allowing
them to be noisy in such worship.
We are seeking to learn
from other inner-city congregations where worship has moments of
genuinely prayerful stillness for children and adults alike. We are
finding that stillness in worship tends to happen when it is also
cultivated elsewhere. In one parish, silent prayer is taught in the
church school, and children pray quietly with their Sunday-school
teacher after receiving communion.
We want to learn from
such examples. We want to cultivate stillness within our worship,
and to help our families and schools nurture their children's
capacity for prayerful attentiveness.
Third, Jesus gives his
Church the eucharist - something that moves our worship beyond
words. There is a deep connection between silence and the
eucharist. Both remind us that discipleship begins with God's
activity, and not our own.
In an increasingly busy
Church and world, this may explain why growing numbers of
Christians are being drawn to the practice of silent prayer in the
presence of the sacrament - and why we need to cultivate times of
stillness within our celebration of the liturgy.
The eucharist calls us
away from frenetic activism. We are not sent out to minister until
we have been gathered, and have listened and received. Likewise,
the eucharist also calls us away from other-worldly quietism. It
reveals a God who becomes flesh in our midst, and a love that is
embodied, not ethereal. The words and actions of the liturgy
declare that God's mission - and therefore ours - is deeply engaged
with this world.
In the eucharist, Christ
is made manifest as we share the fruits of his creation. We discern
his body in a meal where all are fed. In doing so, we are
challenged to recognise our place as stewards, not possessors, of
the material world. This is anything but quietist, and cannot but
have implications for our social and economic order.
As we begin Lent, we have
an opportunity for more than acts of penitence and self-denial,
important as these are. We have an opportunity to place silence
more clearly at the heart of our church life. To do so is not to
retreat from the world in which God has placed us. It is a vital
part of seeing that world honestly and clearly, and participating
in God's mission of generous, transforming love.
Canon Angus Ritchie
is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London, and
Assistant Priest at St Peter's, Bethnal Green.
Details of the Centre's Lent programme on silence are at: theology-centre.org.