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Why the Church and the world so need silence

15 February 2013

The practice of silence should be at the heart of Christian life in the contemporary world, argues Angus Ritchie

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 Anglo-Catholic congregation.

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 mind.

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.

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