Silence & Silencing

“I don’t understand why you Protestants have to talk so much,” Maeve said as she sipped her tea. 

“Well, we have a lot of theology around verbal confessions,” I replied, not sure where she was going with her comment. 

“Okay, but don’t you also have a lot of theology around listening? You should. We do.”

Immediately after my friend made that statement, while we were sitting in a cafe in Belfast, another friend of ours entered and the conversation shifted. Maeve was distracted and we never returned to that topic, but it sent my brain on a rabbit trail. Maeve had recently attended her first ever Protestant service after a lifetime of Catholic mass. She regaled me with some stories about how confused she felt, like a traveler to a strange land without a map, and then settled on how there was no space for silence. 

She was befuddled how she was supposed to confess her sins or have any space to reflect upon her life when the “man in the front” kept “going on and on and on”. I realized as she spoke that I had never really thought about it before. 

For over three decades, I’ve participated in various Protestant groupings; high church and low, evangelical and liberal, free church and denominational. I’ve led in them, I’ve worked in them, I’ve studied them and I can count on one hand the number of religious spaces I’ve been in where silence was a value. With the exception of one, they were all prayer rooms, separate from main services. Even those had music playing, or meditative phrases being called from the front – I can’t remember a single time where a holy space that I was in was completely silent. 

About a year after that conversation with Maeve, I married into a Catholic family. My first time at mass in Ireland, I was careful to note how much silence there was, how many pauses the priest took before another section of liturgy, how many times the congregation was asked to ponder something or to think on their own lives and then given space to do it. 

Now, I clearly cannot speak for all Protestant congregations nor all Catholic ones, but my colloquial experience got me thinking: do we have an issue with silence? 

I ask because most Christian congregations have an issue with silencing. 

We guard who can speak, who can participate, who can lead so fiercely. Even the congregations which are the most open still police participation, through ordination or membership. In many cases, those boundaries are good things and protect people from hate speech or from being put in positions they’re not prepared for. However, some of the practices of curating voices leads to a lack of empathic understanding of opposing viewpoints. 

For example, if you go to a liberal Protestant church, my guess is that you’d be more likely to have an Imam come speak in Sunday School than a Southern Baptist pastor. If you attend a moderate church, perhaps you’re more likely to have someone just to the left than just to the right. If you go to a conservative church, statistics tell us your congregation is the most heavily curated and the voices that you hear would most likely be uniform in their message. 

I make the connection between silence and silencing because the group with the closest relationship to silence – the Quakers – also has the least experience with institutional silencing. By making their meeting egalitarian and embracing silence until someone is moved to speak, they connect intimately with the idea that each human has the light of God within them. They ask their meetings to be conducted in silence until someone feels moved to speak or sing aloud, a testimony, a message, something of the sort. It is meant to be edifying to the group, of course, as that is also a scriptural principle. In their comfort with silence, and their ability to let other voices speak both internally and externally, I find a lot the rest of us can learn from. 

I wonder about some of my congregations who have been the most closely monitored – like the one in Kentucky that would never let a woman preach or teach men and was so programmed that intro music started 30 minutes before a gathering so that no one would ever be in silence. Or the number of worship planning meetings I’ve been a part of where only certain folks were allowed to lead and the fear of any pauses were palpable – like if we didn’t keep everyone entertained for every single second, they may take their focus off of the stage. We said we were afraid they’d take their focus off of God, but why did we assume God was only on stage? 

I digress. 

Do you have thoughts on silence? Or on the connection with silencing? I’m early in my exploration of this idea and would love to hear your thoughts.

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    • Kristen Donnelly
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