Silence in the Churches! (But when?)

Mark Vernon:

A suspicion of silence took root in the second and third centuries, when bishops penned diatribes against the so-called gnostikoi, Christians who claimed that God was most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. To be branded a gnostic was to be cast out of the fold. Then, in the fourth century, came the conversion of Constantine. The church aligned itself to secular power and now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds to be audibly confessed. They policed who was in and who out.The legacy of this tradition is that, today, if you go to a mass or morning worship, there will be barely a moment’s silence. Quakers aside, it is as if there is a de facto ban on silence in public worship. When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

Related is the widespread assumption that to be a Christian is to give your assent to truth statements: you go to church not because you are searching but because you believe….

MacCulloch highlights the fate of Evagrius Ponticus. (Who? you might ask. Quite.) The fourth century monk was one of the first Christians systematically to chart the inner life, describing the difficult thoughts that the individual would face as they journeyed inwards – unruly passions including lust, anger, sloth and pride. The hope was that the individual might come to understand their feelings and so be freer of them.

If that sounds rather like mindfulness meditation, which eases the individual away from the snares of discursive thought and the depression and anxiety that can result, it is because the insight is essentially the same. The tragedy for the church is that Evagrius was branded a gnostic. His exploration of human inwardness was transformed into the seven deadly sins. Subtle inner guidance was brought under strict ecclesiastical control.

So, once again, MacCulloch’s intervention is timely. Noisy Christianity is alive and kicking. For individuals who feel the allure of silence, it is off-putting and irrelevant. They might never know that there are profound, useful meditative traditions in Christianity too.



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  • John M.

    Scot, This post resonates deeply with me. I have been practicing centering, meditative prayer, now for two or three years, meaning that each morning I sit silently with no agenda and no prayer list and attempt to center all my consciousness: mind, heart and spirit on being in the presence of the Trinity. Later, I “pray” extemporaneously and with set prayers, along with reading the scriptures. But it is the 20 or 30 minutes of silence, sitting in darkness, that has become my anchor and lifeline. Evaluating results is very subjective and not the goal, but I believe that I am more peaceful and mindful of God’s presence throught the day. For the first time in my life daily quiet time is not a chore, but a joy. Regarding public worship, it is good, but if it came down to chooseing sitting quietly with God for an hour or sitting through an hour of public worship in my fairly “normal/average” evangelical church I know I would choose the quiet, because I have already made that choice a few times!

  • I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to decide whether or not to comment on this post. On the one hand, I am in complete sympathy with the point that silence is almost completely absent from modern church services. I am all for the reinstatement of silence in gathered worship and frequently invite my own congregation into silence. On the other hand, there is something about this post that I find deeply disturbing. I think it’s the passing over of all intervening years of church history (the examples given are all early church history) – in which there has been plentiful and valuable instruction in silence and the cultivation of the inner life. I suspect that this is the result of Mark Vernon’s interpretation rather than Diarmaid MacCulloch’s original lectures – for how could a prominent church historian pass over the lives of contemplative saints such as the Desert Fathers and St. Ignatius Loyola (to name a very few examples off the top of my head). In fact, I think our current discomfort with silence is derived more from cultural fear than it is from historical prejudice. Our culture, walking around with perpetual ipod buds in their ears, is afraid to face silence. I haven’t plumbed the reason for this – maybe someone else can help here – but I expect it has something to do with an equation of silence with death. To sum up a comment that has already become too long: I think the church must pursue silence as an essential means of worship; but I think the reason this often does not happen has more to do with cultural norms and fears than it does with the history of silence in the church. If someone wants to write a book on the history of silence in the church, however – I would be delighted to read it!

  • Dana Ames

    Stacey, quite.

    It seems to me that the writer is ignorant of the history and depth of hesychasm in the Eastern church.


  • DRT

    Can anyone say monk and vows of silence?

    I don’t get this at all. I think it is purely a product of Protestantism and likely Americanism. If people were in silence they may think and produce their own thoughts! We want them to tow the line.

  • David Moore

    I presume he refers to Ramsay MacCulloch–don’t know. Anyway, in my view it would serve us well for the church to have silence and be silent as needed. An oversaturated-by-religion society could benefit from a more reflective church.

    We’ve all been on retreats before. How about a huge one, en-masse, so to speak (or not).

  • David Moore

    …or Diarmaid McCulloch?

  • From what I read in the original article, it seems as if he’s addressing the lack of silence in mass and worship services, rather than in monastic practices. As one raised a silent Quaker, I recall my first experiences in another church. To a child, it seemed much more interesting because of the constant goings on: hymns, reading books, reading aloud, listening to a speech (ok, that wasn’t the interesting part), robes, entrances and exits. I didn’t know that there was any history at all vs silence in Catholic masses/ Protestant churches, but I was aware that I experienced the contrast.

  • “I didn’t know that there was any history at all vs silence in Catholic masses/ Protestant churches”

    That’s because their isn’t. Early Protestants got their “moments of silence” from the Roman Catholic pietistic movements of their day.