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Finish This Sentence

“In worship, the United Church should, now and then . . . just shut up.

By Patricia Clarke

United Church people are very good at making a joyful noise unto the Lord. But listening for the “still small voice”? Who has time?

Think about a normal Sunday in a lively congregation. We greet each other warmly, noisily, across the pews. We’re great on community: newcomers and visitors are encouraged to introduce themselves. When we pass the peace, it’s a mass hug-a-thon in the aisles. We do lots of good works: a half-dozen members parade to the pulpit to tell us about them. Maybe we help the children learn a new song, or the choir sings Happy Birthday to one of its sopranos. Finally we settle down to try to hear the word of God: readings, a sermon, spoken prayers.

All of this is as it should be. This is the family of God. This is where people are cared for. This is where, as in the TV bar Cheers, everybody knows your name. If there were no happy buzz, we’d be worried.

And yet. Words, words, words, as Eliza Doolittle complained. Something is missing. It’s the silence in which to “be still and know that I am God.”

Don’t take my word for it. My favourite church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University, is the one who says we’ve lost it. In his latest book, Silence: A Christian History, he writes that Protestant congregations have embraced “one of the noisiest forms of Christianity — the least attentive to the silence of God — in Christian history.” Words, he says, have “overwhelmed silence.” If that “still small voice” were to speak, who would be able to hear it?

It’s almost as if we’re afraid of silence, not just in Sunday worship but every day of the week. We do our best to escape it, to smother it in sound. We hurry along the street talking on our phones. Hiking in the park or strolling through the woods, we drown out birdsong with music on our iPods. If the boy Samuel were here today, he wouldn’t be able to hear God calling. He’d be glued to his earphones listening to that new group Jonah and the Whales.

Of course, we hear God speaking in worship through the Bible readings and the sermon as it connects the teachings of Jesus to our lives. At home alone, we can open ourselves to God’s Spirit in silence. Can we make space for this kind of opening when we’re together on Sunday? Some congregations have tried, consciously but not successfully. One set aside a time late on a weekday afternoon for quiet meditation in the sanctuary. Few came. Another tried a half hour of quiet before the Sunday service. It didn’t work either. Others in the congregation kept noisily bustling in.

At Mark Street United in Peterborough, Ont., Rev. Bob Root tries to build openings for silence into the services. He says he’s had “a very positive response.” He makes more of lighting the Christ candle by inviting a moment of silence — up to a minute. In the sermon, he talks a bit, then asks the congregation to reflect while the organ plays quietly. He leaves spaces in the prayer for silence, for the congregation, as he puts it, to “listen to the breathing of God.” “We have too many words,” he says. “We’re too busy talking to listen to God.”

In a noisy, busy congregation, Root admits, “it’s hard to change the mood.” But he is heartened by a parishioner who confessed to becoming more comfortable with the silences: “Why, it almost gives space for the Spirit to move!” she marvelled.

She was not far from Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh-century theologian, who advised (and I owe this to MacCulloch), “Love silence above all things because it brings you nearer to the fruit that the tongue cannot express.”

It’s worth a try.

Patricia Clarke is a writer in Toronto.

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