UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The biggest threat to women in South Africa is their partners

by Kristy Woudstra

An investigation of why one woman is murdered every eight hours by her husband or boyfriend in this African country — and how advocates are trying to stop it.

Promotional Image


Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: My last conversation with Nanny

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the power of our final words with loved ones.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The 28-year-old also has a unique musical ability, serving as a United Church music director, and performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image


March 2018

Egerton Ryerson: The legacy of a tarnished hero

by Mike Milne

He founded public education in Ontario — and this very magazine — while also promoting residential schools. How should we judge Ryerson today? Some students want his name and image gone.


March 2018

Church organist has been leading worship for 86 years

by Wendy Lowden

And Louise Pelley is still going strong at 98 years old.


February 2018

Pro-choice advocates still at risk despite Ontario’s new abortion law

by Jackie Gillard

Threatening messages spray-painted on their doors and lawns won’t stop those advocating for reproductive rights. If anything, they feel even more determined to help protect those seeking an abortion.


March 2018

The biggest threat to women in South Africa is their partners

by Kristy Woudstra

An investigation of why one woman is murdered every eight hours by her husband or boyfriend in this African country — and how advocates are trying to stop it.


March 2016

The fighter

by Richard Wright

When he was 13 years old, Willie Blackwater stood up to his abuser at a B.C. Indian residential school. His defiance would eventually help change the course of Canadian history.


March 2018

14 writers share their moving final conversations with loved ones

by Various Writers

These stories will make you laugh, cry and rage. Maybe they’ll spark a fond memory. Or perhaps they’ll prompt you to consider the things you need to say now, before it’s too late.

Promotional Image