This coming week we have in our group of churches a meeting of preachers.  This is a quarterly meeting for everyone engaged in planning and conducting worship.  As well as the regular agenda business we devote some time to discussing and sharing among ourselves thoughts on a specific subject.  The one chosen for this particular meeting is, “The Use of Silence in Worship”.  This may be very appropriate in this season of Lent.  Wildernesses are places for quiet reflection far away from the noise and clamour of our ordinary every day life.  Also as we engage in our journey with Jesus to his Passion, there will be as we walk together long moments of silence in our conversations, that will say as much as our ‘talk-times’.

The late and much-loved Methodist Minister, Rev. Dr. Leslie Wetherhead wrote a book that bears the title “The Significance of Silence” (Epworth Press 1945).  In the opening chapter, that gives the book its title, he tells of an hour of silence that was for ever etched in his memory.  He wrote, “I was staying at Jordans, in Buckinghamshire, that lovely Quaker settlement.  It was always like Sunday afternoon at Jordans…….  One September morning I got up at a quarter to seven, walked through the kitchen garden, up through the orchard and through a gate into a meadow.  But not only into a meadow but also into a great silence.”  Then he says “I met God”.  Another experience he relates is of an occasion when he had been preaching in Lincoln.  After the meeting he was taken by his host for the night to an isolated farm-house.  After supper he was shown to his bedroom.  When he was alone he knelt at the open window.  The only sound he could hear was that of a very distant train being shunted.  “Chug, Chug, chug….., then a lot of quick chugs together.  He goes on to say, that the sound made by that distant train, interpreted the silence that lay all around. 

“O Sabbath rest by Galilee
O calm of hills above.
When Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love”.

A dictionary definition of silence is  “A complete absence of sound”.  If anyone thinks I am going down the path where that leads, they have another think coming. 

 My silences have a bit of colour and body about them. 

I have pregnant silences – full of meaning fraught with possibilities, though often they are stillborn.  Sometimes my silences are coloured golden for the times when it is better to say nothing – Rare!!!

There are times of awesome silence, such as described by Kenneth Graham in “The Wind in the Willows”.  There is the moment when Mole and Rat are on an island at dawn, when they feel the August Presence around them. 

Most dramatic of all is ‘Sheer Silence’, such as Elijah found on a mountain and the moment at Christ’s crucifixion, when according to Mark, “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon”.

“Vulnerable silence”

The music finishes.
It is the quiet of night
Broken by the ticking of a clock,
The hiss of rain,
The growling of a distant car.
The silence of this interval
Is not for doing,
Not for resting
But to wonder in;
A vulnerable silence
Given back to us.

(W. S. Beattie, Liturgy of Life, NCEC 1991)

A thought that will not, I think, feature in our preacherly discussions next week, is that silence is necessary to break things up and give them meaning.

What do you make of this sentence:  “justasiamwithoutonepleabutthatthybloodwasshedforme”  –Gibberish!! What is missing are capital letters, punctuation marks and spaces.  If we put what I will call ‘silences‘ in it  immediately makes sense.Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”

In music there are things called ‘Rests’, which are as vital as any note that is played.  These “Silences” interpret what has gone before and what will follow.  Interestingly, there is a composition by avant-garde composer John Cage, which contains just over four and a half minutes of silence.  It has four movements, the length of which are not fixed by the composer and during which not a note is played.  You are supposed to perceive the sounds of the environment around you as it is being ‘played’.

That thought takes me back to the hymn verse I quoted earlier. 

“The silence of eternity
Interpreted by Love.”

Just what we shall say about the use of silence in worship at our discussions next week, I don’t know.  Perhaps it will be best if I remain SILENT.

John R.


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