by Roger Walton.
Methodist Conference is often known for interspersing its debates and conversations with exuberant singing. In recent years, we have added video, dance, drama and, what one liturgist has named, ‘generous silences’.
This year’s Conference included several invitations to enter into a period of silent prayer but, once the noise of people talking and the shuffling of papers, bags and chairs ceased, we discovered that rather than entering into silence, we become aware of a background wind-like sound, whistling gently around the hall. It was probably something to do with the ventilation but was interpreted by some, metaphorically, as the breath of the Spirit among us. This was an evocative thought but it made me realise that silence was not an accurate description of what we were doing. We were not in silence; but we were still. We were practising stillness.
Stillness is not an easy concept in Methodism. John Wesley was distrustful of the ‘doctrine of stillness’ or Quietism, which he encountered in the Fetter Lane Society around 1740. This was the notion put forward by the Moravian preacher, Philip Molther, urging members to wait passively for the gift of faith and to abstain from the means of grace until they had received it. Wesley rejected this idea believing that the Lord’s Supper and other ‘means’ were converting ordinances and accepting the earlier advice of another Moravian, Peter Böhler, to ‘preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.’ Molther’s view of stillness caused John Wesley to separate from the Fetter Lane Society and, despite some lines in Charles Wesley’s hymns advocating waiting on God, the implicit ecclesiology forming in the 18th century fresh expression of Church called Methodism was activist.
Methodists are perceived as being activist in social, political, ecumenical and evangelistic spheres. Our churches are often busy places. Our ministers are busy people. Our Calling delineates discipleship in activist terms – worship, service, learning and caring, and evangelism. Even our prayers are activist – we want things to happen. As a result, stillness does not come naturally to us. A two-minute silence, in a regular act of worship, is hard for us to hold and most preachers ‘bottle out’ before the time is up.
In Hebrew, there are several words translated into English as ‘silence’ or ‘stillness’. The two texts that are most often translated as an exhortation ‘to be still’ are Psalm 37.7 and Psalm 46.10. Two different Hebrew words are used. In Psalm 37, the word means something like ‘motionlessness’. It is used to describe the sun standing still in Joshua 10.12. It conjures up the experience of staring at a beautiful scene or gazing at a work of art and losing track of time.
In Psalm 46, the widely quoted phrase ‘be still and know I am God’ uses a different Hebrew word. This too means being still but it has a slightly different set of connotations. It carries a sense of being at ease, even being lazy, relaxing or sinking into the reality of God, because all things are safe in God’s hands and God is at our side. Imagine sitting quietly in the presence of someone you love, with no need to speak, and you get the idea.
Both texts invite us to focus on and wait on God.
The other place where we find ‘stillness’, is 1 Kings 19, the famous passage about Elijah on Mount Horeb. Following God’s absence from the wind, fire and earthquake, there is something else. The preferred translation of v10 currently is ‘the sheer sound of silence’. Previously it was rendered ‘a gentle breeze’, ‘a quiet whisper’ or ‘a still small voice’. The truth is that the verse is difficult to translate. The word at the heart of it is a word that speaks of calm after a storm or stillness when all sound is removed. You might translate it ‘an intense stillness’. Interestingly, at this moment of stillness God speaks again and Elijah know exactly what he has to do next. The action becomes clear.
When I taught student ministers in training in Durham alongside Roman Catholics, my Catholic colleagues would recognise and admire our activist spirituality but described their own in terms of ‘contemplatives who take action’. In other words, those who wait on God are shaped by that contemplation and then, as a response, take action in the world. Quakers takes a similar approach. In the spirit of receptive ecumenism, we might have something to learn here.