Let all mortal flesh keep silence

by Jill Baker

Writing about silence is almost as ironic as speaking about silence. If the heart of silence is an absence of words, then a blank sheet of paper (or screen) might be the best way in… but a few observations, none the less.

This week the 2017 Methodist Conference is meeting in Birmingham; a gathering of around 300 people, with many reports to debate and decisions to take. Not a natural arena for silence, and quite a contrast to the setting where I drafted these thoughts; during a “Five-Day Community for Spiritual Formation”[1] in Northern Ireland just a few weeks earlier. As the name suggests, around thirty of us lived in community for five days, hoping to be spiritually a little more formed by the end of it – time will tell. Alongside teaching, worship, listening time and wonderful Irish hospitality, one of the tools for the formation was silence. After each presentation, morning and afternoon, we kept an hour’s silence, and following Night Prayer remained silent until Morning Prayer next day.

This could be a delight but could also be a challenge. Silence can be threatening; we often use noise and activity to distract ourselves from our deepest emotions and from an encounter with ourselves. Silence can break down the defences and make us vulnerable. Silence can also be abused; whilst it may be a tool it must not be a weapon. If a person has been silenced by others, they have been violated. Too often in the power struggle which has never been far from the history of Christianity, bible texts have been used to silence women and other groups.

Silence is not our natural state and has to be learned. We do not come into this world in silence; a silent baby would struggle to survive. Susanna Wesley may have been able to teach her children to cry softly[2], but that is not a widespread practice! Indeed, the idea of “suffering in silence” in adulthood has about it a stoic quality which, whilst it may be commendable at times, also suggests a martyred attitude, an unhealthy repression which will, in time, bear bad fruit. The psalmist seems to agree,; “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long”.[3]

So why might we consider silence a practice worth learning? There are around a hundred references to silence or keeping silent in Scripture, many of them occurring in the “wisdom literature”. Perhaps that affords a first reason; Proverbs reminds us; “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”[4] Silence can save us from speaking hastily, rashly, hurtfully, selfishly. Monks living permanently in community have been known to reflect that it is the silence which enables the community to survive.

Perhaps the most famous Bible reference to silence is Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb5. Elijah is expecting God to “pass by”. Wind, earthquake and fire all fail to reveal God’s presence, but then comes the “still small voice”[5]. Almost the only thing I remember from three years of studying Hebrew at Durham is our professor’s own translation of this almost untranslatable phrase, “a rarefied, audible silence”. Elijah certainly recognises the presence of God in this silence, for he covers his face as he goes to the entrance to the cave. The voice follows, but the silence comes first.

So silence has two directions (at least); we learn to be silent before God – sometimes waiting for God to speak, but often rather learning to hear God in the silence. In human relationships silence is often used to express disapproval, anger or indifference. Sometimes it may simply mean that our interlocutor is no longer present to us. But at other times, silence in conversation may itself be a language. Barbara Brown Taylor’s little gem of a book, “When God is silent – divine language beyond words” explores this idea very helpfully. Silence may not mean absence, but may be a deep communication; the silence of lovers, the silence of those who are communicating without words.

The final biblical reference to silence comes in the book of Revelation[6]; after the seventh seal has been opened by the Lamb, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. A fascinating thought!

1 www.5daycommunity.com

2 Susanna Wesley. Thoughts on Raising Children, July 24, 1732.

3 Psalm 32:3

4 Proverbs 17:28

5 I Kings 19:12

6 Revelation 8:1

Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

by Tom Stuckey

The whole world is passing through a huge paradigm shift the likes of which have not been seen for generations. What is the Spirit saying to the Churches in Britain and to the Methodist Church in particular? In my new book I contend that Britain is a modern Babylon where mammon reigns. The Church has unconsciously absorbed the values of Babylon into its structures and strategies with the result that it has ceased to be prophetic and become a public utility offering cheap grace to a consumer public looking for peace and security in troubled times.

BABYLON

Today we serve the god of consumerism and worship him in our cathedral-like shopping malls. Babylon had its ziggurats. In London we demonstrate our delight in the money god in the profusion of the towering of skyscrapers monstrously designed to shock and awe.  Babylon is both a city and a Whore, a term used to signify luxury, sensuality, sexuality, seduction and allure. Although her appearance in the book of Revelation is magnificent (Rev 17), she is not to be trusted. She rides upon a beast of corruption. She is a celebrity who loves to be looked at yet takes even greater delight in gazing at herself.  She is the mythological origin of the ‘selfie’. The message of Revelation is clear. Beware lest you are beguiled by her charms and drawn into the nihilism which she personifies.

THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH

Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet with this title in October 1520. In it he attacked ‘indulgences’. These bits of paper were sold to enhance the glory of the papacy by raising money for the building of St Peter’s. They were expressions of ‘cheap grace’ giving  people a ‘feel good’ experience without requiring discipleship.

John Hull gave us a devastating critique of the Church in Britain. ‘We looked for a mission-shaped church but what we found was a church-shaped mission.’[1] The seeking of justice for people and the environment is at the bottom of the agenda of most churches. This is because the culture of Babylon has so permeated the Church that we cannot confront the sins of Babylon without confronting ourselves. Words and noise are the background music of a consumer society. Babylon has invaded the worship of our churches. Boredom is the enemy so we fill the time with image, song, visuals, clips, chat and a short snappy address. The worshippers have become a consumer audience.

James Laney in a sermon about Christian identity in a comfortable Babylon says ‘When we look back at the history of the Church, every time we see that the Church has become captive to the dominant identity of its society, every time it has become comfortable with its role in culture, it has lost its universality. With the loss of universality, it has lost the power to create, not merely to evangelize, but also the power to become renewed.’[2]

 METHODISM

Methodism has singularly failed to theologically address this deluding Babylonian culture which has almost totally infiltrated our church. Without the corrective of prophetic theology we have embraced the managerial and mechanical solutions of Babylon.  Over the past couple of decades we have been shifting the furniture of worship and tinkering with our structures. Martin Percy looking in at British Methodism is puzzled by our heavy organizational baggage and ecclesiastical civil service. He comments that ‘our bureaucracy is stifling our democracy and democracy has triumphed over theocracy’.[3]

The Babylonian captivity has robbed Methodism of its ‘holiness’.  ‘Know your disease! Know your cure!’ was the dictum John Wesley employed. His diagnosis of humanity’s problem was that the image of God within had become distorted. Although reason and practical activity were important for him he believed that only the transcendent power of God’s grace could work the cure.

My new book entitled  ‘Singing the Lord’s song in a Strange Land’ will be launched at Conference. It will bring a theological critique to the Church in Britain with a particular reference to Methodism.  Does Methodism have a vibrant future?  Not if we continue as we are!

[1] John Hull, Mission-Shaped Church: A Theological Response, SCM Press, 2006, p.36.

[2] James Laney, ‘Our New Identity’, in Logan, Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage, Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994, p.178.

[3] Martyn Percy, ‘Back to the Future: A Search for a Thoroughly Modern Methodist Ecclesiology’, found in C. Marsh, B. Beck, H. Wareing and A. Shier-Jones (eds), Unmasking Methodist Theology, Continuum, 2004, p.207.