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Silence, speech, and love

Silence, speech, and love

by Sophie W.


Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History had been on my ‘to-read’ list for months. As a naturally rather quiet person who values the peace of an empty church for a few moments on a weekday as well as the more joyful experience of communal worship on Sundays, I was especially looking forward to reading about the possibilities for silence in Christian worship today. MacCulloch does not disappoint on this front. His closing chapter about the role of silence in present and future Christianities makes the point that a Christian faith which offers quiet and peaceful spaces, for instance through contemplative styles of worship, taps into some of the broader needs and desires of our modern world. The burgeoning shelves devoted to ‘Mindfulness’ in many bookshops, or the countless meditation apps which promise to keep us calm, are only a few signs of this longing for an escape from the mental and physical noise of 21st century life.


However, my main reason for reflecting on MacCulloch’s book stems from the issues it eloquently raises which don’t align so comfortably with my own interests. As much as it is a sign of peace and tranquillity, silence can be a symptom of the worst kinds of secrecy. For those interested in history, the ‘silence of the archive’ often points to forms of oppression and erasure of human experience and voices. Silence, in other words, has a dark side. MacCulloch’s explorations of some of the most sobering examples of Christian silence on topics such as slavery, child abuse, and the Holocaust bring home how important it is that we as Christians do not remain silent in the face of injustice. In a world in which the odds seem increasingly stacked against groups such as refugees, undocumented immigrants, and people living in poverty, the moral imperative for Christians of speaking out against injustice is clear. To use the lesson which many of us learnt in elementary school: there comes a point when the bystander who witnesses the acts of a bully becomes partly responsible for the sufferings of the bullied. Issues such as the plight of refugees languishing in camps in Calais are too complex to be labelled as the fault of a single ‘bully’. Yet that does not mean that we should get comfortable in the role of passive, silent bystanders to suffering.


How, then, to reconcile two social needs which seem at odds with each other: a longing for spaces for peace and reflection with the urgency of social justice issues? How can we create spaces for the former without sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the latter? On the one hand, we read throughout the Bible about the importance of distancing ourselves from the world, an act which represents a kind of silence in relation to the world. The challenging words of 1 John, ‘[d]o not love the world or anything in the world’, are one of the more extreme examples[1]. On the other hand, when we follow in the footsteps of Christ we also strive to engage with the world by loving our neighbors and working towards bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. This necessarily involves speech and generally making some noise. Squaring this circle seems like a tall order.


I’m not pretending to have all the answers, of course. But Scripture does provide us with some guidance about how to resolve this tension. I was struck recently when reading that famous (and thus oft overlooked) passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy…but do not have love, I am nothing – 1Corinthians 13:1-2

Paul here is cautioning against what Jesus might have termed “babbling like pagans”; against the damage that can be done by thoughtless and excessive human chatter[2]. In the context of the dilemma of how to practice a faith in which silence is welcomed but is not used to evade our responsibilities, Paul’s message becomes even more interesting. He reminds us of the importance to speak in love. He reminds us that our words can and do have huge power when they are shaped by the knowledge of God’s love for His creation. He reminds us that we need to show this love to those we speak to, even when we might be speaking to our ‘enemies’. And he reminds us that it is by keeping Christ’s life, death, and resurrection at the forefront of our lives that we might have a chance at saying the ‘right’ thing.


In a time which has been dubbed an ‘age of hate’ by a number of commentators, Paul’s call to speak only in love rings with a great urgency. He suggests that although constantly striving to make our voices heard just for the sake of it is not productive, we still have a duty to speak up, to speak out, and to speak to each other in love. Both speech and silence have a place. The important point for us as both individuals and as a Church is to try to let love guide our choices as we try to get the balance right.


I’ll end at our starting place: with MacCulloch’s very enjoyable book. In a chapter in which the history of the Quaker movement features prominently, MacCulloch cites the venerable William Penn’s rather dismissive attitude to the monastic life: “True godliness does not turn Men out of the World, but enable them to live better in it, and excites the Endeavours to mend it[3]”. Whatever one thinks of monasticism, Penn’s conclusion nonetheless fits aptly with Paul’s vision of speaking in love. The ideas of loving speech and loving silence are ways of helping us to “live better” within a tormented, fractured, yet miraculous World which God will never stop loving.


[1] John 2:15

[2] Matthew 6:7-8

[3] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History, p. 149


Sophie W. is a recent college graduate  in the UK where she is making her way in her first job.  She has been moved to put some of her thoughts, learnings, and questions about faith into writing. “Being uprooted from my familiar faith community at university has forced me to think harder about my faith.”


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