I love silence. I feel less than human if I don’t get enough of it. It is as important to me as the air I breathe.
As an introvert who loves people and whose work is with people, I try to carve out space each week for silence. I need periods of intentional mindfulness, times for day-dreaming, and moments when I can just be.
I know I’m not getting enough silence in my life when I struggle to read, when even the whisper of words on a page becomes too much noise. When it gets that bad, I know I need to put down all work, leave my mobile phone at home and take the dog for a long, long walk.
But over recent months, and particularly as I prepare to move into a very different, very complex ministry context, I have been thinking a lot about the different kinds of silence. There are silences that we choose, and silences that are forced upon us. There are active silences and passive silences. There are silences of contemplation and silences of shame. There are silences of protest and silences of abuse.
So when we talk about silence, we cannot isolate it from structures of power.
Knowing when to remain silent and when to speak is a discipline we all must learn.
Being told when to remain silent and when to speak is discipline. Or worse.
I know that when I speak, sometimes I speak from a place of privilege, a privilege which comes because I am white, well-educated, western, middle-class, heterosexual. In my priestly role, I have been authorised by the church to speak into particular contexts.
Many of us are in positions of privilege in at least some of our roles, and held within that privilege is the responsibility to act fairly, wisely and compassionately. But many of us find ourselves — because of institutional hierarchies, enshrined discrimination, or abuses or traumas (past or present) — also in positions of vulnerability and weakness.
These roles are complex, obviously. Because we are complex beings. (And there’s a reason why intersectionality is absolutely vital in discussions of sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, class, and ability.) We navigate our multiple roles, and those of the people we encounter, almost unconsciously most of the time because it’s just how we’ve learned to manoeuvre in and around the systems of cultural hierarchy and oppression in our society. For better or worse, this is the reality we inhabit.
Those of us in the Church, especially those of us in senior or leadership roles, have to be aware of power inequalities in our relationships. Silence and speech hold power …. for those who are in power. We have to choose our silence and our words carefully. (Sadly, we are all human, so we don’t always get it right.)
I can’t help but think of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel (8.1-11). In response to the pharisees’ questions, Jesus remains silent, writing on the ground. As they persist, he says simply: ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ In one sentence, he silences those in power and gives a voice to the one who is not: ‘“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”’
There are intricate social, cultural and religious dynamics at play here, no more and no less complicated than those we each experience daily. But what makes it such a hauntingly beautiful — and troubling — story is the way Jesus both embraces and relinquishes his own position of privilege. In doing so, his silence silences power, his speech gives voice to speechlessness, and his grace and forgiveness transform condemnation and shame.
A provocative and challenging example to set for all of us who call ourselves his disciples.