The Anglican Communion and the Church of England have created more disturbance and noise in recent weeks, the Communion by appointing the Nigerian bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon as General Secretary of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England this week by appointing Prebendary Rod Thomas as bishop of Maidstone to minster to conservative evangelicals committed to male headship.
To counter the noise, participants in the first of the Mutual Conversations from dioceses in the South-west have reported in very positive terms on the qualities of generous listening and respect they experienced Erika Baker here and Rose Grigg here. Both those participating in the conversations and those outside have reacted noisily to the two appointments, fearing they enshrine further discrimination in the church and close down the space available for LGBTI people in the Church of England.
Against this background I have been reading Silence: A User’s Guide by Maggie Ross. Maggie is an Anglican solitary living in Oxford. Her book has a foreword by Dr Rowan Williams and is endorsed by Desmond Tutu and Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose own book, Silence: A Christian History, I have recently read. Both books are highly recommended.
Rowan Williams writes in the Foreword to Maggie Ross’s book: “If the complex, sometimes strained, words and models that we draw from Scripture and Creed really mean what they say, the new life of Christ happens in us when we have learned to listen with an openness that demands everything; and the gift of Christ’s Spirit is the inexhaustible energy that makes possible and sustains such openness, an openness that we cannot create for ourselves by trying hard and being good. Genuine silence is gift, in the deepest sense imaginable.”
Rowan also writes of the risk to our honesty, the difficulty of not creating idols of self or God. Maggie’s book is exciting me because IU have found someone who writes about my own experience of silence with great wisdom, authority and subtlety. My journey into silence began in the company of Archbishop Rowan and 55 other ordinands in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, thirty-eight years ago.
The introduction and conclusion to the book distil the wisdom explored in detail in this and a yet to be published second volume. I have assembled extracts from both and include them below. Maggie and other authors writing about God and silence remind me that I am not mad and that the commitment to deep silence is an essential component of my work for justice and truth for LGBTI people in the Church of England. Her wisdom is directly relevant to the conflicts and conversations in the Church of England.
The work of silence
The work of silence is neutral: it is not necessary to believe anything, but only to observe one’s mind at work with the silence, to discover its permutations, its portals, and its gifts; and to realise the trans-figuring effects that deepest silence can work in us.
If we can get beyond our manipulative thinking to focus on not focusing, we open ourselves to insight and change; we access a vast, spacious, generous, silent, thinking mind that seems to have knowledge we have never self-consciously learned; that makes unexpected connections; that has its own ethics; and that not only gives us insights but can tell us when an insight is correct.
Doing the work
To do the work of silence – simply to become silent and to receive the gifts silence has to give – transfigures lives.
Entering the silence means relinquishing tightly-held, fixed ideas; there is no place for judgement, anger, avarice, which are forms of noise and create noise. The person learns to refrain from indulging in them so that his or her energy may be set free to come to a single focus.
To deepen silence requires being ruthlessly honest – in any case, the silence will strip out the lies and expose the need for such an honesty.
Giving up judgement does not mean giving up discernment, the critical thinking necessary for vigilance. But there must always be an openness to receiving a radically altered perspective.
Gifts and liabilities
Those who reflect on the roles of self-consciousness and deep mind have been aware of both their gifts and their liabilities. Often people who reflect in this way have been persecuted by people who fear such interior examinations, who wish ambiguous or unanswerable questions to be forced into the templates of rules, rites and hierarchies, where they can be controlled.
It is important to remember that none of the religions of the Book have ever been uniform or monolithic at any time, in spite of what may be claimed by the myths of their making. Whether one accepts or rejects religion, we in the West are heirs to the language, mythology, allusions, and cultural assumptions of these traditions, and religion’s history of opposition to the work of silence is instructive.
The en-Christing process
Some of the early Christian traditions suggest that, however else the New Testament is interpreted, the inheritance of the life and death of Jesus points to a silence tradition, which we might call the en-Christing process.
It is not an exaggeration to say that when the silence tradition as part of the mainstream teaching authority was finally quenched in the mid-fifteenth century, Western institutional Christianity, always struggling to justify itself, began its death-throes.
The victors – those who would create hierarchy and institution – determined the contents of what we now think of as the New Testament. They conveniently ignored the inherent contradictions in the institution they were developing, which reflected the very structures and practices of Jewish religion and the Hebrew Scriptures that the teacher, Jesus, had called into question and spent his entire ministry trying to undermine. Opposed to these developing structures, and very much in the disorganised minority, were those who took Jesus’s message to refer to the work of silence, and the en-Christing process, the transfiguration that occurs in the depths of the human heart.
Putting on the mind of Christ
This conflict among early Christians is far more than a difference of political opinion, and it is important to the study of the work of silence because the position one takes is absolutely fundamental to the notion of what it means to be fully human. In terms of human growth and maturation this conflict contrasts the lesser, often stunted effort of “imitation,” with the open-ended task of “putting on the mind of Christ” (the work of silence), which is entirely opposite.
In psychological terms, to put on the mind of Christ means relinquishing imaginative stereotypes and projections into the silence, and receiving back a transfigured (in the literary as well as the psychological and theological senses) perspective, so that we are freed from the trap of our own circular thinking; while “imitation” means pursuing a life based on our own imaginative stereotypes and projections, impressions that are easily formed and controlled by a hierarchy.
Imitation does not enable us to break out of the circular squirrel cage of our own constructs and prejudices. However piously and devoutly meant, imitation becomes a kind of religious performance art. By contrast, the mind of Christ results in a healthy autonomy and an inviolable integrity for the sake of the community.
Liberal and conservative
The person who tries to live from silence is both “liberal” and “conservative”: liberal, because he or she is aware from within (as opposed to bowing to a rule imposed from without) of the importance of approaching others with a wide and generous inclusiveness; conservative, because within that inclusiveness such a person wishes to conserve the fullness of what it means to be human, along with the natural world from which that humanity arose without which that humanity will perish. These concerns come organically to the person centred in silence.
The person who is centred in silence exercises extreme caution, “respect” for the mystery of creation. Silence may lead a person to ask startling questions: why, for example, especially in an age of social instability, should people of the same sex be barred from having their relationship be marriage?
Far from being a selfish undertaking, a life lived from the wellspring of silence influences other lives – but without anyone’s being aware of this fact. Silence itself has resonances, and people who are centred in silence quietly open the potential of transfiguration to everyone and everything around them, living the ordinary through transfigured perception.
Silence and language
There is a fundamental disconnect between the mind that drinks from the well of silence, and one that relies almost exclusively on language. A healthy and mature mind functions organically and focuses away from itself, while understanding that language can only ever be provisional, dualistic, and self-referential. Religious language – or any language – thus becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns.
A second purpose of this book is to establish some neutral ground from which reasonable conversation can emerge, a space protected from ideology, especially religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, and the ideology of scientism and rationalism.
Silence: A User’s Guide. Maggie Ross, 2014. Darton, Longman and Todd: IDBN 978-0-232-53148-0, £14.99
Silence: A Christian History. Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2014, Penguin Books: ISBN 978-0-241-95232-0, £9.99