Returning to Timothy Radcliffe’s What is the Point of Being a Christian?, one point has been burrowing into my mind since reading it a few weeks ago: Fr Radcliffe’s description of the silences in the church.
“This silence has marked our words from the beginning”, from Adam and Eve in the garden to the silence of the women at the tomb on Easter morning (Mark 16:8). But, Fr Radcliffe argues, the silence “intensified after the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century”. The “sheer brutal horror” of that conflict deepened the post-Reformation divisions within the body of Christ, and on each side it led to a “new dogmatism”, a closing of theological ranks. As a result:
There was less discussion than in the medieval Church, in which one could argue for virtually any crazy proposition. (p.180)
In the Roman Catholic Church, “the silence deepened in 1968”, after the publication of Humanae Vitae. Priests who disagreed with the papal line on contraception were silenced, while:
Millions of lay people chose silence for themselves. There were areas of their lives that were not spoken about any more, not even in the confessional. The spread of our shared conversation retreated a little bit. There was deeper disjunction between what was said aloud and what was thought in silence. (p.182)
But this silence is far from restricted to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m sure any Christian reading this, especially one in a “conservative” denomination, can identify areas that are simply not discussed openly in their communion. Certainly there is little sense of the church as being a safe place in which “to argue for virtually any crazy proposition”.
Is that because everyone is in agreement, or because we are too afraid of the destabilising effects of disagreement? Too inclined to label any new perspective (sic) on things as a betrayal of orthodoxy – which rapidly becomes self-fulfilling, as those holding to it are driven away from the “community of orthodoxy” by its guardians? Once you’ve expressed a view that is seen as the preserve of those on “the other side” of the theological trenches, “the other side” may end up as the only place left for you to go.
To take one (slightly diversionary) example: however confident I may be in arguing for the compatibility of evolution and Christian faith on this site, I’ve tended to be much more reticent in my church (not least since my pastor is strongly YEC in his views). And that’s despite the ELCE not having an “official” opposition to evolution like that of the LCMS. Even with the LCMS, I’m struck by the disjunction between the official line on creation (six literal days, rejection of evolution) and the views quietly held by many LCMS laypeople – and pastors?
As Fr Radcliffe points out:
Even if someone says something which is clearly unorthodox, my first reaction must be to see what truth they are trying to say rather than immediately condemn their error. … [M]aybe he is trying badly to say something true which I need to heed.
Noel O’Donoghue once described heresy as “trapped light”. One must find a way to let out the light that is there. (p.189)
Certainly my instinct has always been to “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and to ask “how can this apparently unorthodox position be reconciled with orthodoxy?”
But I’d be interested to know what others think. Is Fr Radcliffe right that these pockets of silence exist in an otherwise highly talkative Christian world? And is he right to identify the wars of religion in the 17th century as having intensified this silence?