Silence in church

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?

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7 Responses to Silence in church

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I have to wonder what it means that in the medieval church “you could argue for virtually any crazy proposition.” It’s less that I doubt that there is truth to it, and more than I wonder if they truly had more freedom in the average parish than you could find today. And would this hold true for the entire medieval age, or be true more for one century (say the 13th) or even one or two generations? You also have a gap sometimes between what official conversations are allowed, and which ones take place anyway. Sometimes people might avoid conversations that are allowed. Other times they may boldly charge into the ones that are officially proscribed. But I don’t know how you would characterize an entire age, unless it was some recent decade you lived through yourself, and even then, I am never surprised for someone to disagree from their own experience.

    I still like the statement for being provocative. But I’d love to see the meat on the bones of that proposition.

  2. John H says:

    Rick: Fair point. I’m sure a Cathar, or a victim of a Spanish auto-da-fé, or a Lollard, would find the statement hard to square with their experience.

    It probably reflects Fr Radcliffe’s perspective as a Dominican, who tends to view church history through those lenses. So I imagine he has in mind some of the more freewheeling excesses of scholasticism.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    As someone who concentrated in church history, I ran into a lot of generalizations. Certain ones were always coming up, and either accepted or rejected whole cloth. Especially about Puritanism or John Calvin. They were always portrayed as totally dark and dismal or happy. Single anecdotes would be offered to cinch the case one way or the other. The trouble is, I’m certain most of the anecdotes on both sides were true. I can easily believe that the father of a four-year-old was fined when his daughter smiled in one Puritan sabbath meeting. I can easily believe that another puritan laughed so hard his jaw came out of its socket. As to whether either story was typical, that is a more difficult call.

    Interesting examples that would support Fr Radcliffe’s idea could be found here:

    But as you mentioned, some of the counterexamples are pretty dramatic.

  4. frank sonnek says:

    Personally, I think that the prosperity gospel is crazy. I think that joel osteen is perfectly sensible which IS his problem.

    Crazytalk does not seem to be lacking in the visible christianity I am aware of.

    Am I missing something? are we excluding large portions of the visible christian church as being non-christian?

  5. frank sonnek says:

    now as for our Lutheran church I get your point, but I think our roman catholic brother is not taking a wide enough scope of what he considers to be the christian church. he needs to get out more it seems…..

  6. John H says:

    Frank: in fairness to Fr Radcliffe, he is very far from having a narrow view of the Christian church.

    But even if you look at the church more widely, the pattern of silence can be found. The prosperity gospel may be “crazy talk”, but in the context of a prosperity church it may be the true gospel itself which is seen as “crazy talk”, with those who believe it feeling unable to speak out.

    The problem is the overall pattern of seeing dissenting/questioning voices as a threat to the unity of the group, and thus needing to be silenced or driven out.

  7. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Nicodemus’ journey: from night to day

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