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Not speaking unless you can improve on silence is something with which most Quakers are comfortable. This may mean holding your peace even when you have an opinion.
There is much strife and division on our society today and it has become apparent that to occasionally choose silence is no longer an option for many people. But silence, properly understood, is so much more than evidence of fear or a lack of conviction. It has the power to create a space in which difference, far from being glossed over, may be acknowledged, but deprived of its power to polarise.
When all parties in difference pile in, eager to get their point across and usually seeking to win or dominate, truth and understanding are not served. Mediation or reconciliation becomes difficult as words drive people apart and embed them in the outcomes of confrontation.
If the 'aggressive secularism' of Bideford Town Council – who, let it be remembered, received a ruling which simply said it had no powers to compel councillors to attend prayers - had not become the subject of so much over-excited attention from people who, in Philip Pullman's words: “simply haven't read the judgement, or don't want to read the judgement, because they seem much more keen on making a fuss", someone might have considered the simple solution of replacing the oxymoronic 'compulsory prayers' with a period of shared silence.
In those restful moments, no councillor's faith or lack of it would have been a source of threat or irritation to another. Each would have been at liberty to daydream, pray, reflect, centre down or just step away a little from their previous preoccupations. During my years of service as a local councillor, I can think of many instances where a few moments of consensual silence would have greatly improved both our proceedings and our relations with each other.
The zealotry of that part of the faith community which sees a secular state as an instrument of 'Christianophobia', does not deal in this healing silence. It flies to its pulpit - some would say to its bully pulpit - without pause for reflection. It appears to believe that to be vociferous is to be faithful and that any other course would be a betrayal of trust. Conviction must, of course, be free to speak its mind. But that should not blind it to the possibilities of preparing fruitful ground for dialogue with those who hold an opposing view with equal sincerity.
If George Carey's Coalition for Marriage and the supporters of same sex marriage could agree to meet regularly and spend time in silent reflection, both sides would have the opportunity to place their difference beyond polemic and point scoring. It is evident that imputing bad faith or error to each other can do nothing but increase division and resentment. A respectful and gathered silence would, at least, create the possibility of moving beyond the megaphone.
In the words of Quaker Faith and Practise: “As, together, we enter the depths of a living silence, the stillness of God, we find one another in ‘the things that are eternal’, upholding and strengthening one another."
That is the seedbed in which the future may best be grown.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet