Words Out of Silence - Foreword

By Rachel Mann
May 14, 2019

A little distance into Words Out of Silence, Jill Segger suggests that “Quakers are not generally theologians, systematic or otherwise. We tend more towards theopoetics – those qualities of allegory which, as with poetry, may take on different and new meanings throughout life as the changing reader experiences the fluid text.” It is one of those statements that reveals not only Jill’s gift for language and poetic effect, but (as I would put it) her skills as a theologian. It is out of these curious and supple ironies that this fascinating, moving and timely book emerges.

In the popular mind, Quakers have a reputation as people gifted around silence. There are good reasons for this: Worshipping in the manner of the Society of Friends entails a quietening of one’s frenetic mind and restless body in order to connect with the power of silence to call forth words that matter. Quakers know that to speak, to break the silence, is always risky. It may lead to foolishness, cheap anger and frivolity. 

Jill Segger’s meditations and poems are the very opposite of foolish and frivolous. At their heart is a preparedness to wait for the right moment to speak; what one finds when Segger speaks is a quiet passion, a sober, but never pious seriousness. Words Out of Silencedraws words from across many years of experience and reflection and its themes indicate the author’s abiding concerns: friendship and justice, gift and grace, peace and mercy. In her meditations on ageing and death, one finds deep wisdom and a commitment to living simply and generously. In our disposable, self and selfie-obsessed age her quality of attention is startling.

It is tempting to claim that those who are attentive to quietness and silence are committed to quietism. For those unaware of Jill Segger’s (and indeed wider Quaker) thought, Words Out of Silence will supply a shock. She reminds us that “In 1987, Quakers in Britain issued a declaration ahead of the General Election which returned Margaret Thatcher to her third term in government. It contained these words: ‘We commit ourselves to learning again the spiritual value of each other. We find ourselves utterly at odds with the priorities in our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country. That denial diminishes us all. There must be no ‘them’ and ‘us’’.” One of the most potent seams running through Words Out of Silence is therefore a fierce determination to keep face-to-face, body-to-body, skin-to-skin, with those who are regarded as of secondary value in the UK and beyond.

Part of the power of Jill Segger’s writing lies in its careful balance between the demands of poetry and prose. Her poetry is discrete and controlled. The Quaker poets R.V. Bailey and Stevie Krayer recently said (in a volume devoted to Quaker poets), “poetry is about trying to tell the truth”. Jill works hard to keep to that territory, but it is in her poems interplay with her prose that she shows the power of words to speak truth. Her prose is personal, political and passionate. As she says, “It has been well said that peace is not the absence of noise, trouble or hard work – rather it is to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” It is a truth more of us would do well to learn.

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© Rachel Mann is an is an Anglican priest, poet and feminist theologian. This is her introduction to Words Out of Silence, by Jill Segger, publshed by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here

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