I regularly, sadly, find myself in situations where people appear to think that liturgy is essentially singing and reciting lovely poetry to one another. My trying to shift towards some balance by stressing action, gesture, environment, structure, etc. in those contexts is usually met with bemused confusion.

Let’s think about silence in liturgy.

Claude Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Where is there silence in your service? Canada’s Book of alternative Services has optional silence before the presider proclaims the collect, and after the sermon. Silence is required prior to the confession, after the Lord’s Prayer, and prior to the Prayer after Communion. The BCP (TEC) adds a required silence after breaking the bread. New Zealand’s Prayer Book has these, and suggests silence after each reading and the Gospel, and periods of silence in the Prayers of the People.

Because people have such a tendency to clutter the liturgy, my regular instruction is to tell new worship leaders that “may use” means “leave it out”. In the case of silence I would tend towards the opposite – “may” means “should”. On the other hand I have experienced worship leaders who clutter the service with little silences, not increasing the depth of worship, but giving the impression that the leader is lost and trying to remember what to do next. Some good, solid, longer silences at appropriate places can deeply enhance worship. Taizé has a silence of about seven minutes in every service. Don’t tell me children and young people cannot cope with silence. I am well aware of highly active children who, in the right context and atmosphere (a monastery, Taizé) can participate in very long silence. It is more about taking worship seriously, about modelling and expectation, than about adult prejudices that children cannot participate in silence.

In my book Celebrating Eucharist I write

Worship is not just words and actions and symbols, it is also silence. In silence we call to mind our sins. Silence may precede the Collect and follow each reading. A time of silent reflection appropriately follows the Sermon. Periods of silence may be kept in the Prayers of the People. The holy table may be prepared in silence, or silence may precede or follow the Great Thanksgiving. The bread is broken in silence. After communion there may be silence. Communities may need to be taught to use silence, and silences may have to be introduced gradually, and lengthened week by week. A worship leader unaccustomed to silence may need to time the silences as at first they will appear much longer than they actually are.

How do you use silence in your life? In your community worship? What works? What doesn’t? Suggestions…??

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