The con­fu­sion of si­lence

The Church of England - - ENGLAND ON SUNDAY -

Si­lence in Chris­tian His­tory Diar­maid Mac­Cul­loch Allen Lane, hb, £20.00 This is a fas­ci­nat­ing but also at times con­fus­ing book. The fas­ci­na­tion arises from the Mac­Cul­loch’s abil­ity to ex­plore as­pects of the past that have re­ceived lit­tle at­ten­tion and to make con­nec­tions that have es­caped other his­to­ri­ans; the con­fu­sion arises from the way dif­fer­ent types of si­lence are all dis­cussed un­der the same gen­eral head­ing. As the book pro­gresses, the con­fu­sion de­creases but the reader is left won­der­ing whether a the­matic rather than a nar­ra­tive ap­proach might have worked bet­ter.

In sup­port of his ap­proach, Mac­Cul­loch ar­gues that si­lence is al­ways con­tex­tual. It grad­u­ally seeped into the con­scious­ness of the Is­raelites through the Tem­ple liturgy, a sense of the si­lence of the cos­mos, and the min­istry of Sec­ond Isa­iah. Jews also be­gan to pick up Plato’s fas­ci­na­tion with the si­lence of the di­vine but even so an in­ter­est in si­lence is not a strong fea­ture of their writ­ings.

Je­sus fol­lowed the ‘mi­nor­ity report’ of the Tanakh as can be seen in his re­treat into the wilder­ness and his lack of words at cru­cial mo­ments in his min­istry but this fea­ture of Je­sus’ life was not taken up by his im­me­di­ate fol­low­ers. Mac­Cul­loch ar­gues that built into the Chris­tian un­der­stand­ing of the New Tes­ta­ment is that it ex­ists to put an end to a great si­lence.

In­flu­ence of Greek thought on Chris­tian­ity led to a view of God who was be­yond words or de­scrip­tion or any hu­man con­cept, even be­yond be­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Mac­Cul­loch, the Church strug­gled to re­late this un­der­stand­ing to the more passionate pic­ture of a God in­volved in hu­man af­fairs it had in­her­ited from Ju­daism. Grad­u­ally the as­cetic tra­di­tion found a home in the Church, be­gin­ning in Syria and slowly spread­ing else­where. “Its sources were more likely to come from out­side the bi­b­li­cal faith than from within,” Mac­Cul­loch claims in a judge­ment some will no doubt chal­lenge.

Eva­grius of Pon­tus was the first to really stress pro­gres­sion from pub­lic prayer to med­i­ta­tion and then con­tem­pla­tion. His in­flu­ence was later eclipsed by the anony­mous writer who called him­self Diony­sius the Aeropagite. Neo­pla­ton­ism and East­ern re­li­gions were big in­flu­ences.

Although Mac­Cul­loch ad­mits that he is no fan of the Church of Rome, he is no great ad­mirer of Protes­tantism ei­ther. He de­scribes the Ref­or­ma­tion as the in­au­gu­ra­tion of ‘one of the nois­i­est pe­ri­ods in Chris­tian his­tory’ and ar­gues that far from pro­mot­ing an in­di­vid­u­al­ist style of Chris­tian­ity, Protes­tantism was too com­mu­nal with an em­pha­sis on cor­po­rate wor­ship that left peo­ple with lit­tle time to be alone with God. Change came from the rad­i­cals, es­pe­cially the Quak­ers.

But as well as si­lence in prayer and me­di­a­tion, Mac­Cul­loch dis­cuses many other forms of si­lence: the si­lence of the con­fes­sional, his­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia about the role of women in the early church, cen­sor­ship by the Catholic Church, clan­des­tine be­lief ac­com­pa­ny­ing out­ward con­form­ity, and si­lence about the role played by gays in the min­istry.

In places this is a very per­sonal book as Mac­Cul­loch al­ludes to his own back­ground as a gay man. Rather touch­ingly in the ac­knowl­edge­ments he refers to the role Robert Run­cie played in his life when his own feel­ings to­wards in­sti­tu­tional Chris­tian­ity were not very pos­i­tive and writes of the former Arch­bishop that ‘his friend­ship was one of the most im­por­tant, en­joy­able and en­light­en­ing that I have known’.

Be­cause of his po­si­tion on the mar­gins of the Church, Mac­Cul­loch is al­ways alert to the way out­side in­flu­ences have shaped Chris­tian faith and prac­tice and to the fact that doc­trine has not al­ways been as fixed and sta­ble as ortho­dox the­olo­gians like to claim. His hos­til­ity to the in­sti­tu­tional Church of Rome does not stop him recog­nis­ing the value of in­di­vid­ual Catholic thinkers. He refers to this book as a ‘nec­es­sary pen­i­ten­tial strip­ping of al­tars’ that seeks to ex­pose cover-ups, de­nials and for­get­ful­ness but he also aims to show the pos­i­tive role si­lence has played in the his­tory of the Church. One of his best quotes comes from WH Vanstone. He once de­scribed the Church as ‘like a swim­ming pool in which all the noise comes from the shal­low end’.

This book is based on the Gif­ford Lec­tures de­liv­ered in Ed­in­burgh in 2006. It de­serves a wide au­di­ence for its re­vi­sion­ist but sym­pa­thetic ac­count of the role played by dif­fer­ent forms of si­lence in the his­tory of the Church. Paul Richard­son

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.