Speaking into silence is a rather odd phrase, and I think it simply means saying something to give support or draw attention to a tricky issue when it would be easier to keep quiet or turn a blind eye, for a variety of reasons.
It’s because as human beings we naturally prefer not to rock the boat or challenge the power bases or name the elephants in the room. This is the silence we do not speak into.
Our motives may be good; kindness and sensitivity to people privacy, from genuine deeply held belief, from fear of drawing attention to ourselves or others, from distaste at disagreeing with our friends or our peer group, from not wanting to challenge our traditions, from not knowing what to say or how to say it, thinking it isn’t our business and so on.
To be honest, when things are awkward it’s much easier to keep quiet. Our social culture is all about this silence, and we are trained into it very young. We are encouraged to be polite people. We don’t want to express disapproval or to engage in uncomfortable discussions about things we condemn or, heaven forfend, consider racy things like sex in a church. All these feelings are normal and reasonable. This is why there are silences into which we do not speak.
However, to be a community that is authentic, that comes together as the body of Christ we owe it to ourselves not to shy away from knowing each other underneath the masks and loving the real people we are here with.
In all honesty, I had to force myself to even speak about speaking into silence, because I too don’t want to rock the boat, or make myself vulnerable by having views that I fear some of you don’t want to hear about or talk about at all – but that of course is why I need to, to help all of us to understand that when we decide some things are better not spoken about, we are acting on our own natural bias, and not necessarily being considerate or helpful to people who need to be included and cherished and recognised, and to have their stories affirmed, their experiences valued and their needs heard in this community of Christ.
I am not saying at all that we need to go and shout our opinions from the roof tops, especially if they are likely to be confrontational or hurtful, but actually it is not mature or healthy to think that absolute silence is better, because it can create fear, shame and despair, and it stops us truly knowing one another, so we need to be wise enough to see the difference. Jesus was utterly authentic. When he said “love your neighbour as yourself” I don’t think he meant and make sure you don’t know them well enough to have to address them as real people.
Speaking into the silence means recognising that sometimes things are overlooked and avoided because of the power in a place, for maintaining the status of the in-crowd. If you are not quite good enough to be in the in-crowd then you are on the margins. The kind of margins where we would probably find Jesus himself at work.
Why are we here in church at all? It is about worship and fellowship, ministry and growth of faith. But we have probably chosen to come back to this particular place, to be among like-minded people, similar disciples of Jesus, people who share our standards and our beliefs, who like the style of services or the beauty of the building, people with charitable hearts, good people, people like us.
A few months ago, one of my friends left a physically abusive marriage with the hope that her church friends would support her, and yet her vicar and church community tried to encourage her to reconcile with her abuser. Eventually she left because ending her marriage was considered not upholding her lifelong vows. These were good kind faithful people acting in line with their beliefs, but they were also face to face with something they did not want to think about, talk about, appear to condone or even find out more about. They created a silence. In another church a single parent was vilified and rejected because her children looked so dishevelled and badly cared for. She left the church in embarrassment at the comments and looks. But she had lost her job, had no immediate benefits and was actually starving herself to feed her children. When she lost her home too she was gathered up by a local charity who got her back on her feet. She has not returned to church. The silent power of not fitting in was far too strong to speak into.
In 2015 a young teenager called Lizzie Lowe, ended her own life because she came to understand that she was not an acceptable person of faith because she was a lesbian. Obviously opening that conversation was beyond a 14 year old. And so a beautiful child is gone because these was a silence. The work of her vicar, Rev Nick Bundock and John Bell of the Iona community, whose songs we sing regularly in this church, have drawn attention to the fact that silence alienates and excludes people, that it allows for shame to creep into the silence. When people dare not or choose not to speak about fundamentals of your existence, such as your status, your sexuality, ways in which you are different from the tribe, then deep personal shame is the default position. When you feel that shame, and if you cannot change the thing you are ashamed about, how can you stand up against the crowd or make yourself vulnerable to their distaste or pity? And why should you have to do that alone anyway?
In the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ series we are being asked by the Bishops, not just here, but church-wide, to do a difficult thing, to have conversations, to listen and to hear with our hearts, the realities of the lives of LGBT+ people of faith, who are already members of the body of Christ. To be clear, this is not about changing anyone’s minds, or campaigning or putting up pride flags, it is about valuing people on the margins of our community, recognising those thousands of sisters and brothers in Christ who are already here, and those who wish to be here feeling welcomed and included. Nobody in the body of Christ needs to feel shame for being who God created them to be, no matter whether you like or agree with them or not, and regardless of whether you would make the same choices as they do. We are after all asked to follow our own vocations and journeys and relationships with Christ and discern God’s will for ourselves, not for others.
One thing I often hear is that there is an anxiety about labels (and obviously sometimes labels and especially name calling are not helpful) but I believe that sometimes we don’t want to use the names or labels people ask for because our unconscious bias means that we think we would not like that label ourselves, because we see it as shaming or nasty, and so they should just be quiet in order not to draw attention to it. Whilst it is fair enough to say that the person should recognise that in some contexts these labels are unimportant, not mentioning it in other situations implies it is something they should be ashamed about, or at least be wary it might upset people.
For example, I feel some anxiety in church when I introduce my same sex partner despite the fact that in the secular world this issue is old news. I have been with her for 27 years, but instead of pride I walk on eggshells because of some of the comments and looks I have received in churches. I wonder how many of you feel that when you introduce your partner, married or unmarried? It is important to recognise that just because something does not affect you it is not a closed book. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. Can we do that if we don’t put ourselves in other people’s shoes and take the time to listen to them and to value their voices? It is worth noting this is not an LGBT+ issue: depending on the culture of the individual church the silence can be equally uncomfortable for couples without children, single people, divorced parents, unmarried mothers, families of AIDS victims, BAME people, people who have hidden disabilities or who have been abused, or married partners with different faiths or none, and so the list goes on through anyone who it is not quite the same as the rest of the tribe.
Because, make no mistake about it, every congregation of church of any denomination has natural tribal affiliations and affections. I hear many people talking about the quality of welcome here and I agree I loved this place from the first time I visited. But perhaps that is not surprising, because I am a white, straight acting, middle class, well educated, professional, churched person with skills that fit the needs of the community. If I had arrived with a buzz cut, tattoos and facial piercings, but still the exact same person underneath, how welcomed would I have been by the whole community? And If I didn’t return, because I didn’t feel that I fitted, who would have asked the question as to why I had not stayed? Might you have been relieved? Asking questions that challenge and change us, looking at uncomfortable realities, reaching out to people on the margins – that is speaking into silence.
Naming the elephants helps us to be a more honest community, even if some people love the elephant and some people hate it, some may be afraid of the elephant, or just afraid to share their positive or negative opinions about it to others in case it is uncomfortable, unpopular or just embarrassing. We also need to be careful of making assumptions. For example, as a gay person I’m not here to campaign for same sex marriage. I am however a campaigner for feeding and empowering the poor, safeguarding everyone in creation, helping to create safe spaces for all the children of God and educating the world about the love of Jesus Christ through the best example I can offer. Nor is this about challenging the orthodoxy of our faith, it is about loving the whole body of Christ, ensuring that everyone in that body is valued for who they are, and that everyone has the support of other voices speaking up for their right to be heard in a powerful silence that they may not be able to speak into themselves.
Finally, if we need to be reminded how dangerous and fear-filled silence can be. The IICSA safeguarding inquiry made it abundantly clear that all the forms of abuse reported in our church in the last 50 years have been enabled by silence. Silence on the victims of child abuse, silence on the adult victims of clergy sexual predators, silence on the acceptance of domestic violence or abuse as a part of marriage, cruel treatment of unmarried mothers, LGBT+ conversion therapy, lack of education around intersex and trans gender issues, the shaming of suicide victims and their families, and the treatment of women leaders in some church settings. The body of Christ has been very deeply damaged by the straightforward understandable, very normal tendency of people like us to think we have nothing to say, no business to interfere and no right to ask. When the people on the margins need us to speak into the deafening silence for them we often don’t. Some of those reasons are absolutely legitimate, but some are not, driven by our own bias and traditional allegiances.
So as you go into breakout rooms you have a really tough and honest question to consider: Given what I have said about the nature of silence, the power of silence and the pain of silence - what would stop you from speaking into silence?