Spiritual Soundings in the ‘Secular Campaign for Silence’

In the aftermath of the shocking attack on the Manchester Arena in May 2017, Emergency Response volunteer Ruskia Shepherd travelled to a local hospital to provide psychological support to those affected. Entering the hospital, she was struck by the lack of noise: ‘Nothing prepares you for a scene like the one at Oldham hospital. No one spoke, the silence was deafening’. [1]

A few days later, thousands gathered close to the site of the tragedy to observe one minute’s commemorative silence. The participants spoke of the powerful feelings the minute provoked: Stephanie Carr, from Greater Manchester, said, ‘It was so emotional. It leaves you speechless’. Nick Rawson, from Salford, called the silence a ‘mark of respect’ and ‘defiance’, which showed ‘that good people will always gather together to defy evil’. [2]

From a single event, two radically different yet equally significant forms of silence emerged, demonstrating the startling range of experiences and emotions which silence can evoke. This dramatic contrast reveals the complex, uncertain position of silence in contemporary society. On the one hand, we appear to be witnessing the emergence of what Diarmid MacCulloch calls a ‘secular campaign for silence’, in which moments of choreographed silence – such as the minute observed in Manchester following the bombing – become ‘the highest symbol of community action in secular liturgy’. [3] The ritualised role silence played in Manchester seems to have been part of a wider ‘campaign’ comprised of several similar examples of the collective, constructive use of silences. For instance, on the 14thof June 2018, thousands took part in a ‘silent march’ of remembrance to mark a year since the fire at Grenfell Tower in London which claimed 72 lives.  These marches have taken place every month since the fire, and organisers suggest they have provided an outlet for the sense of grief and injustice felt by those involved: ‘It sounds crazy but it gives people a voice, even though we’re silent, it makes people feel counted’. [4] The use of silence to mark momentous events at sports matches is also increasing, as many different communities seem to have discovered in silence a wordless, secular ‘liturgy’ which is inherently inclusive, containing each individual’s emotions and convictions without excluding another’s.

However, several authors have argued that the dominant perspective in contemporary society is one which sees silence as threatening and unsettling rather than as a potent, valuable symbol. The Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, who has devoted his life to seeking out ‘real’ silence, has declared that we live in an ‘age of noise’ in which ‘silence is almost extinct’. [5] Theologian and author Sara Maitland echoes Kagge’s critique of our ‘age of noise’, bemoaning the fact that modern people ‘choose to have incessant sound pumping into their environment’, and ‘feel uncomfortable or scared when they have to confront real silence’. [6] Instead of groups searching out meaningful moments of quietude, Maitland sees a society obsessed with maintaining a protective wall of sound.

Certain artists have performed an important role by highlighting these anxieties, using their work to force an audience to confront their need for ceaseless noise and distraction. For example, John Krasinski’s 2018 film A Quiet Place stars Emily Blunt as the mother in a family who must live in total silence to avoid detection by blind alien predators. In interviews, Krasinski admits he took pleasure in the way in which his film played on the fears of an audience forced to collaborate in the creation of silence: ‘what I love is that the audience are saying they’re equally tense with a lack of sound’. [7] Krasinski succeeded in drawing attention to an innate societal suspicion of quietude – a desire to break all silence with perpetual human noise.

If we bring these two perspectives together, what emerges can seem confusing and contradictory. Whilst we are asked to listen to a few intrepid silence-seekers who believe they are struggling against a swelling tide of noise, others are directing our attention toward an increasing awareness within society of the value of meaningful silences. Instead of accepting one of these positions and rejecting the other, one could take inspiration from a genre of art which embraces the multivalent, contradictory qualities of silence. Several artists have chosen to hold together antithetical experiences of silence as an effective medium for expressing the undulating rhythms of religious belief. This is perfectly illustrated in two poems by Robert Browning. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (1836), we are left with the shocking scene of an unrepentant, murderous narrator lying next to his strangled lover, commenting on the stark absence of any sense of divine grace or justice: ‘And all night long we have not stirr’d, / And yet God has not said a word’. This lack of any ‘word’ speaks only of nullity, like the ‘deafening’ silence heard at Oldham hospital. Yet later in his career, Browning would return to the theme of silence in ‘Love Among the Ruins’ (1855), finding in the pastoral peace of a ‘quiet-coloured eve’ a means to convey his conviction that ‘Love is best’. Like those who rediscovered respect, defiance and goodness in a minute’s silence held near the Manchester Arena, Browning transformed the godforsaken silence of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ into a transcendent tranquillity which drowned out the world of ‘folly, noise and sin’.

For Browning, the fact that silence can be associated with such a range of emotions and ideas is an opportunity rather than a conundrum. Both those involved in the ‘secular campaign for silence’ and the lone wolves decrying our ‘age of noise’ could find their viewpoint reflected in Browning’s body of work, as his poetry refuses to limit its scope to any single interpretation or experience of silence.

The value to religious communities of this approach to silence is brought out in the work of theologian and musician Peter Bouteneff. Writing about the composer Arvo Pärt’s use of silence, Bouteneff observes that silence is important for the Christian artist because it can represent ‘God-forsakenness’ yet ‘may also present an occasion in which God makes himself known’. [8] Whilst biblical passages such as Christ’s Cry of Dereliction (Mark 15:34) tie silence to despair, desertion and divine absence, 1 Kings 19:4-12 describes God made present to Elijah through ‘the sound of sheer silence’ (NRSV). Silence can draw out several of the responses required for a believer to engage fully with the Christian narrative, and so is of use precisely because it cannot be pinned exclusively to one particular type of experience.

Perhaps, considering this, the Christian community might be able to extend the fruit of its creative relationship with silence into society at large. If the increasing use of orchestrated silences is ‘the mark of an irretrievably pluralist society’ searching for inclusive communal rituals, [9] the Christian tradition might be able to demonstrate how art can be used to create such spaces without losing sight of the unease and anxiety an absence of sound can cause.

Shared silences could be framed in a way that left room for fear and despondency, hope and joy, including each individual response within a single moment of stillness.

In 2016-18, the TheoArtistry Composer’s Scheme, run by the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, provided an example of how this might happen. Here, composers – of any faith or none – were invited to collaborate with theologians in producing new pieces of sacred choral music. One piece in particular, Lisa Robertson’s ‘The Silent Word Sounds’ (2018), placed silence front and centre. The text for the work was 1 Kings 19:4-12, and Robertson’s discussions with theologian Mary Stevens led her to focus on the revelatory potential of the ‘sound of sheer silence’ as the focal point for her piece. An affirmatory sense of presence and possibility was blended with what Maitland describes as ‘the sacred terror of that Divine encounter’, [10] and offered to the audience in the form of silence. The fact that these works were premiered and discussed as part of the public TheoArtistry Festival, and made available as a recording shortly afterwards, could be taken as a first step toward a productive convergence of the inclusive, communal appreciation of silence and theological reflection on the same theme.

The work of Pärt also seems to bridge this gap. Whilst Bouteneff is right to draw attention to the importance of Pärt’s affiliation with the Orthodox Church in his compositional processes, atheists, agnostics and spiritual ‘searchers’ have all found meaning embedded in the stillness and silences of his music. When his Tabula Rasa (1977), a piece ‘lavished with silence’, was first performed, Pärt’s wife Nora commented on the quality of silence which marked the conclusion of the final ‘Silentium’ movement: ‘I have never heard such a stillness as the silence in the hall at the end of the work’. [11] The stillness Pärt drew out of his Orthodox faith created a reverential, reflective silence in the secular space of a concert hall. All those seeking freedom from noise and shared moments of profound quietude were met with a ‘sound of sheer silence’ able to contain and reflect their personal responses.

The theologian or Christian artist might also have something to learn from the ‘secular campaign for silence’. English Methodist historian Gordon Rupp (1910-86) once described the Anglican Church as like ‘a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end’. [12] The stubborn refusal of groups such as the Grenfell marchers to succumb to the temptations of declarations, chants and noisy assertions could encourage theologians to learn better how to move toward the ‘deep end’ with quiet humility and wordless wonder. And, perhaps, each distinct group could begin to embrace the paradox that silence might offer a way for increasingly pluralist communities to speak about tragedy, injustice, or hope with a single, unified voice.

[1] Imogen Calderwood, ‘Grenfell and Manchester Bombing Volunteers Celebrated in “Power of Kindness” Photo Series’, Global Citizen, 17 May, 2017, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/grenfell-manchester-bombing-hero-volunteer-red-cro/.

[2] ‘Manchester attack: National minute’s silence held’, BBC News Online, 25 May, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-40041473.

[3] Diarmid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian Story (New York: Penguin, 2014), 230-1.

[4] Damien Gayle and Harriet Sherwood, ‘Grenfell Tower fire: thousands attend silent march one year on’, The Guardian, 14 June, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/14/grenfell-tower-fire-thousands-gather-for-silent-march-one-year-on.

[5] Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise (London: Penguin, 2017), 37.

[6] Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (London: Granta, 2008), 3.

[7] John Krasinski, ‘John Krasinski interview: From The Office to horror sensation A Quiet Place – what inspired his surprising career’, interview by Clarisse Loughrey, The Independent, 5 April, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/a-quiet-place-horror-film-interview-john-krasinski-director-cast-inspirations-emily-blunt-a8291026.html.

[8] Peter Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015), 109-10.

[9] MacCulloch, Silence, 231.

[10] Maitland, Book of Silence, 73-4.

[11] Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt, 97-8.

[12] MacCulloch, Silence, 224.


  • Ewan is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews, under the supervision of George Corbett (ITIA) and John Swinton (University of Aberdeen). He is researching ways of using popular artworks (novels, films, and television series) to design new forms of art therapy which provide emotional, psychological and spiritual care for cancer patients. This involves using fictional narratives, characters, and imagery to reflect and reframe patients' experiences of living with cancer, helping them to understand and articulate the effect of cancer on their lives. He is developing the impact of his research through an ongoing collaboration with several Scottish centres run by the Maggie's cancer care charity. Other interests include theological engagement with popular culture, the relationship between theology and humour, and the use of narrative form for theological expression.

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