Growing up as the youngest of three, opportunities to talk were few and far between. Each one had to be seized upon in case it would be a year before another would come again. Silence was my chance to speak.
Whatever the truth of my memory, the impact was that silence became an entity that I needed to fill; if I didn’t, and it continued, I would become increasingly uncomfortable. And so I filled them. I would jump into the silence with whatever opinion, facts or half-baked humour I could muster. It wasn’t always the best idea.
Filling the silence risks not hearing the very thing that needs to be heard. Increasingly I’ve realised that isn’t me.
I was particularly conscious of the need to keep quiet when the Me Too movement began. I had opinions but not experience. I was simply a man horrified by enough knowledge of the endemic abuse enacted by my sex to not jump in with the “but not every man is like that” defence.
Then came examining racism as part of my training for ordination. I might not have experience of being an abused woman but I did have experience of being on the receiving end of racist abuse (familial experience of death threats, an arson attack and more as a result of being a different ethnic background to those around us will suffice for this blog post). But as the lecturer’s prompts to examine our assumptions took root I realised that my experience was drowning out the silence and preventing me from hearing the experience of others. The voices that needed to be heard were those with experience of abuse that had been suppressed by people like me jumping into fill in the silences. The voices that needed to be heard were the people who didn’t have the protection of being a white male.
In contemplating abuse and racism I knew not to leap in with a defence or a supposed parallel experience. Instead, I knew my need and place lay not just in keeping quiet so others could speak but in listening to what they had to say. In not speaking I was exchanging the uncomfortable silence for the possibility of uncomfortable truths. Whether such truths were true of myself or not, by letting other people claim the silence I at least enabled the possibility of their stories changing people, including myself.
But sometimes shutting up to enable others to speak is not enough. Listening can become a tool to absolve ourself of any responsibility to act. Passivity can become passing the buck. Silence can become complicity. Keeping quiet can be seen as agreement with the abuser and rejection of the victim. Refraining from speaking can allow the abuse, racism or other negative behaviour to continue. And listening alone can lead to views being entrenched rather than exchanged to build understanding.
It was another issue that helped me to realise that I needed to find the balance between listening and speaking: the ordination of women. This was not simply an issue of sexism, or of patriarchy, but a theological issue as well – the Bible is used to support arguments in favour and against it. And the differing views are not easily confined to proponents being entirely female and opponents being entirely male. This was an issue where listening within a dialogue could be helpful.
On 12th March 2019, the 25th anniversary of the first women ordained within the Church of England brought the issue into people’s social media timelines. It was a time where experiences and opinions were being shared. For some it was a moment of joy, for others less so.
Although I had not been affected by proponents or opponents of ordaining women, I had found myself wrestling with how opposing views can be held together with integrity. I knew of people, both male and female, who held sincere theological views that supported either side of the argument. Was the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women an appropriate time to speak out to try to instigate a constructive dialogue? Or would breaking my silence hinder those whose time it was to be heard? Those against ordaining women would still be against it after the anniversary so my questions could wait. And though it might be painful for the opponents, it would be a callous person who denied people a time to celebrate.
It left me wondering, how do we engage to improve our understanding when breaking the silence may be seen as inappropriate or unhelpful? There is, of course, no simple answer.
I am beginning to realise that what I saw as a weakness when I was at a child is developing into a strength. Like many, I would come up with a witty reply to a bully 5 or 10 minutes after they had left. It infuriated me then, it’s giving me hope now.
“Silence discovers reality. Words do too, of course; but only words formed out of silence; not words wildly ricocheting through the world in search of a target.”, John Killinger
Understanding comes first through listening, not just to the voice of others but to our reaction to their stories. When we understand ourselves better we can better discern when and how to speak. And part of that understanding is realising the degree of importance in our own voices being heard. If we consider the other first our contribution to the conversation will hopefully be constructive, even if that means saying nothing.
It was in saying nothing that I recently found myself encouraged. I took my son to see Captain Marvel in the cinema. As we left he said, “I think that might be my favourite Marvel movie”. He didn’t mention her gender because he hadn’t thought to question why a woman wouldn’t play the lead role in a movie, just as he hadn’t questioned the ethnicity of the actors in Black Panther. What he didn’t say spoke volumes.
Post-Script: a BBC Comedy Programme This Time with Alan Partridge gave an example of inappropriately filling the silence when discussing the Me Too movement. It was broadcasted on 25th March 2019 and is available until 30th April 2019 (in the UK at least)