Terry Waite reflects on music, silence, mystery and faith
Some time ago I was asked if I had completely abandoned the Anglican Church of which I had been a member all my life. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘but having become a member of the Society of Friends I might call myself a Quanglican!’ This half serious reply was truthful. I continue to call myself an Anglican and a Quaker, a position that may seem odd to some Anglicans but certainly not to the majority of Quakers whom I know.
My earliest memory of going to church goes back many years to when I was barely four years of age. The second world war was still raging and it was not unusual for me to see soldiers marching down the road outside our house. I was in church to receive my first Sunday School prize. When my name was called out I slipped into the aisle and marched towards the vicar. I remember saying to myself that I must swing my arms smartly just as I had seen the soldiers do as they passed by our house. I failed to understand why there was so much laughter in church.
The years passed by and I became a chorister at our local parish church. This sounds very grand but, in fact, it was extremely simple. The choir did their best but we were a motley crew of villagers who could just about manage Anglican plainchant but excelled, in volume, when it came to singing some of the old well-known hymns. It was this experience that contributed to my love of music, which has continued throughout life.
In my late teens, it was frequently suggested to me that I ought to offer myself for ordination to the priesthood, but such a move did not seem right to me. I never felt any vocation to this calling and thus resisted it. Looking back across the years I have no doubt whatsoever that this was the right decision and I have never once regretted it. I did, however, make a decision to work in a lay capacity within the Anglican Church and it was as a layman that in middle life I joined the private staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As far as I know there were no Quakers in the small Cheshire village where I was a brought up and I have no recollection whatsoever of the first Quaker I met. Although I was familiar with the history of Friends, my knowledge was increased as I travelled the world and witnessed their peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.
I was also impressed by the ethical position they adopted and their championing of just business practices. It was only when I experienced almost five years of solitary confinement as a hostage that I caught a glimmer of the spiritual heart of the movement.
The years I spent in solitary were truly solitary years. My movements were severely restricted as I was chained to the wall and there were no books or papers for years. My guards were forbidden to converse with me and so, for hour after hour, I was alone with my thoughts. To be totally truthful I can’t say that I found it to be a profound spiritual experience. I never felt what some people claim to feel and that is the close presence of God.
In saying this I do not mean to say that I lost belief but there was no feeling of a spiritual presence. In those days, I returned in my mind to my years as a regular, and sometimes reluctant, attender at my local parish church. I had no conscious memory whatsoever of the many sermons I sat through but the language of the psalms and the Book of Common Prayer had become a source from which to draw. The language had a distinctive poetic rhythm – likewise the music.
Harmony into the soul
In the years when I was alone with nothing but memory to draw on I frequently said that both good language and good music have the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul. In recent years, since becoming a Quaker, I have discovered another dimension which is to be found in the beauty and spiritual depth of a Meeting where together we sit in complete silence. As the Meeting progresses, gradually our individual thoughts move to a new depth where no longer are we a collection of individuals but are together in a new realm. Perhaps we touch what Carl Jung called ‘the collective unconscious’.
It may be that someone feels they need to verbalise something of that experience. When they do, more often than not, their thoughts capture something of the spirit of the whole gathering. A totally silent Meeting can be and is deeply refreshing, even though language is sparse and music absent.
For many years I have found the services of the Orthodox Church to be inspirational. On the one hand the celebrants perform a great pageant which, by using all the senses – colour, fragrance, movement – invite the congregation to relive the great mystery of birth, death and resurrection. The individual can become a participant in the drama and also withdraw for a moment to light a candle and enter into a very personal moment of prayer.
Silent reflection and contemplation
Within Anglicanism much of the drama and rhythm of language has been lost as leaders of services dispense with liturgical structure and seek to involve each and every member of the congregation in some activity or other, so there remains no space for silent reflection and contemplation.
Having spent a lifetime travelling the world and living amongst different cultures I do appreciate the fact that means of communication vary considerably. The rhythmic tones of a preacher in the Deep South of the United States of America do little for me but I can see how meaningful such a sermon can be to the people of that region.
Quakerism is unique insofar as it descends beyond liturgy, beyond the confessional boundaries and even beyond the great faiths of this world. It encourages each individual to make their own solitary journey into the silence, where they find they are not alone but are together with others who have, in their own way, found a route towards that great mystery which is of God.
God remains a great mystery. The whole of our existence on this planet is shrouded in mystery. It can be argued that the doctrines and dogmas inherent in all religions are not necessarily literally true but are there as handrails to guide us towards that great mystery that lies within and beyond each and every one of us. Many religious disputes are arguments about the handrails, not the essence.
Without a doubt, the Quakers have their own handrails or boundaries, for they are necessary if any group of people is to keep together as a social organisation. However, the silence that lies at the heart of Quaker worship is the very silence of the universe and the silence that speaks of the mystery of which we but touch the hem of the garment.
Within the silence there is provided an opportunity for people who use different handrails to unite around a profound experience that lies beyond the tangible and enters into a realm where both light and darkness coexist and where lies the very source of our existence.
Terry Waite’s latest book, Solitude: Memories, People, Places, is published by SPCK Publishing at £9.99.
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