Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch will be known to many from his popular series The History of Christianity which went out in late 2009 on BBC Four. That series was based on his landmark book, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. In his new book the eminent historian argues that Silence has characterised much of what the church was about through the centuries. He explores the vow of silence and what it meant for monks and nuns who willingly embraced it for the duration of their monastic lives.
However, silence wasn’t alwys the done thing. Between the fifth and the ninth century, Augustine of Hippo was not a fan. “It played poorly alonsgide his fascination with language and human psychology as revelations of the nature of God,” MacCulloch writes.
But there was one notable exception in his life, when, as he wrote in his Confessions, he and his mother reached out 'in thought' and 'touched the eternal wisdom' in a garden in the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before she died.
Interestingly, the English composer, Sir Michael Tipppet, who was agnostic, set that very fragment from Augustine to music, as it had fascinated him since he was a boy. Banishing unwanted noise, music in church was regarded as a form of “celestial silence” by those who believed that music had a place in church ritual.
But many strongly objected to music in church, as led by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and such antipathy to music in church can be traced back to Erasmus.
The author also makes reference to the enforced silence of an estimated 120 million Christians in the Indian sub-continent and in China who are prevented by government power or the hositilty of non-Christian neighbours from practsimng their faith.
He also examines the silence attendant upon being homosexual and Christian. MacCulloch’s style is witty and accessible, as one would expect from a man who has had an eye to presenting relatively complicated material on prime time television.