Silence, Please!

Michael Jagessar

Michael Jagessar

This issue of Liturgy dealing with “Postcolonial Perspectives on Liturgy,” guest-edited by Stephen Burns, explores many facets of the critique of colonialist impact on religion through liturgical distortions. What follows is an excerpt from Michael Jagessar’s essay, “Two ears, one mouth”: Beyond words in our life together.” –– Melinda Quivik


As a Caribbean person of words from a Reformed tradition and a postcolonial theologian, I am becoming increasingly convinced that we need to invest in fewer words and consider the place of silence and mystery in our life together. I am becoming more conscious of the words we reel out at Sunday worship. I am more than conscious of bombarding the divine with––and tiring ears and hearts of listeners under––a massive weight of words. A modest estimate is that an average Sunday worship contains between 5,000 to 7,000 words, depending on your ecclesial tradition. Even scarier will be to consider how many words make up the documentation of the councils of our ecclesial bodies. Can it be that those of us from Protestant traditions have become too dependent on words? Has this dependency meant that we give little agency to silence and mystery? What have we done to silence? Could some of these awkward and tough conversations we face benefit from such (silence-mystery) and help us to cross polarizing boundaries? Is it possible that our dependence on words as a way to parcel out precise truths may contribute to ongoing polarizations on matters on which we hold deep disagreements?

Ironically, I am using words to make this argument, but I hope that this “excursion” will break from its lines and let an uncomfortable quietness rise up in rebellion. And, I use “excursion” as an intentional play in the sense of a “raid,” “deviation,” or “digression.” I draw encouragement from Gordon Lathrop’s deployment of C. W. Mönnich’s use of antiliturgica where Mönnich asks, “[C]an a liturgist write against the liturgy precisely in order to encourage full participation in the liturgy?” Perhaps to Lathrop’s list of distortions that liturgists should be aware of we can add an “excessive wordy distortion”? (Holy Ground, Fortress, 2009, pp. 182-183).

Is not the Christian faith based on one who is the Word of God made flesh, and does that not give a central place to scripture, so that Christian worship can never escape words? Indeed. The reading and hearing of God's word is an integral part of Christian worship. Early worshiping communities seemingly could not get enough of hearing scripture. In one of the earliest descriptions of Christian worship from Justin Martyr (ca. 150), we read that “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” The Reformers of the sixteenth century sought to keep scripture at the heart of the church's life and worship. It was a clear expectation that when the word was read,

God was again speaking to the gathered community. From the welcome or opening call to the benediction or sending out, scripture is woven into the whole liturgical act. . . .

In the United Reformed Church (URC), we ordain people as “ministers of the Word and Sacraments” and there is little doubt which of the two is more prominent. What is often forgotten in the conviction that “the church exists where the gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered” is the conjunction “and.”


There is much more to this in the author’s vast experience and knowledge. Jagessar’s full essay in Liturgy 34, no. 2 is available now online by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Michael N. Jagessar, of Indo-Guyanese heritage and Dutch citizenship, is the United Reformed Church’s Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries based in the UK. Recent publications include Christian Worship: Postcolonial Perspectives, coauthored with Stephen Burns (2011), and At Home with God and in the World, coedited with Andrea Frochtling, et al. (2013).

Michael N. Jagessar, “Two ears, one mouth”: Beyond words in our life together,” Liturgy 34, no. 2 (2019): 51-58.

David Turnbloom