Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Edge of Silence

We grew up in a religious denomination where women were silent and men who said the wrong thing were excommunicated.

My sister decided to solve this problem by becoming a missionary. She went to live with a small community of missionaries in a faraway place and teach high school and evangelize. There were a few older missionaries and another young woman, a Bible translator, and later a couple of young men came too.

In all the meetings the women were silent. Even at the Friday evening prayer meeting. Only the men prayed. Later the Bible translator told my sister that, not only, had she never spoken during a meeting, but no one had ever even prayed for her work.

The younger missionaries finally started up a group with some of the local young people and in this group the women spoke. That went okay for a while until James arrived. He not only knew that women were to be silent but he also knew how to silence women.

If a woman speaks then you must not acknowledge it. You freeze and do not turn your head or move a muscle. Then when the woman stops you carry on as if not a sound had been made. If this happens, the woman has not spoken but she has only made a noise.

Around that same time an elderly man was falsely accused and excommunicated for teaching an unorthodox doctrine about Christ on the cross. It is difficult to explain, and difficult to understand, how it was that they thought he got it wrong. I do not know, or care to know, what their reasons were. The truth, of course, is that I do know but I refuse to write about it.

So my sister left and joined a group that she had known for a while. She had been teaching some of them Greek so they could study theology. She decided that it was time to reflect on doctrine herself in an organized way and she signed up for a diploma in theology through correspondence with the university of London.

At the end of the year she wrote her exams. She had previously learned the Old and New Testament, Eastern religion and philosophy and Greek. Church history was new and the philosophy of religion. That was just the kind of thing you would not study in our denomination.

She considered going to London and continuing in theology. However, the period of study had drawn her into quiet reflection, and at the end of the year she took a vow of silence on matters of faith. The emotional pain of remembered controversies was too deep.

She came to visit me a few weeks ago. This is thirty years later. We sat at the dining room table for tea, and I told her that I had been reading her book. I can only read a little at a time.

We talked about excommunication in general and our dear excommunicated friend, and a cold cloud of silence descended and sat in the middle, between us, on the table. We had to turn our heads away from each other and let the tears fill our eyes to the brim.

Our throats swelled closed and mouths felt tight and we did not speak. But we did not let the tears slide down and make a mess on the tablecloth. The simple reason is that then you have to get up and find a box of tissue. That is all.

She told me that she had kept her vow of silence on matters of faith ever since. You do not question a vow taken at 30 and still strong at 60. But she does attend church. Sometimes she is asked to speak about comparative religion and other things like that.

Then she talked about how she does have a service to the church and it is this. She goes in after school and she reads with children. Then the cloud of silence dissipated and fragmented into a thousand tiny droplets that scampered away with the laughter of shared memories of teaching children. The domain of children is our service in the church. And we could talk again.

Later she went out to church with me. And a professor of theology figured out who she was, and which theological fund she was the secretary for, and he tried to engage her in conversation. She smiled and said yes she is that person, and now she is retired from her other position, but yes, she does advise. What was his programme? Yes, it must be addressed through the proper channels, although it sounded very worthy.

And he thinks that she is not educated in theology, but I know that she is skating on the edge of silence.

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