The Fellowship of Silence

From 2012-2018 I was the vicar of the church of St John the Baptist in Newcastle city centre. I’d been in post for about a year when one Sunday afternoon I received a telephone call from a woman asking if the church was open and whether she could pop in for a visit. She also wanted to know if someone called Cyril Hepher had been a previous vicar of the church. I said I didn’t know off the top of my head, but that we had a leaflet about the history of the church which listed all the incumbents, and that she would be very welcome to call in. I also mentioned that we had a service of silent prayer and meditation at 3.30pm, which she could attend, if she wanted.

A couple of hours later I met Patricia at the back of church as I was getting things ready for the service. She had found the leaflet and was able to confirm that the Revd Cyril Hepher had been the vicar from 1906-1913. She then started to explain her interest. She had been working through a book of daily bible readings and meditations, in which had been mentioned a book called ‘The Fellowship of Silence’ by Cyril Hepher. Though long out of print, the wonders of digital technology had enabled her to buy a re-print, which she had been reading. In it, was mention of a church in the centre of Newcastle, where Cyril had started a silent prayer group.

I was intrigued.

When I arrived in the parish a year or so previously, I had instituted a meditative service of evening prayer, in place of Evensong on those Sundays when we didn’t have the choir. The service essentially consisted of a short reflection, 20 minutes of silence and a closing prayer. Moreover, I was at the time in the process of completing a book about meditation, and had just recently started a monthly meditation group that ran independently of the church – the very group that a few months later led me to develop the whole concept of Just Meditation.

Patricia insisted that I must have her copy of Cyril’s book. “You’re meant to have it”, she said. The fact that a predecessor of mine, in that same church, had pioneered silent prayer meetings exactly 100 ago was remarkable. That evening, I began to read the book with some interest, and resolved to find out all I could about him.

Cyril Hepher was born in 1872, and after taking a degree in classics at Oxford, was ordained in 1895. In 1906, he was appointed vicar of St John’s, Newcastle, where he remained until 1913. He then became a Canon of Winchester cathedral, where he spent the remainder of his ministry. In 1909, Cyril instigated a major programme of renovations at St John’s, which included installing the high altar and the organ, both still in use to this day, as well as a Lady Chapel, which was removed when the church was again re-ordered in the 1970s.

His enthusiasm for silent prayer was awakened as a consequence of joining the Anglican mission to New Zealand in 1910. This involved a sizeable group of clergy from England spending a number of months preaching in churches around the country. Among the parishes that Cyril visited was St Luke’s, Havelock, whose vicar the Revd Allen Gardiner had allowed the local Quaker group to hold their meetings in the church, while their meeting house was being restored after a fire. Gradually, members of the Anglican congregation had started to join the Quaker meetings, which soon became a regular part of the life of the parish. This may not seem particularly noteworthy today, but at the time it would have been highly unusual for members of different denominations to pray together.

Upon his return to England in 1911, and inspired by his experience in New Zealand, Cyril introduced silent prayer meetings at St John’s. In his book, The Fellowship of Silence, he describes how these silent prayer meetings attracted large numbers of people, many, if not most, of whom were not regular churchgoers.

‘There is a church, that I know well, lying at the very centre of a great city and at its most crowded corner. Visitors it had always, interested in the beauty of its medieval architecture. Some of those who worshipped in that church began to use these Silent Meetings. They soon observed that the church was attracting another kind of visitor within its walls – those who entered it to pray. One day, such a visitor spoke to me, doubtless thinking me to be attached to the church. He told me that he had brought no less than thirty of his fellows from the business house where he worked to this place, “not to look round, but to pray here.” He had never attended a service in it, only he added, “There’s something in this church that I love, and I can’t keep away.”’ (Cyril Hepher, The Fellowship of Silence, p.26)

So why am I telling this story?

Well, partly, because I just like it. I like the fact that when I started holding silent prayer meetings in church, thinking that we were doing something innovative and different, the truth was that almost exactly the same thing had been going on a hundred years earlier (when it would have been much more innovative than when I was doing it).

I like the fact that I could feel a real sense of connection with the past history of that church, and with the line of priests who had served there over the years. The whole notion of running meditation sessions in church wasn’t something I’d just made up, but part of the long-standing tradition of the place. The practice of meditation, or contemplative prayer, has remained unchanged for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We are connected with those generations stretching back through time, and spanning a wide range of different cultures.

And that sense of connection, across time and space, with people engaged in this truly universal practice, treading the path of the spiritual journey together, the only journey that really matters, is something I find hugely reassuring. We are not alone. We are not crazy. On the contrary, this path takes us right to the heart of what means to be human.

 In his book, Cyril observes that what struck him most forcibly was not just the value of silent prayer – or, as we might put it, the practice of meditation – but the experience of doing it in fellowship with others. Hence the title of his book. Joining with others in the practice of silent prayer made him aware of the deeper unity that underlies all the obvious, but perhaps largely superficial, differences between people: “as we met in the silence a bond of fellowship was forged between us” (Hepher, p.16)

In the sessions I lead, I sometimes talk about the way in which meditation creates connection between people at a very profound level. I believe this is because in silence we are able to just be ourselves, without having to perform a role. Silence is a great leveller. Everyone can just be who and what they are. Yet, in silence we are united. When we’re sitting together with a group of other people – in silence, eyes shut, just observing the mind – all the conventional differences between us, such as race, class, sexuality and gender just dissolve away. Everything we think and do, everything that differentiates us from one another, simply disappears in the mutual experience of pure being. Even though we may not know the other people in the room, even though we’re just sitting there not saying anything, not interacting with each other, nevertheless we are sharing deeply in the experience of our common humanity. Together in the silence, we participate in the awareness of awareness itself. Though we are in one sense essentially doing something alone, nobody is left out: we’re all in it together. In the stillness of a meditation session we are truly connecting with the other members of the group, united with one another in the deepest reality of what we are, the common humanity we all share.

And this is why absolutely anyone can participate in a Just Meditation session. What we do is truly inclusive, and this is reflected in the fact that we’ve always had such a wide range of different people attending our sessions for precisely that reason. People of different faiths can practice together, sitting alongside people who do not subscribe to any kind of faith at all. All can share in that silence, with each other and on the same terms.  

Meditation is about cultivating awareness, and with it the sense of balance and perspective that comes from learning to take a step back from ourselves in order to see things as they really are, rather than as we think they should or shouldn’t be. Meditation brings us into a deeper awareness of, or connection with, the deepest reality of what we are, or that which is ultimately real and true. For some people this may be described and experienced in the terms articulated by a religious tradition; for others it may not. For those who believe in God it is about deepening our connection with God. For those who don’t, it’s about deepening our understanding of the way things are. In both cases it is about balance and perspective, wholeness and healing and, ultimately, truth and freedom.

That’s why we meditate.

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