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Questioning Silence

Questioning Silence - Canon Margaret Guite and the Revd Dr Malcolm Guite explore the space that silence brings us at Remembrance-tide. With the choir of Girton College Chapel, Cambridge directed by Nicholas Mulroy. Producer: Stephen Shipley.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 10 Nov 2013 08:10

Girton College 10/11/13

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Radio 4 Sunday Worship



Questioning Silence


Canon Margaret Guite and the Revd Dr Malcolm Guite explore the space that silence brings us at Remembrance-tide


With the choir of Girton College Chapel, Cambridge

directed by Nicholas Mulroy

Producer: Stephen Shipley


Rehearsal: Saturday 9 November 2013: 1130-1400

Transmission: Sunday 10 November 2013: 0810-0850


Radio 4 opening announcement:

BBC Radio 4.  It’s ten past eight and time to go live to the Chapel of Girton College, Cambridge for Sunday Worship.  The service explores the space that silence brings at this season of Remembrance.  It’s led by Canon Margaret Guite.



Maggie:    Good morning - and welcome to Girton College, England's first residential establishment for the higher education of women. Founded in 1869, Girton offered pioneering women the chance to study alongside men, even though it took Cambridge University until 1948 to grant them their degrees! Today - more than 30 years after going mixed - the College retains its longstanding commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion of all kinds.


                   We’re worshipping this morning in the Edwardian chapel and we’re joined by the Chapel Choir, the Mistress of Girton, students and members of the College staff.  On a day which is set aside to remember those who died in war, we also choose to bring to mind and to bring to God those qualities and virtues we need both to recover from war, and to pursue the things that make for peace. William Blake sums them up as Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, and our first hymn takes those words of Blake’s and lifts them into prayer:


Hymn:       To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love (William Blake – tune: St Peter)



Maggie:    ‘To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love all pray in their distress’: So we pray first for all those for whom this Remembrance Sunday is a day of distress and renewed grief: Almighty God,


All:             Father of all mercies and giver of all comfort; deal graciously we pray with those who mourn. That, casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Maggie:    We’ve called this service ‘Questioning Silence’, and during it we’ll reflect on the silence we set aside on this day, and the many layers and levels of remembering which that silence and this day invite us to explore. In our first hymn William Blake asked us to remember our common humanity, and the God who forms and loves us:


                   ‘For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
and Love, the human form divine.
and Peace, the human dress…’


                   But for many of us the first entry into silence is difficult, for it brings troubled and fragmented memory. In readings, music and prayers we’ll try and make a journey together from those first fragmented memories of the conflicts into which we’re born, to that deeper remembering of Mercy, Pity, Love and Peace of which Blake speaks. We begin with a Sonnet drawn from the Chaplain of Girton, Malcolm Guite’s collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. It’s about Remembrance Sunday, and confesses how crowded and disturbed our silence itself has become:


Malcolm Guite 1 Sonnet (recorded 1’06”):


November pierces with its bleak remembrance 

Of all the bitterness and waste of war;

Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance 

Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for,

Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers

And all the restless rumour of new wars,

For shells are falling all around our vespers,

No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.

In every instant bloodied innocence

Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand

Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,

And Abel's blood still cries from every land.

One silence only might redeem that blood;

Only the silence of a dying God.



Maggie:    Before we can move towards the rich silence of our dying God we must open to him the troubles we have laid on one another in the wastes and devastations of our wars:


Music:       Nobody knows the trouble (arr. Tippett)

                   Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord, nobody knows like Jesus. 

                   O brothers, O mothers, pray for me and help me to drive old Satan away


Maggie:    Michael Tippett’s arrangement of the African-American spiritual ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’. Its feeling of isolation is universal.


I                  In a moment we’ll hear the first of Malcolm Guite’s reflections which he’s recorded for us.  But first, listen to these verses from Psalm 77:


Reader (Karen Lee):


                   In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.

                   I consider the days of old, I remember the years long ago.

                   I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:

                   "Will the Lord spurn for ever, and never again be favourable?

                   Has his steadfast love for ever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?

                   Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?"


Malcolm Guite 2 The cry of the psalmist (recorded 1’41”):


                   The cry of the psalmist ‘Has God forgotten?’ is answered in the words of the spiritual ‘Nobody knows but Jesus’. At the heart of Christian hope is the conviction that in some unfathomable way God in Christ has entered into the heart of human experience to bear our burdens, know our troubles and endure our griefs with us. Later in this service we’ll reflect on the strong feeling of many soldiers in the Great War that Christ was somehow suffering with them in the trenches and that his compassion extended to all, on both sides of the conflict. That grief and compassion for the slain, indeed compassion for the slain enemy, finds its sharpest and most poignant expression in the words of King David about the death of his son Absalom, reported in the second book of Samuel. Like Syria today, Israel was torn by a civil war that divided families, set neighbours against one another, and reached to the heart of the ruling dynasty, for the rebellion against David was led by his own son Absalom. But as we’ll hear, when a messenger came with the news of the king’s victory and Absalom’s death in battle, the king didn’t share his gloating triumph but was moved instead to tears for the fallen.



Reader (Robbie Haylett): 2 Samuel 18:24-33


                   And behold, the messenger came; and  said, "Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has delivered you this day from the power of all who rose up against you." The king said to him, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" And he answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be like that young man."  And the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"


Music: When David heard (Tomkins)



Malcolm Guite 3 Thomas Tomkins  (recorded 2’33”):


Thomas Tomkins’ setting of King David’s grief for his son.  So we reflect on the one who was also called the Son of David.


I concluded my sonnet for Remembrance Sunday with the words:

‘One silence only might redeem that blood;

Only the silence of a dying God.’


I was thinking of the long silence of Jesus, enduring pain as the sky turned dark, the long silence suffering there, before his dreadful cry ‘My God My God why hast thou forsaken me?’   I have come to believe that the one who hung there through that long pain was God himself - that he bore on that Good Friday not only the pain and darkness of his own cross but the full depth and horror of all our pain, and the pains our wars inflict. He hung there so that when a slave sang ‘Nobody knows but Jesus’ it would indeed be true. He hung there so that the broken heart of David and the broken body of his son and enemy Absalom might both be taken up into the Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love of God - so that the grief of parents and children might be brought to the heart of heaven for healing by the breath of a son hanging on a cross, whose dying words to his father were ‘Into thy hands O Lord I commend my spirit.’


War teaches us terrible lessons and none were learned more bitterly than by Rudyard Kipling.  Kipling’s poetry often seemed to have glorified war, though his compassion for the ordinary soldier and gift for voicing his thoughts was unparalleled.  But he was given new and sharper insight when his own son was killed in the battle of Loos in 1915. In his poem ‘A Garden called Gethsemane’ he voices the fears of a young English soldier, tenderly and prophetically fusing them with Jesus’s own agony in the garden:



Reader (Ciarian O'Louglin):


The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.


We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.  


The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me  
I prayed my cup might pass.


The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.


It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass-
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!



Music: Agnus Dei (Britten War Requiem)





Malcolm Guite 4 Benjamin Britten’s (recorded 55”):


Benjamin Britten’s setting in his War Requiem of Wilfred Owen’s poem brings us right to the heart of things.  Both in its vision of Christ as one who ever hangs where shelled roads part, as one who bears with and is borne with the ordinary soldiers, and also in its firm rebuke to the rhetoric of hatred which war so often engenders, a hatred which Owen found more on the lips of armchair generals and newspaper editors, than in the mouths of the soldiers who were called on to do the fighting:


‘The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.



Maggie:    We turn now to bring our prayers to God in and through the One who ‘loved the greater love’ and laid down his life for his friends.  Many memories will come to the surface of our minds over the course of this day, but with God’s help we can move from our sometimes trapped and repetitive remembering to a deep and redemptive remembering.  Inside all of us there’s a place where we do our slow recalling, the joys, the troubles, the struggles. Deep remembering about our past is crucial, an expression of the value we put on life. The long remembered salvation story in scripture, the story of blessed beginnings, bitter exile, and final redemption, helps to set our own deep memories in a larger context. 


Music:       Remember O thou man (Ravenscroft – alternate sung & hummed verses with spoken prayers)


Remember O thou man,


Reader (Polly Bowman):


                   ‘Remember O thou Man, how thou art dead and gone’…We remember with thanksgiving those who have lost their lives in war.  We thank you for their courage and self-sacrifice and pray that we may learn to build a firmer foundation for our society and a fairer way of living, worthy of that sacrifice, by pursuing in their name, the things that make for peace.


Music:       Remember Adam's fall


Reader (The Mistress):


                   ‘Remember how we were condemned all/ in hell perpetual’. In this college we particularly remember the way the man-made hell of war has affected the lives of women, both those caught up in the warfare and those left at home. We give thanks for the work of all those women and men who labour to alleviate the effects of war, the work of those who care for the sick and wounded when they return home, and especially for those who tend to the mental and social welfare of traumatised soldiers.


Music:       Remember God's goodness,


Reader (Katie Walton):


                   ‘Remember God’s goodness and be not afraid’:  As we remember God’s goodness we remember also the efforts of all those whose study is to bring about real good and make a practical difference in the world. The Bible teaches us that ‘Wisdom is better than weapons of war’ so we pray for the work, in this university and beyond of all those whose studies can guide and lead us on the paths of peace.


Music:       The angels all did sing,


Maggie:    In the season of remembrance, remembrance of war and the pity of war, we sometimes forget the half of humanity that suffered sometimes as deeply as the soldiers, though in another way and a different place: the women who were left behind and bereaved, the women who took on new work to replace the men, and the women caught up in the war-zones themselves who suffered directly from the violence of war.  Here in Girton College Chapel our East window is dedicated to the memory of all the women who suffered as a consequence of the Great War, and in the archives of this college we preserve the documents and keep alive the stories of the many women who lived through these turbulent wars, and worked to assuage their suffering and pursue the things that make for peace. The Girton alumnae have taken their motto from the biblical words on the banner borne into London in 1908 amidst a huge procession of 15,000 women, amongst whom were 400 women from Newnham and Girton including our founder Emily Davies. That banner reads ‘Better is Wisdom than weapons of war’.  Peace is not just the absence of war.  We must build peace but resist compromise.  May we find time in the course of this day to rededicate ourselves, to ask God to heal our wounds, to give us peace in our deep remembering.

Music:       Justorum animae (Stanford)


Maggie:    Let us pray in the words our Saviour taught us…Our Father

All:             who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.   Amen.


                   We began with William Blake’s prophetic words reminding us of the humanity taken up into the Godhead, and the image of God deep in all humanity. Now we turn in our final hymn by Fred Kaan to the God who suffers in and through his suffering creation to ask for healing and wisdom: ‘God, as with silent hearts we bring to mind how hate and war diminish humankind.’


Hymn:       God, as with silent hearts we bring to mind (Fred Kaan – tune: O valiant hearts)



Maggie:    May Christ, the Prince of Peace, keep us and lead us in his peace; and may the blessing of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.


Organ: St Anne Fugue (Bach)



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