Silences serve various functions in the rites. Silence can fix attention on an action being performed, as at the Breaking of the Bread.
Originally the Breaking of the Bread was a division of a large loaf for each person to have a portion, not only as food but also as the utensil for other foods. After the meal dropped out, largely because of the growth in size of congregations, the bread continued to be broken for each, as the primary meanings are that, as one Body of Christ, we share the one loaf and that the risen Christ makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
For the first several centuries, even in large congregations, the bread was broken in silence. As various texts began to be sung after the beginning of the breaking, the emphasis was still on these primary meanings. (See the fraction anthems at S 167 and S 171 in The Hymnal 1982 and others in newer prayer books.) Other fraction anthems recalled the breaking of the bread for the feedings of the multitudes and the Fourth Gospel's exposition of it (as S 168 - S 170) or pointed toward the eschatological banquet (as S 172). In later medieval rites, texts also came into use in portions of the Western church that eventually gave rise to an interpretation of the action as signifying the breaking of the body of Christ on the cross (though not before the last years of the seventh century, according to the Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Jungmann); eventually this signification began to overshadow the earlier primary meanings, which need renewed emphasis in teaching, in the use of fraction anthems and in ceremonial actions (there should be at least the beginnings of a breaking for distribution, not just a division of the bread into two pieces).
Other actions such as starting the new fire and lighting the Paschal candle at the Easter Vigil are done in silence, as well as bringing in the cross in the Good Friday rite. On Maundy Thursday at the foot washing, certain simple anthems (see The Hymnal 1982, S 344-S 347) may be sung but no hymns are permitted; the congregation is to concentrate on the action. Similarly, during the lighting of candles in the Order of Worship for the Evening, a simple anthem or a psalm appropriate to the action may be sung (by cantor or choir) but not a congregational hymn; the hymn follows the action.
Silences also are used to heighten the solemnity of certain days and occasions. On Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, there is no instrumental prelude or entrance hymn; the ministers enter in silence, and on Good Friday their entrance is followed by a period of silent prayer. On Good Friday, there is no music after the hymn that concludes the devotions before the cross, and ancient sacramentaries directed that Communion be administered in silence on that day.
Silences provide for recollection before prayers of confession. Silences in the Prayers of the People and among the prayers in the Daily Offices allow people to recollect and to offer up (silently or aloud) intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings. Some of the newer prayer books call for silence before the Collect of the Day, to enable people to settle down and devote full attention to this prayer.
Silences also provide for reflection. Periods of silence appropriately follow lessons and sermons. One woman told me that she had begun really to listen to the readings only after they had begun to be followed by substantial silences.
People who arrive late should not enter during a period of silence, and people should not use periods of silence to remove books from the racks or to turn pages. But as one Quaker said to me, "Such unavoidable noises as the rumblings of stomachs, the fretfulness of infants or the squirming of small children are not interruptions to silence but are simply accepted as normal within a group maintaining silence."
Marion J. Hatchett has served parishes in South Carolina, where he is canonically resident. He served on the Standing Commission on Church Music and on the Standing Liturgical Commission. He currently serves on the Moravian/Episcopal Dialogue.