When I was a child I was taught always to whisper or speak quietly in church, except when joining in acts of public worship, and only to speak at all other times when absolutely necessary. The church building was a holy place, where people came to pray and to wait upon God in silence, and to engage in chatter was to show both a lack of respect for God and a lack of consideration for other worshippers.
Basil the Great speaks with pity in his Sermon 9 of people who hurry to church, but when they arrive pay no heed to the word of God, but “smiling and shaking hands with each other they turn the house of prayer into a place of endless gossiping”. he goes on to say that such people not only fail to speak God’s glory in his temple (psalm 29 ; 8) , but are a distraction to their neighbours by turning their attention too away from God to themselves.
We need to recall what is our main purpose in coming to church. We do come to enjoy fellowship with other members of the congregation, but that is incidental to the main purpose of our coming, which is to worship God. Basil puts his finger on the point when he draws attention to the two directions of worship. We come to listen to what God has to say to us, and to offer him thanks and praise for what he has done for us. True fellowship springs unconsciously out of our common experience of worship. When, however, we focus our attention primarily on our meeting with one another, it tends to become more a meeting with like-minded individuals or friends than with fellow-worshippers, with all the dangers of exclusive groups within the wider congregation.
The revival of the “Peace” in the Church of England has undoubtedly in some cases encouraged this tendency to gossip in God’s house. Of course it is good to express fellowship with other worshippers and a concern for their needs and welfare, and such concern can lead naturally into intercession. Many worshippers, however, are only too ready to be distracted. There is wisdom in the old adage: ” Before the service talk to God; during the service let God talk to you; after the service talk with one another”.
Most of us are so caught up with the multitudinous activities of daily life that we find we have to make some effort to “tune in” to God in church. Let us at least respect the attempt of others to do so, and not put impediments in their way. Let us see if we cannot improve the quality of our worship by making a sustained attempt to focus our attention on God while we are in his holy place.
Tony Gelston, Emeritus Reader in Theology, University of Durham.