When people ask me what we do in Quaker Meeting for Worship, I often talk about waiting. It is an odd thing to want to do specially for an hour or so; mostly we chafe at being made to wait in a queue or at a bus stop. It’s not a pastime which is highly respected or celebrated in art (Waiting for Godot aside, of course, and even that is not quite a celebration as such). Nevertheless, I think it’s an important way of describing what we do in worship.
You can try and describe what’s happening in outward terms – we sit in a room in silence unless someone speaks. But who would speak? What would they say, and why, and how would they know? Just calling it ‘silent worship’ is misleading on this point. I don’t think that calling it meditation is necessarily helpful, either – some people will respond to that word very positively, but not all, and some will assume that it’s individualistic or atheistic, which might again be misleading. Sometimes I talk about unprogrammed worship, and this seems to be helpful especially to people who are familiar with some form of programmed worship, like an ordinary church service – they can imagine that in some way we are doing the same thing. This, I think, is close to the understanding which early Friends would have had. Of course, the word ‘worship’ is a laden one, and some people find it implies an external Deity; others have to deconstruct it every time and talk about ‘worth-ship’. I keep using it because I need a religiousy-sounding word; among Friends, I’m happy to talk about ‘going to Meeting’ and ‘the practice of Meeting’ but in the rest of the world that just sounds like lots of committees.
‘Waiting worship’ seems to me to capture something about the practice which is not described by these other phrases (although maybe there are better phrases which I haven’t thought of). In worship, we wait for the Spirit, however and whether we understand what that is. You don’t wait for something unless you think it might arrive, and – unlike Godot – the Spirit does arrive. Not for everyone, not every time, but fairly reliably – like a bus. If you want to wait for a bus, you need to wait at a bus stop, and if you want to wait for the Spirit, you need to be in the right place – not physically, but inwardly. If you want to catch a bus, you need some help from the bus company and driver, and similarly you can’t make the Spirit arrive by wishing it so. The Spirit comes of Her own accord.