Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Reynard-Lambeth
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 January 2012, 11:00am

The building

A large cast-concrete Gothic Revival building atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. Little Grace Chapel was built in 1849 and was followed by a larger church that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The present cathedral was built from 1927 to 1964. Inside, there are two labyrinths, colorful stained glass windows, and an interfaith AIDS chapel. Florentine sculptor Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise, replicas of famed Renaissance doors, are at the cathedral entrance.

The church

It is the Episcopal cathedral for the Diocese of California. On their website they say that they seek to challenge and transform the world and to celebrate the image of God in every person. They welcome all who seek an inclusive community of love. There are several services a day, from holy eucharist to choral evensong. There are many activities, including Bible study, discussions on faith and ethics, activities for families and children, yoga classes, and help for the unemployed.

The neighborhood

Nob Hill has classic five-star hotels such as the Fairmont, Mark Hopkins, and the Huntington. Across the park from the cathedral is the Pacific Union Club, a very exclusive club housed in a robber baron's (businessmen who accumulated their wealth by questionable means) brown stone mansion. There is a modernist masonic temple and the rest of the area consists of very expensive residential apartments.

The cast

Presider: the Revd Canon Christine McSpadden, canon for cathedral life. Homilist: the Very Revd Jane Shaw, dean of the cathedral. Deacon: the Ven. Anthony Turney, deacon for the arts. Lay assistant: Paul Donna. Readers: Mary Wood and Harold Smith.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The nave was about two-thirds full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, one of the ushers welcomed me and gave me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, a very comfortable oak pew with blue velvet cushion and individual padded kneeling pillows.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Mostly quiet with a few whispered and not-so-whispered conversations here and there.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be the one holy and living God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Just the leaflet handed out by the ushers.

What musical instruments were played?

A massive organ built by the venerable organ builders, the Æolian-Skinner Company. In 2010 it underwent a major restoration. Music was provided by the cathedral's choir of men and boys and the Canon Music Director, Benjamin Bachmann.

Did anything distract you?

There was a crying child somewhere near who made noise from time to time.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

When the organ prelude ended, a procession consisting of vested clergy, vergers, choir, processional crosses, banners, candles, ornate gospel book, etc. made its way from the ambulatory down one of the side aisles of the nave and then up the center aisle into the sanctuary – all this to the singing of a canticle by the choir and then a hymn with the congregation. Definitely stiff upper lip and formal.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – The Very Revd Jane Shaw has a very warm engaging manner even when speaking from a great concrete pulpit. She elicits both laughter and contemplation leading to conversion.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

What caused those fisherman to drop everything and follow Jesus? Yes, it is the authority and presence of Jesus, but something more is here. What in their lives made them ready? There is a God-sized gap in our lives that needs to be satisfied. We can find transformation in seeking the presence.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It is toss up between the amazing homily and the choir's communion anthem, JS Bach's "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" in German.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The dismal coffee hour in the basement (see below).

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

After several minutes one of the ushers told me there was coffee downstairs.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was coffee and tea only, dispensed in plastic recyclable cups. After taking a coffee I hung around for about ten minutes and was not spoken to by anyone.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I think I may be too much of working class peasant to fit in with this Nob Hill crowd. I will definitely return to hear the dean preach again, though.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

The service made very glad to be a Christian, particularly the dean's homily.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The homily wins over the music in the passage of time. Something I rarely get from most preaching.

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