Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 February 2013, 11:00am

The building

Gothic in style, but actually made of poured concrete, one of the largest poured concrete structures in the world. Construction began in 1928, and the cathedral was completed in 1964. There are two square towers, one of them housing a carillon that was tinkling tunefully as I arrived. Below this is a labyrinth pathway available for walking at all hours. Inside, the church is enormous, visually very impressive with a high ceiling and a large number of high windows filled with stained glass in strong jewel colors. Below these the internal walls are painted with a series of murals about the history of the church in California. Between the back of the church and the pews there is a wide space, about half of it taken up with another labyrinth path on the floor. At the back of the cathedral is an interfaith AIDS memorial chapel, which, when opened, was the first of its kind.

The church

Grace Cathedral describes itself as an "iconic house of prayer for all" – locally, nationally and internationally. The congregation are inclusive, embracing innovation and open-minded conversation. There is a wide range of social outreach locally, and the cathedrals online postings show engagement with national and international issues. The cathedral hosts cultural events in the visual arts, music and drama, often in partnership with other major cultural institutions of the city. Worship is offered daily, with at least two services every day and three or four on Sundays. Some Sunday and weekday services include contributions from a choir of men and boys, said to be one of only seven remaining in the United States.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is on historic Nob Hill, which offers some spectacular views of the city. Favored in the 19th century by San Francisco's wealthiest citizens for their posh mansions, the Nob Hill area was completely destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The wealthy chose to rebuild elsewhere following that disaster, but Nob Hill retained its upscale character as mansions were replaced by swank hotels. Today the area is home to many of the city's upper-class families as well as a large young urban professional population. Nearby Chinatown has been expanding into Nob Hill during the past 20 years, giving the neighborhood an eclectic flavor. Across the street from the cathedral stands the Nob Hill Masonic Center. The California-Van Ness cable car line stops directly in front of Grace Cathedral, enabling worshippers to arrive for service by cable car should they so choose.

The cast

The Very Revd Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral, presided. The preacher was the Very Revd June Osborne, dean of Salisbury Cathedral, England. Also assisting were the Revd Deacon Nina Pickerrell, and lay assistant Paul Daddona. Lawrence Thain, assistant director of music, conducted the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

The nave seating looked just over half full at the start, but a lot of people arrived during the service. Its was about two-thirds full by the end. Perhaps 250, maybe a few more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Grace Cathedral has a lot of doors, and the one through which I chose to enter turned out not to be the one where a greeter was handing out service booklets. I walked over to her and got a smile and a booklet but no greeting. I was given no directions about where to sit.

Was your pew comfortable?

Traditional pews, comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

On the noisy side. I could hear the carillon outside and the choir practicing at the front, and they were producing different tunes. There were also a couple of fretful babies. It should be understood that this vast building is extremely resonant; the tiniest sound gets magnified and by the time all the different sounds reach the back pews they are mushed together.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul" (Psalm 25), sung by the choir in procession. This was followed by the opening hymn. The first spoken words were those of the liturgy: "Blessed be the God of our salvation." There were no words of welcome until after the sharing of the peace, more than halfway through the service.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

All the words of the service, including hymns, were in the service booklet handed out on arrival. Melodies for all sung parts of the service were included. The Hymnal 1982 and the Book of Common Prayer were supplied in the pews but were not needed for the service.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, installed in 1934, opus 910 of the venerable Æolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston and said to be one of the finest examples of the American classic school of organ design.

Did anything distract you?

Those fretful children were distracting. They were not unwontedly noisy, but in so resonant a building every little whimper carried a long way.

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

Choral communion service. The music was quite a feature: two items from the choir in addition to their opening psalm, and the congregation were expected to join in with singing plainchant in places.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 – The opening section of Dean Osborne's sermon was well-planned and closely linked to the readings for the day, but the final comments about cathedrals did not seem to fit with the rest.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Lent teaches us to deal not only with our personal shortcomings, but also with lifes dilemmas. Abraham faced the dilemma of having no heir. Paul faced the dilemma of how to manage those quarrelsome Christians in cosmopolitan Philippi. Even Jesus was warned by friendly Pharisees that he should not go to Jerusalem. For him the choice was whether to carry on to do his Fathers will, or not. There are no simple solutions. We, too, have to struggle with our dilemmas. We will rarely find a perfect path and we will have to live with apparent contradictions, but through them we can find deep truths. Jesus had little choice if his ministry was to flourish; he had to go ahead and carry his work into Herods terrain. It is through such paradoxes that we can become more rooted in God. Humans can bring their paradoxes into the sacred space of cathedrals, which are no strangers to understated expressions of faith. There new hope and new meanings may emerge.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The very beautiful patterns cast by the stained glass on the walls and pillars of the cathedral. These made the whole ambience very numinous.

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

The acoustics. Hard to hear the choir or the organ and very hard to sing in time with either.

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

The celebrant had invited everyone to coffee and had given clear directions how to find it. However, there was no obvious attempt at the end to gather up newcomers; one had to follow the crowd. But once among the coffee-drinkers, it was not difficult to join in conversations.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee, hot and of good flavor, was served from pump-flasks. An interesting selection of biscuits was also offered.

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

3 – I found the building and its acoustic intimidating and the act of worship rather remote. I cannot imagine feeling "at home" here.

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

Yes, because it was well planned and sincerely carried out.

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

The stained glass windows.

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