Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 2 July 2015, 5:30pm

The building

It is the work of the 20th century American architect Lewis P. Hobart, who designed several commercial buildings and private residences in the San Francisco area as well as elsewhere on the West Coast, Hawaii and New Zealand. This neo-Gothic structure was built of poured concrete beaten to look like stone. Construction was begun in 1928 and completed in 1964. The cathedral's front doors are replicas of the Doors of Paradise by the Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Ghiberti that grace the Baptistery of St John, Florence, Italy. Near the entrance to the massive nave is the AIDS Interfaith Chapel, featuring a triptych altarpiece by the late 20th century artist Keith Haring, who was known for graffiti and pop-art inspired murals and public art works; Haring died of AIDS in 1990. The cathedral has two Chartres-style labyrinths, one at the rear of the nave and a second, terrazzo-stone labyrinth outside. In addition to traditional stained-glass windows, the human endeavor series depicts such modern figures as Albert Einstein (with E=mc2 embedded in the glass), social activist Jane Addams, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and astronaut John Glenn. Murals along the side aisle illustrate California history. The Chapel of Grace, just off the sanctuary, is modeled after Sainte-Chappelle in Paris. For tonight's service, the large baptismal font was festively ringed with rainbow-colored votives.

The church

Grace Cathedral offers multiple church services each day, and worship styles range from traditional Episcopal worship to an evening eucharist celebrated on the indoor labyrinth. Grace is host to diocesan events, many concerts, and a wide program of educational offerings including The Forum, a series of conversations on faith and ethics.

The neighborhood

Nob Hill was originally home to the upper crust who made their fortunes during the late 19th century gold rush. At an almost 25 per cent grade, Nob Hill allowed the wealthy to live quite literally above the fray, but their mansions were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed. The Crocker family of banking and railroad fame donated their ruined property for the construction of a cathedral. Today, the neighborhood is noted for its luxury hotels and trendy restaurants. Grace Cathedral can still be reached via San Francisco's iconic cable cars (highly recommended, as the Taylor Street sidewalk is all stairs, and this Mystery Worshipper lost count after 80).

The cast

The Revd Canon Elizabeth Grundy, canon for pastoral care and formation, was the officiant. The Revd Jude Harmon, minor canon, led the prayers. The Revd Dr David Gushee, senior columnist for faith, politics and culture for Baptist News Global and distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, Mercer University, was the homilist. Music was provided by the men of the cathedral choir, Paul Meier, assistant director of music; and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, Timothy Seelig, conductor. Also worth mentioning: the sound engineer, diligently at work on a ladder right before the service, who transformed the cathedral's much-maligned acoustics into a beautifully resounding space.

What was the name of the service?

Love and Justice: A Special Evensong for Marriage Equality.

How full was the building?

The nave was comfortably full with around 300 people attending, plus an altar party of twelve, ten members of the cathedral men's choir, and the 100 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived quite early and was welcomed by a docent, who pointed me in the direction of an off-duty usher to answer my request for a service bulletin. The usher introduced herself and later made good on her promise to bring me a bulletin once they were available. And she remembered my name.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comfortable enough. The loose kneeler cushions, however, were engineered for penitence.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quietly joyful.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him." (Psalm 96:9)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service bulletin provided the words of the liturgy, music for the two hymns sung by the congregation, and the Old Testament and gospel texts selected for the occasion: Isaiah 58:1-9a ("Raise your voice like a trumpet") and John 13:12-17 ("I give you an example") and 34-35 ("Love one another").

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, opus 910 of the venerable Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company dating from 1934, rebuilt by Aeolian-Skinner in 1952 as opus 910-A and modified by Casavant Frères Ltée. in 1972. It is said by many to be one of the world's finest organs. The Men's Chorus was accompanied by piano for the prelude.

Did anything distract you?

An impromptu bit of San Francisco street theatre, as a man fancying himself a prophet rose right after the prelude and began reciting a sort of rap-poem (his own composition, I assume). As he was escorted out of the cathedral by two capable ushers, the organist smoothed over the moment by playing the opening measures of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

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

The prelude at 5.30 consisted of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus presenting a short concert culminating in Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?", which brought tears to the eyes of many in the congregation. Evensong itself was dignified but not stuffy, and beautifully sung.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

10 – The Revd Dr Gushee is an outspoken advocate for human rights and environmental justice. He spoke passionately and kept everyone's attention riveted on him throughout his talk.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The prophetic spirit of the Old Testament, carried forward into Jesus' ministry, rejects any definition of righteousness that focuses on ritual purity or exclusivity. The greatest commandment is the true Christian expression of righteousness. True righteousness seeks the flourishing of each individual. It is a creative force that offers justice, service and love, especially to those who have been marginalized.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' rendition of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" could have come across as camp, or cheesy, or (given the US Supreme Court ruling just days before this service) triumphalist. Rather, it was beautifully sung from a place of deep joy and gratitude, and I can honestly describe the moment as transcendent.

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

The awkward moment when the street-theatre poet threw me into spiritual disequilibrium, anxious as to whether this was an intended, avant-garde opening to choral evensong at Grace Cathedral. Fortunately, it was not.

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

There was a post-service reception planned to which all were invited, but my Shipmate friend and I decided to head out for dinner instead. As we left, we noticed that the rainbow lights in the cathedral's west facade had just been turned on.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No idea of how the reception went, but if it was anything like the service it must have gone splendidly.

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

8 – If I lived in the San Francisco area, I would definitely attend occasional services and special liturgies. I am not sure about making a cathedral my church home but would be willing to give this congregation a try.

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

Yes, without question.

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

Studying the faces of the members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as they performed their final song and thinking that many were remembering friends and loved ones who did not live to see this day.

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