Exterior of St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco
Location: California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 June 2024, 10:30am

The building

The church, built in 1995 and designed by John Goldman, reportedly incorporates the architecture of Siberian Orthodox churches, Japanese Shinto shrines, and ancient West Syrian church floorplans. The sanctuary has two sections: the entrance door leads into an eight-sided rotunda with a collection of 90 dancing ‘saints’ on the upper walls, painted by John Duke. In this high room without seating the service begins and ends. To the right is an adjacent area with chairs facing each other across an aisle; at one end of the aisle is an ambo, at the other end a presider’s chair, placed in front of a large icon of St Gregory of Nyssa. These two areas of worship are marked on the outside of the building by two towers.

In addition, the building contains a small chapel in a separate room, and outside in a garden is a baptismal font. Also prominent are 15 Ethiopian processional crosses, which stand between the two areas of worship. High up in the dome of the rotunda is a statement of St Gregory inscribed in English and Greek: ‘The one thing truly worthwhile is becoming God’s friend.’ Outside the church is a chalkboard, where anyone can publicly write intercessions and thanksgivings.

The most striking feature of the church is the gallery of 90 dancing saints, gathered around a dancing, resurrected Christ, the ‘Lord of the Dance’. Aside from traditional saints, such as Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, or Patrick of Ireland, there is a cross-section of people from various faiths and backgrounds, representing the diversity of humanity: Mohandas Gandhi, Julian of Norwich, Anne Frank, John Muir, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Malcolm X, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Godiva (naked and with her horse), Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Abraham Heschel, Charles Wesley. Also included is Miriam, the sister of Moses, who was the first dancer of the Bible, and King David, who danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant.

The church

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church was founded in 1978. The first rector, Rev. Paul Fromberg, described the vision of the founders:

‘Their hope was to create an intentionally experimental congregation that would press the liturgical limits of the Episcopal Church’s new Book of Common Prayer. The founders began to imagine St Gregory’s as a place where the liturgy would form the community. They described a congregation that was primarily a place uninhibited by received ideas about how a congregation of the Episcopal Church should operate. Instead, they wanted to start a community of Christ’s Church firmly rooted in the gift of God’s grace to people of all faiths – or no faith at all. They wanted to start a community where this extravagant gift of love was experienced week by week in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. So it is from the altar that the community discovers its identity. Each one is none other than God’s friend, as are all human beings. People are made friends of God by the loving service of Christ. Friendship with God comes freely; it comes as an expression of the eternal love that is God the Holy Trinity, and it comes with an expectation that human lives will be transformed in God’s love.’

The parish hosts a food pantry once a week, currently distributing literally tons of food to about 500 families. It relies entirely on volunteers, as there is no government funding. In addition there are, among other things, an adult forum, an icon painters’ group, an elder women’s group, a circle of stillness, a dinner group, a Bible study and a choir rehearsal.

The neighborhood

St Gregory is located in the Portero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, which features very steep streets offering striking views of the downtown skyscrapers. It is a mixture of residential and commercial buildings: across the street is a brewery, up the street is a high school. The neighborhood is bordered by two freeways.

The cast

The service was led by five people, all wearing West African liturgical vestments, so that it was not possible to distinguish between clergy and laity. The preacher was a lay person. Presiding was a young woman who had been ordained the day before.

What was the name of the service?

The Late Liturgy (there is an Early liturgy at 8:30 am).

How full was the building?

The sanctuary was mostly full, with an estimated 80 people. The average age seemed to be around 40. Two dogs were also present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Several people greeted us cordially, starting with the greeter at the entrance, who distributed the material one would need for participation in the service. First time visitors are asked to fill out a name tag. Regulars wore buttons with their names. More than one person informed us of the special features of worship at this church.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chairs in the liturgy of the word section were comfortable, but we did a lot of standing. In the rotunda there were no chairs; but fortunately, some chairs were available at the sides for people who could not stand for the entire beginning liturgy or for the celebration of the eucharist.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The choir, consisting of about 20 people, rehearsed for about 15 minutes. They sounded a bit flat and dissonant, but during the service they sounded fine. There were quiet conversations and several people, including me, walked around, as there is a lot to see.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Blessed be God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever. Amen.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The church has produced its own collection of hymns and liturgies: Music for Liturgy. In addition, two sheets were handed out which contained hymns, readings and information relevant to the service, as well as announcements of upcoming events.

What musical instruments were played?

Gongs, bells and African drums. All singing was done a cappella.

Interior of St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

Did anything distract you?

This church is loaded with distractions: many decorative elements, many icons, 15 Ethiopian processional crosses, the 90 dancing saints on the upper walls of the rotunda. There is so much to take in. Another distraction was a cold wind which came from an open door behind us.

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

This did not feel at all like an Episcopal service. Because the singing was unaccompanied (unison and four-part), led by a choir which also sung anthems, singing harmonies which sometimes sounded non-Western and being surrounded by icons, I felt as though I were in an Orthodox service.

The service lasted one hour 40 minutes, with about one hour of standing, 40 minutes of sitting. Several times the sounding of gongs initiated a period of silence, which was ended with the ringing of a small bell. The Gospel was read by a woman who participated in the service via zoom: a screen displayed the zoom participants.

After the sermon, time was allotted for the sharing of personal experiences with regard to a theme of the sermon: namely what it means to be part of a church family. Three people offered candid statements, each of which involved LGBTQ issues, confirming that they had found complete acceptance at St Gregory. Another feature was a procession of the clergy through the congregation after the sermon, offering people an opportunity to touch or kiss the Gospel book. At the end of this ritual there was a loud ringing of bells.

However, the most striking feature of this service was the dancing of the congregation. As stated in a leaflet, ‘While we dance below, the saints dance above – and Christ leads us all.’ After the liturgy of the word, the congregation danced to the rotunda for the celebration of the eucharist. The dancing consisted of simple steps which were demonstrated beforehand, each person putting a hand on the shoulder of the person in front while singing a hymn. A second dance was performed at the end of the eucharist, as the congregation danced around the altar, singing a hymn and keeping hands to shoulders. The dancing was accompanied by an African drum. The invitation to holy communion was unconditional: all were invited, regardless of faith or lack of faith.

The language of the liturgy was traditional. But one formulation stuck out: ‘Glory to God, our mothering Father.’ The service was resolutely liturgical, but it never became stiff, because the leaders of the service interjected informative comments at moments of transition.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

7 — The preacher sat during the sermon. She displayed humor and spoke clearly. Since she was not quite close enough to the microphone, I was not able to understand every detail. However, I thought that she interpreted the Gospel reading effectively.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus creates a new concept of family by saying, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ Jesus did not confirm the traditional family values of his time, but exploded them. Family at that time was rigidly structured and determined one’s identity and safety. Jesus creates a new life which can exist outside the traditional family structure, providing a home for people without family. Jesus’ family includes anyone. This congregation invites people to see God’s image in everyone, which is expressed in a holy communion which is offered to all people unconditionally. A church family includes people we would not choose of our own accord. But Jesus chooses us, ultimately bringing together all sorts of people. The focal point of this family is the cross, where Jesus said to his mother: ‘Behold, your son!’ and to his beloved disciple: ‘Behold, your mother!’ In a church family there are no guest lists or seating charts. In this way we experience the abundance of life promised by Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

A driving force for this congregation is the vision of an all-encompassing fellowship with God for which all of humanity is destined, expressed in the words of St Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Once there was a time when the whole rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking upward to the one leader of this dance. And the harmony of motion that they learned from his law found its way into their dancing.’ The service astounded me with the way it expressed in singing, preaching, dancing, artwork and eucharist a realization of Gregory’s vision of all of humanity finding its final fulfilment in Christ. The 90 dancing saints on the walls of the rotunda, led by the dancing, resurrected Jesus in the middle, was a heavenly vision.

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

I do not want to dance in church because it makes me feel awkward and unreal. The dance to the rotunda was most unpleasant for me. I was unable to concentrate on three things at once: putting a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of me, paying attention to my steps, and singing a hymn while processing forward to the beat of a drum. So, I did just one thing, the singing of the hymn, leaving a gap between me and the group. I was hoping that no one noticed my non-involvement in the body language of the congregation. During the second dance, which took place around the altar after communion, I was able to escape by sitting with other elderly people, who also did not dance.

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

As I was sitting alone at a remote corner of the church, someone came and invited me and Mrs Portola to join a group which evaluates the service, called Fifteen Good Minutes. It was an opportunity to talk with the service leaders, ask questions and give feedback. It was a good way to come back down to earth and to sort out what we had just experienced. As an alternative, the church also offers prayer for healing in the chapel after the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no coffee, but there was a potluck lunch, open to all. However, I did not have enough emotional energy left to stay.

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

5 — I am not sure I would want to return. As a one-time experience, the service in this strikingly artistic church was beautiful and brilliant. But if I came back I would worry too much about the dancing.

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

This service expressed my deepest convictions about the nature of Christian faith. I felt as though I had found a church for which I was destined. I felt confirmed in my belief that the grace of God, revealed in the crucified and risen Christ, will ultimately encompass and transfigure all of creation.

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

The 90 dancing saints on the walls of the rotunda are stunning. The artist has conveyed the impression that these saints and the risen Christ are truly with us when we celebrate worship.

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