The church dates from 1895 and was the work of German born architect Henry Geilfuss, who designed several private homes in San Francisco that are still standing today, as well as a meat packing plant. Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it is said to be the oldest Lutheran church in the western United States. The exterior is brick and includes a bell tower and circular tower enclosing the staircase that leads to the gallery. Inside is a medley of stained glass, graceful arches, and chandeliers. Although unreinforced masonry characteristic of Romanesque Revival architecture is especially prone to damage by earthquakes, for which San Francisco is notorious, the church survived two major quakes that occurred in 1906 and 1989 plus countless smaller ones. Nevertheless, it was given a seismic retrofit in 2005, as well as renovations previous to that. More recent renovations caused the church to be closed while services were held in the auditorium. Today's service marked its grand reopening.
The name on the cornerstone, St Markus Kirche, indicates the congregation's German heritage. Services were exclusively in German until 1932, when English was introduced, and in 1938 the German language was discontinued. Their ministries and outreaches are well documented on their website. I'll just mention their outreach to senior citizens, which includes management of Martin Luther Tower, a modern affordable apartment building for seniors. They are also a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, which means a public commitment to full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. A member of the congregation told me that the liturgical and musical life of St Mark's Church are outstanding and vital for the life of the congregation. There are two services each Sunday: holy communion with children's time, and choral eucharist. They also have a Wednesday evening service (quoting from their website) of "candlelight, meditation, reflection and holy communion."
The church is in a district called Cathedral Hill, in the Western Addition section of San Francisco. Several large churches are close together on this hill. St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral is nearby, as well as Unitarian and Baptist churches. (A beautiful and historic church, St Paulus Lutheran, which can be seen briefly in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo, burned down in 1995.) A few blocks away are several cultural and civic buildings. Next to the church is the apartment building known as the Carillon Tower, built in 1964 on land where hundreds of historic Victorian homes once stood, leaving a huge wound that has not healed.
Presiding minister and preacher was the Revd Elizabeth L. Ekdale, lead pastor. She was assisted by crucifer, acolytes and chalice bearers in white albs. The organist was Timothy Zerlang, D.M.A. The lead singer was Jonathan Rundman, who composed A Heartland Liturgy, which is used by many congregations throughout the United States and was the liturgical setting used on this Sunday.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist.
How full was the building?
About two-thirds full, maybe 150 worshipers. One dog was present (I assume it was a service dog). I was told that the members generally do not live near the church, but come from all over the city and from other cities of the Bay area. The congregation had been invited to wear red, the liturgical color for the celebration of the Reformation; about half wore red shirts or blouses, which complemented the red carnations on the altar, the red paraments and vestments, and the red ribbons hanging from a flower wreath decorated with red candles displaying Luther rose-insignias.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Ushers handing out the order of service greeted me at the door.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organist played Michael Praetorius' Choral Fantasy on "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", which provided a festive and worshipful atmosphere. The lead singer practiced several liturgical elements with the congregation before the service. With his enthusiasm and cheerfulness he set an upbeat tone for the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Welcome, welcome, to our Reformation service.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelical Lutheran Worship plus one music sheet in the bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, guitar, flute, mouth harmonica, tambourine. The organ is opus 37 of Taylor & Boody Organbuilders of Staunton, Virginia, dating from 2002 and replacing an earlier Möller instrument.
Did anything distract you?
It distracts me to see people drinking in church, because it does not seem to fit in with the reverent atmosphere that I am looking for in worship. Two people drank out of Styrofoam cups, which suggests coffee or tea. The lay reader carried a water bottle to the lectern and set it down next to the Bible (but did not use it). These little details might be insignificant for most people, but they are part of the body language of worship. I was also distracted by the fact that I could not participate in all of the liturgical elements because words or notes were not provided (with one exception). Another distraction was hearing the Beatles' song "Help" sung by the lead singer as background music for holy communion. I love Beatles music and the text had a measure of appropriateness as a cry for help and support, but I had difficulty integrating it into the situation. Such distractions make me feel like a museum piece, like part of a generation that is passing away.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a mixture of ceremonial Lutheran worship and lively, contemporary music accompanied by guitar and instruments. I was told that the liturgy and hymns are usually more traditional, accompanied by organ.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd Elizabeth L. Ekdale spoke in a clear, lucid and deliberate style. The content was readily understandable and heartening. As a prelude to the sermon, she expressed thanks to all who had contributed to the recent renovations. (Their website includes a Sermons page but it has not been updated since 2014.)
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Martin Luther stated:" I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." Luther had a pastoral heart, shaped by personal loss and by the precariousness of life in the 16th century. In contrast to Luther's stance, today's consumerism tempts people to clutch onto items, such as iPhones or other technical gadgets, as though life depended upon them. The heart of the Reformation message is God's goodness and grace, which frees us from such clutching and allows us to live a life of service to others, responsive to the needs of the world. People still tend to see God as disapproving and punitive. So the message of the Reformation is still relevant: God accepts you as you are, he loves you unconditionally, he brings you home without exceptions.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When I entered the church I was immediately delighted by the brightness and richness of color and texture in the sanctuary and the stained glass windows, especially since I was coming out of a heavy rain. A creamy white and bright red were the dominant colors. This sanctuary immediately conveys a sense of historic continuity: here is a place where many generations of Christians have worshiped. I immediately felt transported into another world.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
St Mark's has a large and superb organ, played by a highly skilled organist. For his postlude he played three versions of the Luther hymn "Ein feste Burg." As magnificent and spine-tingling as they might have been, I could hardly hear them because of the loud noise of conversation. People were actually trying to drown out the organ with the loudness of their talking. I imagine that good music gets this kind of treatment in the other place. C S Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, said that hell is a place of relentless noise that overwhelms everything that might be of benefit to the souls of the inmates.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much happened, but one person invited me to the coffee fellowship.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Outstanding. The coffee was delicious. A wealth of sandwiches, wraps, fruit salad and rich cake were offered. People congregated at several tables. It was a lively fellowship. This coffee fellowship was carefully and thoughtfully prepared, indicative of a well-organized congregation.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – St Mark's is obviously the flagship Lutheran church of San Francisco. The beauty and history of the church, the outstanding organ music, the careful use of liturgical tradition, the effective preaching, the opportunities to participate in forums, small group study or in a good choir, the outreach ministries that respond to the inner city situation of the church, are all inviting. I am sure that I could find my place in this lively congregation. However, if I were a member living in San Francisco, how would I afford the cost of living in this city, which because of the impact of Silicon Valley is rising at an alarming rate? If I lived outside the city and wanted to attend a weekday event, how much hassle with traffic congestion would I have to deal with?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Coming out of heavy rain and entering a bright, luminous, radiant sanctuary.