St Paul's Cathedral, San Diego, California, USA

St Paul's Cathedral, San Diego, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Merchant Trader
Church: St Paul's Cathedral
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 10:30am

The building

Designed by the firm of Frohman, Robb & Little, who participated in the planning of the Washington National Cathedral, and begun in 1928, St Paul's appears to be a cross between the Gothic and Spanish mission styles, with a courtyard between the church and the great hall. The interior is Romanesque, plain gray stone walls embellished by carved wood paneling and furnishings, against which the red Palm Sunday appointments made quite a splash. The stained glass windows were created by Judson Studios of Pasadena, California, one of the oldest liturgical studios in North America. One window depicts the conversion of St Paul, wherein Saul of Tarsus is literally knocked off his horse by a vision of Christ. A plaque commemorates the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to the cathedral in 1983.

The church

They see themselves as a "cathedral for the city," and as such sponsor a variety of ministries and outreaches all enumerated on their website. They pride themselves on their outstanding choral music program, which undoubtedly draws in folk from a wide area. On the day of my visit, the congregation appeared to be very Californian (tanned bodies and lots of sunglasses).

The neighborhood

San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean at the southernmost tip of California, boasts what is said to be the most pleasant climate in the continental United States and is a favorite vacation destination especially for folks living in the Southwest. The cathedral is located right across the street from Balboa Park, a huge city park that's home to the San Diego Zoo plus a science center and several art museums.

The cast

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas, subdean, presided. The preacher was the Very Rev. Scott Richardson, dean. Assisting were the Rev. Canon Richard Lief and a large supporting cast at the sharp end.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist Rite Two

How full was the building?

Comfortably full, but not too tightly packed. I would guess around 250.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We arrived just as the blessing of palms outside the cathedral had concluded but before the procession had commenced. We were greeted and were given notice sheets as we processed in later, but service sheets were by then in short supply and we had to cross the nave to find an usher who still had some.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard wooden pews with underutilized (folk stood for the prayers) drop-down wooden kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A police escort led the procession through the streets of San Diego. At the head of the procession were the Super Sonic Samba School, one of several groups worldwide that carry on the Brazilian samba parade tradition, followed by the robed clergy and choir, and the congregation, all carrying palms. The samba school made an interesting change from the traditional donkey procession. Light conversation replaced the attempts to keep pace with a processional hymn, and the whole atmosphere was one of joy.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words after the procession were: "Let us go forth in peace; in the name of Christ. Amen," followed by an entrance motet.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

An 18 page specially printed leaflet. We were also given extensive notes on the motets and on the passion gospel, which was sung instead of read, according to seasonal tradition.

What musical instruments were played?

The Super Sonic Samba School used steel drums in the procession, which contrasted vastly in style with the organ accompanying the Pacific Academy of Ecclesiastical Music. The academy is resident at the cathedral and exists "to provide a solution to the quantitative decline in church music and musicians, and excite as many people as possible about the beauties of excellent church music." The organ, a magnificent Aeolian-Skinner instrument, was installed in 1969 and incorporates elements from previous organs.

Did anything distract you?

The attractive mini-skirted dancers of the Super Sonic Samba School could be said to be distracting, but seemed to fit the joyful occasion. Later in the service, as the joy of the procession gave way to the agony of the passion, my attention was at one point taken by a small boy in front who put his fingers in his ears during one of the motets. This was perhaps more amusing than seriously distracting.

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

Quite high but not spikey. Processions, sung liturgy and a fair amount of choral bits for choir only. Incense in the outside procession, but not during the eucharistic prayer – I gather things were toned down for Lent. The choral tradition is one of the greatest attractions of the cathedral for people over an extended area.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes is my best estimate. I had not planned to Mystery Worship this service and so had not worn my watch, but the presence of the samba school was too good an opportunity to go unreported.

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

10 – Dean Richardson is a great preacher: clear, audible, logical, rooted in scripture and Christian tradition. This was core Christianity; I was expecting something more liberal.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

"Paradox Sunday." The joy of Palm Sunday contrasts sharply with the pain of the crucifixion. After the triumph of the procession, we hear the passion story. Bringing both together is an important part of Christianity. Society and some churches only seem to want celebration. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against "cheap grace." We cannot claim to be a Christian nation if we bask in the self indulgence of a prosperity gospel without addressing serious social problems. We need to return to basics and heed Jesus' summary of the law and prophets by loving God through loving neighbor. Filled with the Spirit, we should walk with Jesus through Holy Week. By seeking Jesus out this week, we will better celebrate Easter at the other side.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Super Sonic Samba School – especially their joyful performance at the end of the procession. Also the motets and Passion sung by the choir.

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

Well... the Super Sonic Samba School – for some it might seem too much fun or just a bit irreligious. Also the motets and passion sung by the choir – it seemed to me they lacked a bit of sparkle that morning. I am told that they can be better. Maybe the little boy with his fingers in his ears knew something that we didn't.

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

We went up to the great hall and spoke to a number of folks. I had to make the initial move, but having done so most people proved friendly enough. One of the greeters made the first move in a longer conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

American coffee (well this isn't Milan, and after a long service it tasted good), both regular and decaffeinated. There were also several kinds of juice, cakes, biscuits – in short, quite a spread. I don't know if it was fair trade, but fair trade was on sale at a stall next to the welcome stall.

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

9 – If I lived here I should be very interested in spite of my more conservative background.

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

Very much so. I was pleased to see such a contrast in worship style between the samba school and traditional choral items.

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

Hopefully the sermon (it will be published on the website) but probably the samba dancers.

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