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197: St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, California
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St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco
Mystery Worshipper: The Waiter.
The church: St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, California.
Denomination: Episcopalian.
The building: Brown shingled, with ample light and high ceilings. The worship space is subtly separated into two rooms: a rectangular room for the liturgy of the word and a large round space surrounding the altar table for the liturgy of the table. In the room for celebrating the sacrament of the word, chairs for the congregations are arrayed in two groups facing each other across a long narrow ambon. At the one end, the celebrant and assistants sit on a raised dais, in front of a wonderful icon mural depicting Gregory preaching and Christ and the Soul approaching each other in marriage above an image of the church building. At the other end of the ambon is a reading desk, a table for a stationary incense burner, and three stands of tall Ethiopian processional crosses. The round space surrounding the altar table is equipped with a wooden labyrinth floor and hanging oil altar lamps. A partially completed icon mural depicting dancing saints rings the room.
The neighbourhood: The neighborhood is unremarkable – a San Francisco mix of residential and industrial buildings at the bottom of Potrero Hill, next to the 101 freeway.
The cast: Donald Schell was the celebrant and preacher. Richard Fabian was one of the deacons. There were four or five others, also vested in bright tie-dye.
What was the name of the service?
Liturgy. It was the principal liturgy for the Sunday. There is also a vigil liturgy on Saturday and an 8.00am liturgy.

How full was the building?
There was room for a few more, but almost every seat seemed to be taken. An inspiring mix of children, teenagers and adults. The congregation was fairly monochromatic, with a light sprinkling of black and Asian faces.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
David greeted me as soon as I entered. He was warm and friendly and eager to engage me in conversation.

Was your pew comfortable?
The worship space is outfitted with padded cathedral chairs. I didn't notice them during the service. Since there is so much movement during the service, I didn't notice having to stand during the consecration, either.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Definitely chatty. My first inclination upon entering a church is to sit quietly. At St Gregory, one seems to seek God's presence in the gentle conversation of arriving parishioners as they gather around the altar table. After the opening acclamation and a preview of a few local liturgical customs, the congregation then processes into the rectangular room for the sacrament of the word.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I will arise and go to Jesus" were the opening words sung by the choir. After this introit, the celebrant said "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A spiral-bound service music book published by St Gregory, with one insert of hymns and a carol.

What musical instruments were played?
The cantor used a tuning fork to get a pitch. All the singing was a capella. And there were also bells.

Did anything distract you?
Despite the numerous liturgical practices and paraphernalia peculiar to St Gregory's, I found only a few things distracting. Attempting to step dance while keeping one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of me, not losing shoulder contact with the hand of the person behind me, all the while holding the service book and singing unfamiliar words to an unfamiliar tune: this was distracting. Using Mohammed's name liturgically was also distracting, as was the unambiguous universal invitation to share the holy mysteries. Twice, the invitation to communion was extended, "to everyone, without exception." But taken all together, the mass, while unusual, was conducted with an integrity and sense of rightness not often found.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was very conversational and matter-of-fact. Unless the liturgical step dancing or the unfamiliar service music was unsettling, there was little to make you feel uncomfortable or out of place. St Gregory's goes to great lengths to explain what will happen next so to make you feel at home. They largely succeed.

St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 30 minutes: 12 for the sermon, delivered by Donald Schell, followed by four or five minutes of silence. The silence was introduced with the striking of large, deep-sounding, Buddhist liturgical bells and was concluded with the single sounding of small, clear-ringing, finger cymbals. This was followed by 10 minutes of impromptu reflections from self-selected congregants.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 or 9. Surprisingly for an open-mike time, the parishioners who spoke rate about a 7. Fr. Schell spoke extemporaneously in a loud, clear voice. He looked at his hearers, seeming to read deeply their reactions to his words. These rooms are well built for public speaking: no amplification is necessary.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Fr. Schell's sermon was built on the text for the day – the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven by the whirlwind and leaving behind his cloak and a double measure of his spirit for Elisha. It dealt with the leave-taking of prophets and leaders and how they hand on their work. During the open mike, two parishioners spoke of recent deaths of important people in their lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Almost all of the liturgy. But especially kissing the Gospel Book as it passed through the congregation in procession, accompanied by bright colored, twirling, tinkling liturgical canopies. Entering the space for the liturgy of the word through a thicket of Ethiopian processional crosses, festooned with bright bands of cloths. Responding to the liturgical bells, eastern and western.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Attempting to pry away from a parishioner who took his cheerful greeting ministry a little too grimly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Looking lost? No chance for that! Upon arrival everyone is equipped with a name tag. Round, laminated buttons for the regulars, white sticky-back name tags for the newbies. First-timers' names are written in black ink, other visitors' names in red. Visitors' names are recorded in a book. If this sounds calculating, it is. But it is performed with remarkable grace. Visitors, and there were many (a quarter of the congregation?), are approached by parishioners, greeted by name, and asked where they hail from and what interests them. St Gregory's takes its welcoming ministry very seriously. It is hard work given the number of visitors they get.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was adequate church-coffee-hour coffee, with cream (not creme). The coffee pot, together with the sugar, cream and stirrers was placed on the altar table – no accident, that! Another table was laid out with matzoh, bits of good cinnamon-raisin bagels, luscious yellow plums, cherry tomatoes, cheese, corn chips with dip. Very sensible finger food.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9. Their intentional emphasis on building and sustaining an earthly community as an approach to the divine is powerful. But I would miss the traditional, fixed forms of the daily office and the mass as a way to venture to the same threshold.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Just about every part and in very compelling ways.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Seeing the icons of Paul Erdos, Mohandas Gandhi and Malcolm X still sporting their spectacles as they danced the heavenly dance in the icon mural above the altar table. This is a church for the 21st century. One young parishioner I spoke with was blissfully ignorant of the doctrinal wars of the last 40 years. The idea of fighting about women priests, divorce, abortion, blessing gay unions in the church, or the schisms these fights cause was completely foreign to him. He thought that saying some Episcopalian priests and their congregations had "Gone to Rome" meant they had gotten on a plane, gone for a visit, and returned, ready to show you their snapshots! What a profound blessing for that man and for his parish.

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