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598: All Saints, San Francisco, California
Other reports | Comment on this report
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: All Saints, San Francisco, California.
Denomination: Episcopalian.
The building: The church fits so well into its suburban setting that you could easily mistake it for one of the wooden houses. Built in 1903, it is raised on a plinth and entered by a long flight of steps. Inside all is wood. The low ceiling gives an intimate atmosphere, slightly reminiscent of a spacious village hall. The wood is relieved by stained glass in every window, which has the advantage of blocking out views of the houses built right up against the church walls on either side. It is a welcoming space.
The church: This is a neighbourhood church in an inner suburb. Many of the congregation arrived on foot, presumably from nearby.
The neighbourhood: The church is in the heart of the Haight Ashbury district where in the 1960s the hippies roamed with flowers in their hair. Since then the area has been heavily gentrified and the old wooden houses have mostly been expensively refurbished. While this is good for the future of the houses, it does make for less lively street life. A large student population and the easygoing style of San Francisco prevent it from being dull, however. An older male member of the congregation was wearing a long batik dress and others ran the full gamut from preppie smart to ultra casual. Nobody would feel out of place here.
The cast: Rev. Kenneth Schmidt, Rector, assisted by three servers.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass 10.00am on Whitsunday (Pentecost).

How full was the building?
About one-third full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were welcomed personally and given an admirably easy-to-follow service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
Like everything else in the building it was wood. It passed muster.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was thoughtful with little conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?" The service began with the Pentecostal renewal of baptismal vows.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Episcopal Hymnal and the Episcopal Book of Prayer were used, though most of the words were in the service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, which was beside the small choir at the back of the church.

Did anything distract you?
A woman wearing bright red hot pants and a skimpy bright red top arrived late and made her way noisily to the front pew. From there, she ostentatiously looked over her shoulder every minute throughout the service to check audience reaction. Members of the congregation, I noticed later, had been invited to wear red for Pentecost.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern catholic: A strong sense of liturgy but not fussy for the sake of it. At the beginning of the service we all turned to face the font for the traditional renewal of our baptismal vows. This little movement, a small thing in itself, helped bind the congregation together as a group. Strikingly, the liturgy was a brilliant mix of tradition and creativity. After the first verse of the Gospel, read in English by the priest, a member of the congregation started to read the same text in Dutch. After a few more sentences another member of the congregation started to read in French, and so on. There were no fewer than twelve languages: a canon of gospels that at its height became a quite unintelligible babble. The text (John 20:19-23) concerns the Apostles being possessed of the Holy Spirit but this was no speaking in tongues; merely a divine cacophony of people speaking in their own mother tongues. San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city, after all. It was an eloquent testimony of human division by language, but also of unity. This reading was, for reasons I cannot entirely fathom, a very moving experience.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 Minutes.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Inclusiveness and the need to reach across language and cultural barriers. This led onto the launch of the church's centennial appeal to raise $100,000 to provide disabled access.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cacophonous Gospel. Perhaps not heaven, but in the upper room maybe.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the hymns, which started with "Like the murmur of the dove's song," and continued in similar sentimental vein.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The rector spoke at length to everyone as they left and was welcoming to us, two strangers in town. Coffee was available somewhere in the basement and we were invited. As we were late we didn't stay.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
If I lived in San Francisco, maybe.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The multi lingual reading of the Gospel.
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