Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: The Reverend Doctor B
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 22 July 2006, 10:30am

The building

Grace Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral west of the Mississippi River. Sitting atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, it is a monument to faith in one of the most secular cities in the United States. It is a stunningly beautiful neo-Gothic church, notable for spectacular stained glass (including one window featuring Albert Einstein), as well as its famous labyrinths both inside and outside.

The church

Grace Cathedral is both the seat of the Bishop of California and the home of a large worshipping congregation. It is well known for its inclusiveness (all are welcome at the table, not only the baptized) and fine preaching as well as a first-rate music program.

The neighborhood

Grace is surrounded by affluence. Some of the apartments nearby rent for more than $3000 per month; a block away is the Mark Hopkins Hotel where it is probably impossible to get a room for less than $250 per night. Across the street is the exclusive Union Club. But just down the hill is San Francisco's Chinatown and not far away are the strip clubs of Polk Street.

The cast

The presider for the first part of the service was the Rt Rev. Henry Bainbridge, Bishop of Idaho and president of Province 8, representing the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The presider for the remainder of the service was the Rt Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop Suffragan of Alabama, who was being instituted as the eighth Bishop of California. There were at least 16 other bishops, including the Rt Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop-Elect, and the preacher, the Rt Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, as well as numerous deacons, priests, and lay persons assisting in the service.

What was the name of the service?

The Recognition and Investiture of the Rt Rev. Marc Handley Andrus as the Eighth Bishop of California

How full was the building?

The building was almost completely full; an estimated 3,000 people were in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

It was much too crowded to expect a personal greeting. An usher gave me a copy of the service book (much too large to be called a leaflet).

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was comfortable, but San Francisco was in the midst of a heat wave and it was uncomfortably warm in the cathedral.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The pre-service atmosphere was noisy, festive, and full of excitement.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"There is one body and one Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The only book we needed was the service book, which contained the entire text of the service, including hymns, in both English and Spanish.

What musical instruments were played?

The instruments included organ, brass, lots of drums, and perhaps a synthesizer.

Did anything distract you?

The only thing distracting was the heat.

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

It was worship that could only take place in San Francisco. The liturgical party was led up the aisle by Chinese dragon dancers. The lessons were read in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. Liturgical dancers danced out the story of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ. The liturgical leaders represented every aspect of the Episcopal Church, from an 80-year-old deacon from Alabama who assisted the newly instituted bishop at the altar, to the young people of the Diocese of California (wearing T shirts that read "Bishop Marc rocks!") who sprinkled the congregation with water from the font during the renewal of baptismal vows.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – The sermon was at least an 8 and possibly a 9. Bishop Curry is renowned as a preacher. This was the first time I had heard him and I was a little skeptical, but he completely won me over. What was most impressive is that he infused the African-American style of preaching with absolutely solid content. The sermon was full of humor. The bishop dubbed Nicodemus "Nick at Night" (a reference to a popular cable television channel offering children's programming by day and offbeat entertainment at night) for going to Jesus under cover of darkness. He said that Nicodemus must have been the first Episcopalian.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Bishop Curry entitled the sermon "Keep the Faith." His text was John 20.1: "Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb..." The bishop pointed out that John is the only evangelist to say that the women came to the tomb while it was still dark. Darkness in John is always a metaphor for evil. The sermon was punctuated with exhortations to the Episcopal Church to keep the faith as Mary Magdalene did.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

With the exception of the heat, the entire service was heavenly. There was remarkable enthusiasm among the people of the Diocese of California for their new bishop. When Bishop Bainbridge asked if they recognized Bishop Marc as their bishop and would they receive him, the entire congregation shouted "We will" in such a way that the walls seemed to shake.

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

The heat was oppressive.

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

As I pointed out earlier, this service was unusual in its size and purpose. Nevertheless, people were helpful. When worshippers clogged the central doors, ushers directed people to the side doors. Helpful signs were everywhere.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Following the service there was a street festival that included every conceivable ethnic food.

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

8 – I would be happy to worship in Grace Cathedral on a regular basis, but a service such as this is far too elaborate and costly to stage more than once a decade or so.

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

Everything about the service (except the heat) made me glad to be a Christian.

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

I will long remember the sermon, the music, and the enthusiasm for the new Bishop of California, but the one moment that was most memorable was when Bishop Marc was greeted by representatives of the diocese. One of them was a child who seemed to be no more than four years old, and when Bishop Marc bent down to give him a hug, I was so moved that I wept.

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