Mystery Worshipper: San Franciscan Episcopalian
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 June 2007, 11:00am
A very nice neo-gothic building, taking up an entire city block in the Nob Hill neighborhood, along with the attached school. Work began on the cathedral in 1928 and it was finished in 1964. It appears to be made of stone but is in fact made of steel reinforced concrete that has been beaten to achieve a stone-like effect. The interior is dominated by big, pretty stained glass windows in celestial blues and vibrant reds and yellows, some of which depict modern figures such as Albert Einstein, poet Robert Frost, and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. There are also frescoes showing the history of San Francisco and scenes from the life of San Francisco's patron saint, St Francis of Assisi. I quite liked it.
Well, it is the bishop's church. The cathedral not only draws tourists from all over and serves as a gathering place in times of civic celebration or distress, but is also home to a lively and diverse congregation. Organizations and activities too numerous to include here are all listed on their website. To single out just one – on the eve of any state or federal execution, Grace Cathedral organizes a prayer vigil either at the site of the execution or on the steps of the cathedral.
Nob Hill is sort of an "old-money" neighborhood, one of San Francisco's most fashionable. Some parts of the neighborhood feel frozen in time. There are vintage barber shops, old corner coffee shops and cocktail lounges from bygone decades in many places on the Hill, co-existing with modern luxury hotels and trendy shopping boutiques. There are lots of tourists, especially on a nice weekend.
The Revd Mary E. Haddad, canon pastor, presided at the eucharist, assisted by the Revd Nina Pickerrell, deacon. The preacher was the Revd Mark E. Stranger, canon precentor.
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist
How full was the building?
I'd say, oh, 200 to 250 people. So a bit more than half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I came almost an hour early, so not unexpectedly, no. People who arrived a bit later were generally greeted with a smile, a handshake, a handout, and a moment's chitchat.
Was your pew comfortable?
Quite comfortable. Well padded seat, not too soft. No fold-down kneelers though, just cushions, which I have an entirely irrational hatred for.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet, actually. No loud talking or laughing, just occasional soft murmurs. Not distracting in the least.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"May God be with you.""And also with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
As far as I could tell everyone used the handouts, but the 1982 Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer were available.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The cathedral's 1934 Aeolian-Skinner instrument has over the years been a favorite of many recording artists.
Did anything distract you?
Really, only one thing. During communion both of the girls in line in front of me were wearing jean miniskirts. Actually, make that mini-miniskirts. They couldn't have been more than 12, and it was... distracting. I'm 17 and I can't believe any of my semi-peers would wear that in a church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Cheerfully reserved, if that makes sense. Fairly by-the-book, but it seemed like there was really a lot of thought and feeling behind it, not like everyone was just going through the motions. The hymns were sung with feeling, and remarkably well, too.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I'm going to say 15 to 20 minutes. I can't say exactly because I think I might have fallen asleep at one point. Yes, it was that bad.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – I feel terrible saying this, but that was the worst sermon I have ever heard, bar none. He was an all-right speaker, the sermon itself was just bad. And he seemed so terribly sincere, too. I wanted to like it, I did.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Where to begin? He started out with how Elijah might be called a whiner for asking God to kill him after being chased out of town. But then suddenly he read several pages from Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a murder mystery of sorts in which the main character is autistic. From there he veered into the gospel story of the man who has his demons driven into pigs by Jesus, and how the man might just have been misunderstood. Then it was back to The Curious Incident. So what was the sermon about? Accepting differences in people? I think so but I wouldn't swear to it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Shortly before the sermon, the congregation sang hymn 675, "Take up your cross, the Saviour said." It was sung beautifully, and with emotion. It's also exactly the kind of religious song I like. It's possible I wouldn't have been so let down by the sermon if I hadn't been fairly glowing after this song.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon. Hell is long-winded preachers who can't make smooth (or at least logical) segues.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one really stopped to chat, though I did get some smiles thrown my way by people on the way out. I think that might be because quite a few people were going to be marching in the Gay Pride parade, and the service let out just as the parade was going to start. I had to run to make it, myself.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I have no idea, though I would assume quite nice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Overall, I liked it, but it's just a little too big for me. I'd like some place where there's no danger of getting lost and starving to death on the way to and from the toilets. I like my churches snug.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I suppose it did.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The horrible, horrible sermon.