Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego
Church: Grace Cathedral
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 May 2006, 11:00am
There's no way that any visitor or tourist is going to miss Grace Cathedral. It is set atop Nob Hill and is easily accessible by cable car. There has been a Grace Church of one sort or another in San Francisco since the days of the gold rush. The land on which the present building sits was donated by the Crocker family, of railroad and banking fame, after their Nob Hill mansion was destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Work began on the cathedral in 1928. Designed in the French Gothic style by Lewis Hobart, who was instrumental in rebuilding much of San Francisco after the tragedy of 1906, the cathedral was completed in 1964 as the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the United States.
Just about every age and race seemed to be represented in this large congregation. In a city which embraces "all sorts and conditions," everyone is obviously made welcome in this community.
Well, it's just plain beautiful! Think of San Francisco and immediately Nob Hill springs to mind, with its cable car line, lush cascades of bougainvillea, and genteel apartment buildings with their wedding-cake facades. We arrived very early, and so we spent time in the delightful little park in front of the steps up to the main entrance of the cathedral. The park was filled with parents and children playing games, and a group of elderly Asian ladies exercising their muscles with sweeping, elegant gestures.
The celebrant was the Rev. Mark E. Stenger, canon precentor, assisted by the Rev. Margaret Deeths, deacon. The preacher was the Rev. Anthony Turney, and Kathryn Kirkpatrick served as lay assistant. Music was provided by the men of the cathedral choir led by Dr Jeffrey Smith, director of music.
What was the name of the service?The Holy Eucharist and (later the same day) Evensong
How full was the building?
For the eucharist the cathedral was pretty well full – around 600 people, I'd say. Evensong was a more intimate affair, with 30 or so congregants.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly "Good morning!"
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable modern seating.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Surprisingly quiet and attentive for such a large crowd. A strangely disembodied children's choir were making some pretty interesting sounds, but we had to strain to hear what they were singing. Although they were not announced in the bulletin, we later learned that they were visiting from Oregon. It was a nice gesture to invite them to sing before the service, but I wished I'd known who they were and what they were performing ahead of time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Alleluia! Christ is risen." We were treated to a stunning musical opener from the choir in procession. It was Psalm 47 sung to a chant by FC Mann – a terrific arrangement, beautifully sung.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1982 Hymnal and 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
What musical instruments were played?
A superb organ.
Did anything distract you?
My eye kept going back to the mission statement at the beginning of the order of service. It seemed so woolly and touchy, feely. "We believe in one God, known to us in Jesus Christ, also known by different names in different traditions... We are a house of prayer, worship and service for everyone, welcoming all who seek an inclusive community of love." I much prefer the "I believe" of the historic creeds to this kind of stuff!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The eucharist was very formal – incense and all – and quite high church. But where was the confession? In the final prayer we asked God to "send us forth a people forgiven," but without a prayer of absolution that might be difficult to achieve! The evensong was in the finest British cathedral tradition, with some excellent singing from the men of the cathedral choir. It was held in the stunning Chapel of Grace. The service setting was by John Shepherd, and the anthem was Byrd's Viri Galilaei. The singers showed a wide vocabulary of musical emotion, from an upbeat Magnificat and a mellifluous Nunc dimittis, to some splendidly energetic Byrd to end the proceedings.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Excellent public speaker, well-prepared and easy on the ear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
(This sermon can be heard on the cathedral's website.) In the Gospel for the fifth Sunday of Easter, we are forced back to the upper room. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus prayed for those who believed in him – not those who planned to kill him. We are called to stick up for God, to love our enemy, turn the other cheek, to pick up our cross and to sell all that we have. That's why Jesus prayed for us. We are called into "rough company." Being a Christian can come at great cost. Think of believers in North Korea or Palestine or Northern Ireland. Think, too, of gay Christians. Too many Christians spend more time thinking about what they are not, rather than what they are. Twenty-five years ago, HIV AIDS was first diagnosed. Two hundred people from this place have died. But people left this safe space and visited them in their sickness. That's why Jesus prayed for us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being in such a beautiful building, listening to and participating in lovely music, and knowing that hundreds of people, like me, want to join together in a great act of worship.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The applause offered to the children from Oregon who sang before the service was enbarrassingly unneccessary. And there was one very bumpy moment in the proceedings – the notices. They were long and tedious. Surely all this information can be more easily assimilated by the members in printed rather than spoken form. What's more, since probably quite a high proportion of the congregation were visitors, the whole procedure is an irrelavency.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
From the direction in which the crowd was moving, we were obviously headed toward a substantial coffee hour near the exit to the cathedral. I wished it had been signed more clearly, but we simply followed the folks. We enjoyed conversations with a number of parishioners, including a charming gentleman who stood behind a stall specially set up for newcomers.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was so engaged in conversation I forgot to take any libation! Besides, at the time, lunch seemed more to the point... And we intended to come back for evensong.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – This is my kind of cathedral!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That San Francisco is not only a beautiful city to look at, it's an even more beautiful city in which to worship.