|197: St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, California|
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Mystery Worshipper: The Waiter.
The church: St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, California.
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.