St Gregory of Nyssa

I came here on my second Sunday in San Francisco on the recommendation of Br Robert of the Franciscans. It is a parish engaged in liturgical experiment over the last 20 years with the permission of the diocesan bishop, worshipping in a church built and furnished for their liturgical requirements.  Plenty of space, with distinctive “nave” and “sanctuary” areas for the liturgy of the word and of the Eucharist.  Ceiling murals depict the “dancing saints”, not all of them Christian.

I forgot that I had been advised to arrive 15 minutes early for an introduction to new worshippers, and got there on the dot of 10:45. But no hurry, people were still milling around, and I was offered a safe place to store my rucksack. I filled out a name label with a red pen to show that I was a newbie, and stuck it to my jersey, but then decided to take the jersey off and forgot to transfer the badge.

Students of liturgy justify the use of incense by saying that worship should involve all the senses. Incense was used here, but the sense which I noticed was touch, and not only at the peace. Touching the gospel book as the deacon or priest brought it round is based on a Jewish tradition. We were told “if you can’t reach the book, put your hand on the shoulder of someone who can”, and the same idea of blessing transferred by touch seemed to happen spontaneously at the end of the service.

Periods of silence after the readings were introduced by drumming and concluded with a gong or singing bowl, a good nonverbal way of defining the silence.

Chanting plays a greater part here than in most Anglican services. Joyful chanting of one psalm, with a skilled cantor, a simple response, and modern musical notation, but, all the same, it reminded me of how much I longed for familiar hymns after three days in the monastery.

Today there were plenty of hymns, but only two were familiar, and those were sung while “dancing” from the “nave” to the “sanctuary” and round the altar.  It was a good job I knew the words, as I was too busy trying to keep in step to look at the A4 sheet of buttercup yellow paper on which the words were printed.  The other hymns and liturgical music, mostly written specially for St Gregory’s, were bound in a 100+ page, comb-bound A4 worship book, and the congregation joined in with enthusiasm and in harmony.

The large choir sang two anthems.  The first was in Latin and not introduced, and I have no idea what it was about.  The second was based on Jacob’s dream, which was the first reading in last week’s lectionary (Michelmas) so maybe they learned it for last week and liked it so much that they repeated it.  The leitmotiv “How awesome is this place” really matched the building with the dancing saints.

Most churches here were celebrating St Francis today by blessing the pets – the cathedral at all three services.  Here, the Preface to the Eucharistic prayer drew heavily on the Canticle of the Sun, and the last part of the prayer on the so-called prayer of St Francis, a skilled and effective piece of liturgical adaptation.  Instead of blessing pets, they blessed seeds and combined that with blessing of those with birthdays “for the years to come” – the song worked for both the seeds and the people.

When a mystery worshipper submits a review to the Ship of Fools web site, one of the questions is “What happened when you stood around feeling lost after the service?”  The answer is “Not a lot.”  Perhaps it would have been different had I kept my name-tag, or if I had made more of an effort. But hardly anyone noticed me until I had donned my rucksack, and the only decent conversation I had was in the church porch during a shower, with a man in a wheelchair waiting for his transport.  I said I had been to the cathedral the week before.  He said, “Quite a different kind of service” to which I replied, to his surprise, “Yes, they were much friendlier at the cathedral.”

On reflection, I noticed that at the cathedral they were interested in my story, at St Gregory’s they wanted to tell me theirs.  I came away with a few ideas, but the joy of the service had worn off in the coffee hour and I needed to hit the road.