The most dreaded words in the Churbuck lexicon are: “Everybody get on your feet and put your hands together.” I am an unwilling, stolid, and confused participant in most group activities.
From square-dancing to collegiate acapella singing groups – David Churbuck is not your man. I dislike physical contact with strangers, am an awkward wooden hugger, air-kiss Europeans like a head injury victim, and get embarrassed by physical therapy sessions and trips to the chiropractor. I am, in short, the perfect repressed WASP who is content to let others sing and dance and who is happy to suffer in silence rather than submit to the sketchy intimacy of a massage or the group conviviality of line dancing.
My wife and children know this, and love to torment me in volunteering me for trips to the stage to be sawn in half by the magician. I have a severe autonomic physical reaction to this stress – a sort of perspiring performance anxiety – which escalates the more I am exhorted to sing, which I am reluctant to do as my only comfortable singing voice in somewhere in the key of Kermit the Frog.
Being an intrepid liturgical explorer, I woke early this morning in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and decided to knock off this week’s church visit by simply going to the closest church in the neighborhood. Hence today was my first walk-to-church experience, one I am most grateful for because it underscores the founding question behind this project: I wonder what goes on inside of that place on any given Sunday?
St. Gregory of Nyssa is an Episcopal Church, and as a confirmed but lapsed Episcopalian I will attest there is no other Episcopalian church like it in my agnostic experience. Located on the corner of Mariposa and DeHaro, the shingle style architecture is Slavic in principle and gorgeous in execution. An interesting series of roofs and gables and round steeples with medieval roofs that put me in the mind of some Anatoylian fourth century church in Cappadocia. Built a mere 15 years ago, but founded in 1978 by Donald Schell and Rick Fabian, the parish was founded, according to its website:
“… as a special mission of the Diocese of California. The young congregation pioneered the Open Table in the Episcopal church, inviting everyone to communion whether baptized or not, following Jesus’ teaching and example. St. Gregory’s also began to explore the lay diaconate, congregational dance, unaccompanied singing as ways to involve the congregation in worship. Over the past 30 years All Saints Company has worked with St. Gregory of Nyssa church to extend their learned principles of creating good liturgy and vibrant community to a worldwide audience though conferences, gatherings, publications. In 2007 Rick and Donald transitioned out of leadership of St. Gregory’s in order to devote themselves full-time to the All Saints Company mission of resourcing the church with new ways to think about liturgy and community”
I attended the early morning liturgy, dressed in the customary Brooks Bros. standard issue uniform of blue blazer, button down shirt, loafers, and walked through the foggy late December morning alone down deserted streets, past the Anchor Steam brewery to the church at the base of the hill. While cool, the morning air was humid from the thunderstorm the night before, and my glasses fogged when I entered the main hall. A few people milled around, all dressed casually, one in a Hawaiian shirt, another in a dramatic poncho sort of thing, making me further stick out as an alien visitor from the cold East coast. I set to signing myself into the guest book, filling out an adhesive name tag, and collecting pamphlets for background information to use in the writing of this entry. To the right, under the main steeple, was an altar ranked by rows of chairs facing each other, in the manner of a Friend’s meeting (Quaker). An immense mural behind the altar depicted (I assume) Saint Gregory, an early theologian who was a key presence in the development of the church back in the days of the Council of Nicea, the concept of the Trinity, and the rise of Christian philosophy to displace the prevalent Greek philosophy that shaped intellectual and spiritual life in the earliest days of the church. I have no insights into early liturgical practices, but there was an obvious attempt to make the service a simple and fundamental experience. To wit: when the rector, Rev. Paul Fromberg, sang his benedictions, the congregation gently hummed along, providing the music with their voices. Sitting beside the rector was a gentleman — I assume the presider — who struck a series of metal bowls with a stick and rang a pair of little finger bells to mark shifts in the service. The hymnal was a printed pamphlet for the Christmas holidays. The reading was from the Gospel according to John, read by a woman:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God..”
There was a long contemplative silence following the gospel reading, and then the Reverend asked the congregation what word came to mind to them. “Rain” “Peace” “Silence” – it was early in the service and I tried to maintain the practice of not directly participating, so I offered up no word of my own, but there was no direct expectation that I would.
The Reverend delivered a sermon on the definition of the Word, how there was debate over what that Word was. And then spoke about the gospel being interpreted by some scholars to be not about Christ but the definition of God. He spoke about God as being Light – and without light there was no meaning. I liked this simple message. There was silence after the sermon to let his words settle in, and then again the congregation offered up some free associations of what was in their minds. Again I did not participate. The Lord’s Prayer was sung – much as it was sung on Christmas Eve at Grace Cathedral – but some of the words were unique to St. Gregory’s liturgy, but for the life of me I can’t remember which words were unique – I think “trespasses” was swapped out for an alternative.
We sang a hymn. I forget which (I felt too in the middle of things to play reporter and take notes) but it was a Christmas hymn. I was perspiring and self-conscious. A dog lay on the concrete floor beside me. About two dozen people were gathered around the altar. The bell ringer/presider bade us to stand and dance our way into the large hall where I first entered. We were given a short dance lesson – right hand on the shoulder of the person to our left, then a two step forward-one step back short of conga line into and around a table – Christ’s Table – in the main nave. I am seriously challenged by this type of activity, something a four-year old could master, and so I shuffled and lurched my way out of the seating area, a bit overwhelmed by the amazing murals of ninety dancing saints that ringed the tall ceilings and arches of the church. We sang another Christmas carol, and off we went, dancing and singing, two of my least favorite verbs.
With some relief we finished the third verse and I no longer had to pretend to be dancing when in fact all I was doing was mumble and stumble. The rector, presider, and another reverend gathered around a table where a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and two chalices were placed. We greeted each other, and I hugged and was hugged several times, my proffered handshake ignored by the Reverend Fromberg who tut-tutted me and gave me the full hug treatment. Communion was served, and despite my custom of not participating in any altar ceremonies, there was no escaping participation as communion was delivered from one parishioner to the next. The Reverend dropped a bit of bread into my hands, my neighbor gave me a sip of wine, and I took the cup and did the same for my neighbor. We made the sign of the cross on each other’s palms.
Then we danced again while singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. This dance was much more complex, involving side stepping, and left foot behind, then uplifted knee and a showgirl kick maneuver. I was lost before we started, but off we went, round and around, singing and dancing.
- That this was the most interactive and participatory church experience yet is a massive understatement
- This was the earliest service in terms of time
- Silence is golden, and I especially appreciated the silent moments in the liturgy
- I had a nice chat with the Reverend after the service and explained the project. He was impressed but a bit shocked someone would go for 52 churches in a row. I reminded him it was no different than his job, only with more variety
- The liturgical thinking behind St. Gregory’s is obviously well thought out and executed. I need to do so more reading on the method and philosophy as this was not a traditional Episcopal service, yet, I sense, it was an attempt to return to a very early participatory form of worship
- The later morning service is apparently more active in terms of dancing and singing according to Reverend Fromberg
- The murals of the dancing saints include, among their numbers: Lady Godiva, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, William Blake, and many others, including St. Gregory of course
Next week: still in San Francisco. I may try to visit the Zen Center this week, a Mosque on Friday, and the Latin Mass in North Beach on Sunday.