A visit to a progressive church


I recently attended a Sunday morning service at St. Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco. It is a very innovative church that has deviated in many ways from the traditional Episocopal style of worship. Instead of using the Book of Commmon Prayer, the two co-founders of the church have created a new form of worship that incorporates, among other things, dancing by the worshipers.

The service includes no confession of creeds, no confession of sins, and, in addition, communion is open to all "who want it". Visitors are asked to wear nametags so that they can be addressed by name when given bread during Holy Communion. The wine is passed from person to person. The person next to me said "the blood of Christ" as he handed the wine to me. I could not bring myself to say this when I handed the wine to the next person, which was probably a faux pas of some sort, but then again, no one actually instructed the visitors to say anything in particular. I was not necessarily in the mood to partake of Communion anyway, but it is not exactly easy to back out of it, since everyone is standing in a circle around the altar at this point, and it would almost seem rude not to participate. Thus it almost felt as if participation in the Eucharist was mandatory.

In general, visitors are made to feel quite welcome from the very beginning. For example, in addition to the reason for nametags mentioned above, I also noted that, as the attenders stood in an entry area before the service, various robed individuals came out and shook hands and welcomed us. Another example of their welcoming spirit is that, prior to taking up the collection,they ask first time visitors not to put money in the plate; instead, they suggest that we can contribute financially the next time we come, if there is a next time.

In some ways, though, the service can be daunting for a visitor. There is no printed program of service, so you never exactly know what is going to happen next. The music is totaly a capella, and, for those of us who are musically untrained, singing can be a little difficult without any background instruments to guide us. (The music itself, I must admit, didn't do much for me.) At one point in the service, individuals stated their concerns or blessings or prayer requests; after each such statement, the congregation would say in unison a statement, either praising God or something else appropriate. The attenders knew frome experience to do this; as a visitor, I was unfamiliar with this ritual.

After the sermon, we were supposed to walk towards the altar, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, using a particular type of step. It was a little confusing to me--in part because I was spacing out a bit just as the priest was giving the instructions--and the woman in front of me, who was also a first time visitor, started to move too early. The man behind me gently held onto to my shoulder to let me know that I should stay where I was, offering a subtle correction that was very helpful.

After the service, I spoke to one person who said he had been attending for several years and that he loved it there. There were maybe 50-60 people at the service, and they have an earlier service as well, so the community is fairly vibrant. This church has managed to create a following with its innovative style. Still, it is a part of a larger denomination--the Episcopal Church. I wonder how many people who regularly attend (because they are drawn to this style of service) also feel a broader denominational loyalty, given that the denomination as a whole typically has Sunday morning services that are much more traditional.

Overall, I enjoyed the service, and I appreciated the thought that was put into building this church community. It probably doesn't exactly match my personal style and it is not going to be my church home, but it does represent, in my view, a very positive effort. As I stood near the altar during the Eucharist, I looked up at the wall and saw paintings of various "dancing saints", depicted with halos surrounding their heads. Among those dancing on the wall were Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, and Malcom X. I had to smile. Even if it isn't the church home for me, it has a great sense of joy and fun and warmth.


Cynthia said...

Missed you and your words. Glad you're back.

Even though it's different, it still sounds like high church liturgy, in that it is repeated and one learns by experience, which is very different if one is more familiar with the free church tradition. It sounds interesting enough to want to experience that form of worship, but I fear that I would only posing as a tourist.

And I love the dancing saints! I've seen them online.

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Cynthia,

I think you put your finger on the it. It is definitely a place where you learn by experience. I hadn't realized that this was typical of High Church liturgy.

John Shuck said...

I have been to St. Greg's a couple of times. Once with a friend and another time with our youth group from Montana. It was kind of a kick, or a dance, step, kick!

What I liked was the bell and the silence after the reading and the time in which people could respond to the sermon.

That was as a visitor. I wonder how they keep the same people from commenting all the time.

I liked the dancing saints. I think my favorite was that big bear!