Holy action, holy space

Step inside St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and you enter a soaring octagonal rotunda with a mural of ninety larger-than-life saints –from Frances of Assisi and King David to Malcolm X and Anne Frank—dancing above the altar in the center of the space. Stay for a service and you encounter a densely textured event, full of musical and liturgical elements from all over the world, with an Eastern/Byzantine feel that evokes fourth-century Christian practice. There is no organ; there are no pews or altar rail: the lively congregation sings unaccompanied, in four-part harmony, and moves confidently throughout the whole building. St. Gregory of Nyssa is a pioneering church: its innovations in liturgy, design, leadership and outreach have given it an influence far beyond the Diocese of California. Its practices of open communion, lay deaconing and liturgical dancing have outraged some and inspired more.

St. Gregory’s was founded in 1975 by priests Richard Fabian and Donald Schell, who met as students at General Seminary in NYC and discovered a common love for liturgy as a way to engage people in meeting God. With then-bishop Kilmer Meyers, they founded a special mission of the Diocese of California, putting into practice their developing ideas about how to remake church. St Gregory’s has been more than an “experiment.” It has pointed the larger church in a direction that has influenced a generation of church leaders around issues of open communion, lay leadership and participation, and liturgical innovation.

This month, Fabian and Schell are leaving St. Gregory’s and devote more time to the All Saints Company, a not-for-profit foundation established in 1978 to promote liturgical development and new models of collaboration throughout the church. Daniel Simons, executive director of All Saints Company, spoke with them in San Francisco.

It’s been a long three decades. Can you talk about the changes in Episcopal worship since you began working together?

DS: I was ordained about halfway into the Trial Use explorations that eventually led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, so it was a time of tremendous liturgical change and controversy. We were also taking our liturgy into public places to witness for peace and civil rights. Some of the church’s official voices were insisting that we weren’t changing our theology, only the language. But the Prayer Book Society and other conservative voices saw otherwise, as did those of us who were most enthusiastic and optimistic about what change would mean for Christian community.

I think the most profound changes were in holy action and in holy space. Asking people to exchange the peace with one another hinted that we might encounter God during a face to face touch among laypeople in the liturgy. Ideas for reordering church space gave people the experience of gathering together for hearing the word and for sharing bread and wine.

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer became the official liturgy of the church, a lot of people breathed a huge sigh of relief. Many places assumed we now had a new document to sustain a new rubrical obedience. We squandered much of our momentum for the renewal of community and mission… The big, obvious changes tended to stick, but the flexibility and rich options in the new book seemed less and less evident as time passed.

But for the last fifteen or twenty years, at least some people have again been writing new material, borrowing from the New Zealand Prayer Book and other Anglican sources, and amending texts from the 1979 BCP. A welcome hint of freedom has re-emerged, sometimes reductionist, often unsystematic, but also sometimes inspired.

RF: Today there’s broad interest in participation, more lay ministries, and frank liturgical expression of our church’s official ethic. Plus growing attention to non-cathedral music and openness to non-British culture and identity. Optimistically maybe, I’m betting these trends are already re-orientating our liturgical strategy—from conformity toward mission.

A lot has changed. What do you think remain the most challenging areas of Episcopal worship?

RF: Lack of clarity about what we’re up to. Often our services are not so much culturally irrelevant as opaque. We have parishes with thoughtful preachers, timely social programs, and cornucopial coffee hours–where visitors could hardly guess from what we do in church what it is that we think we’re doing in church. Instead they meet a clubby strategy of reassuring a (steeply aging) group of insiders, and reluctance to talk openly or frankly with each other.

DS: What I most regret about Episcopal worship is a formalized, numbed aesthetic and an Anglophile caricature of Gothic revival. It’s a too-settled, status-quo feeling in liturgy that carries smugness: we say people have to “learn to appreciate it.” It’s sectarian and arrogant, it doesn’t touch people’s lives, and it’s why our Anglophile churches in America are relics.

What have you discovered, through work at St. Gregory’s and with other liturgists, that can break through that numbness?

RF: People, look east! Eastern churches offer a wealth of public worship that Anglicans have long admired and incorporated. Massey Shepherd, Prayer Book author and Church Divinity School of the Pacific professor, said if you line up all the world’s Anglican Books of Common Prayer in order of their publication dates they show a steady march eastward. Today we enjoy rich modern scholarship about Jesus, as well as about ancient traditions of worship. Our Prayer Book’s rubrics were written flexibly to guide us, putting these resources to work. So prioritizing and re-tuning rubrics for mission is faithful, as well as urgent.

DF: St. Gregory’s liturgy is deeply and radically traditional. This means shared leadership; real lay authority with lay liturgists, composers, preachers and worship leaders. It means musical richness—in our case, unaccompanied— from a variety of sources. It mean naturalness rather than recitation; physicality and movement; and it puts the invitation to participate in worship at the center. In a passive, consumerist culture, our congregation sings; people move from their pews, they touch one another.

What do you see as the future of worship in the church?

RF: Today’s controversies continue a two-thousand year contest between reform and sectarian schism. Reformers say the Church is always corrupt, so we must always improve it (Luther’s “ecclesia semper reformanda”). Sectarians say this church is corrupt, so we must now leave it. Open invitation—to Jesus’ table, to baptism, to worship and full participation in making liturgy—charges us crucially today. We cannot simply say “we Episcopalians have always done this,” or “we do what headquarters approves,” or we will go the way of the Masons.

DS: We are always wholly in the presence of God, and always struggling humanly with our fears. Rowan Williams has said that it took sixty years after the council of Nicea for the church to accept that teaching. It would be great to hear our archbishop say, likewise, that it may take three generations to recognize that the Spirit spoke in New Hampshire, with the ordination of Gene Robinson.

Liturgy that welcomes the unprepared as Jesus did, that incorporates us into the heavenly banquet right now, gives us the power, Spirit, and experience to live Good News. It is completely continuous with life.

Praying together and communion make us one. This is not a “unity” based on documents and doctrinal nicety, or the theological platform of a party. When we allow the sacraments their God-given power, when we invite people to participate in worship that touches their lives, we find a fundamental alignment in action that may offer surprising latitude to explore our differences.

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