From Take This Bread by Sara Miles
"...The liturgy [at St. Gregory’s] was by turns solemn, joyful, contemplative and communal, almost all sung, and led by a mixture of ordained and lay people who told the congregation what was happening at every step, so that newcomers wouldn’t be lost. Lay men and women and children—some in robes, working as unordained “deacons,” and some in jeans and t-shirts —served bread and wine; lay people led prayers, preached, and read the Gospel. Worship at St. Gregory’s, drawing on Rick Fabian’s astonishingly extensive scholarship, was deliberately physical and participatory, in the ancient Byzantine style; there was dancing, singing, smoke, candles, brightly-colored cloths, bells, a great bustle of people sweeping through the sunlit church and encircling the altar. It was lively and not archaic, yet utterly without the cheesiness of “contemporary” Christianity; instead of soft rock, there were a capella Shaker hymns, Middle Eastern chants and plainsong psalmody. The music director, Sanford Dole, used a tuning fork as his only instrument and insisted that everyone join in four-part harmony. I found, to my utter surprise, that I could sing with others, easily and fluently.
The building itself, newly constructed in 1995 after nearly twenty years in a rented space, was in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, across the street from a brewery. The church was meant for dancing and unaccompanied voices; its collection of crosses, fabrics and art from around the world was replete with Ethiopian
The theology embodied in the building and liturgy was physical, yet mysterious; beautiful and yet handmade...
Orthodox icons and liturgical umbrellas, 19th-century Russian menorahs, and Tibetan bells. And as the people danced around the altar, the saints danced high above them: Mark Dukes, a local African-American iconographer, had painted the entire rotunda with a mural of ninety larger-than-life figures, ranging from Teresa of Avila to Malcolm X and a naked King David, dancing in a circle led by a dark-skinned, risen Christ.
The rotunda icon made a monumental and surprising statement of faith. Its wildly different saints represented musicians, artists, martyrs, scholars, prophets and sinners from all times, from many beliefs and backgrounds. Some were Christian, some––like Anne Frank or Margaret Mead––were not; many, like Ella Fitzgerald or Queen Elizabeth I, were chosen not because they had lived blamelessly, but because they had moved through terrible moments of suffering or wrongdoing. Rather than piety, or orthodoxy, the icon proclaimed a sweeping, universal vision of God shining through human life.
St. Gregory’s very floor-plan, designed by Donald Schell with the architect John Goldman, spoke of a mission centered on inclusive communion. In most churches, I learned, the baptismal font is at planted at the entrance, and the altar far away at the end of the church, behind a rail, making it clear to visitors that that initiation is required before receiving bread and wine. The font serves as a gate to keep the wrong people from the feast, and the table remains mysterious and distant, something only priests can approach. But at St. Gregory’s, the front doors opened on an empty space under a soaring cupola, with a round table right in the middle, the first thing visitors saw upon entering. During services, the people gathered, singing, around that Table to share communion, Usually a priest chanted the narrative over a many-layered drone rising up from the people; the story of Jesus’ dinner with his friends. Sometimes, though, the entire congregation would sing together in harmony, standing close together around the altar. “Take, eat, this is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
Right before the bread was broken, priests and deacons lifted the bread and wine up: “Holy gifts for holy people,” they sang, and then invited everyone, without exception, to share the meal. After passing the bread and wine to one another, the people danced around the altar, then set out coffee and more food on the same Table, to keep the feast going. Outside the doors, set into the hillside, stood the baptismal font: a huge chunk of rock with a basin hewn out, spilling forth water for anyone who wanted it, after dinner.
The theology embodied in the building and liturgy was physical, yet mysterious; beautiful and yet handmade...”