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The Magazine: Not the Secret Gnosis – An interview with the leadership of St Gregory’s of Nyssa, San Francisco

The Magazine: Not the Secret Gnosis – An interview with the leadership of St Gregory’s of Nyssa, San Francisco

holy trinity_st gregory interview
Sara Miles, Paul Fromberg and Sylvia Millier-Mutia of St Gregory’s

Martin Elfert, Cafe Contributing Editor

Famous – at least within church circles – San Francisco’s St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church welcomes thousands of people a year who are drawn to its liturgical and musical experimentation and to its food pantry. I spoke with three of its leaders about what it’s like to serve a parish that challenges and inspires so many people. Paul Fromberg is St. Gregory’s Rector, Sylvia Millier-Mutia is its Assistant Rector, and Sara Miles is its Director of Ministry and a well-known author.

Martin Elfert:             Are there good things about the way that St. Gregory’s is perceived in the wider church? And are there downsides?  In one of your books, Sara, you wrote about a visitor telling you that “We could never do what you do at St. Gregory’s.”


Sara Miles:                 Well, they never could do what we do – or they shouldn’t. They should do what they can do. If you look at St. Gregory’s as if it’s a template to copy, you wind up with something that’s as inauthentic as if you’re looking at a little village church in England and trying to copy that in downtown Memphis.


Sylvia Miller-Mutia:   I think it’s also true, though, that it can be a gift to people who have the luxury of visiting St. Gregory’s. Sometimes if you experience something that you either didn’t believe was possible or it just never even occurred to you, that can open you up to imagine something new. Not to replicate what we do, but to say, “Whoa! If that’s possible, what else might be possible?”


Paul Fromberg:         I wonder if the issue is that people fundamentally don’t want the church to change, so having “inspirational others” who are doing the work kind of lets you off the hook. That sounds harsher than I mean it to sound. The question is, “What do you want to accomplish in church?” Do you want to preserve practices that you don’t necessarily believe in? Or do you want to do something real, which may turn things around in a way that is uncomfortable?


Elfert:                          Every time that I reread “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I am startled anew to realize that Dr. King is trying to precipitate a crisis, that – and I’m paraphrasing broadly – he thinks that a crisis is generative. Notwithstanding how famous that letter is, that isn’t an argument that you actually hear often.


Miles:                          No, because you’re supposed to be in the business of conserving things.


Fromberg:                  In fact, the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer is built on basically the same assumption as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is that the institution has to radically change the way that it conceives of itself, the way that it does business. The 1979 BCP is intentionally destabilizing to the received understanding of what church is. That’s getting to be an old document, but people are still confused by its imperative. Doing what you want to do is hard. Actually doing church on the basis of pleasure as opposed to – what is the other reason for doing church? [Laughter.] Obedience or duty?


Miller-Mutia:              As opposed to delight.


Miles:                          It’s also the idea of, “What is church supposed to do for individuals?” Are we going to church to change, to be transformed? Or are you going to be told that things are fine the way that they are? My experience is that most people don’t come to church because their lives are together. Church can really honor, really help with that desire to be changed, to be transformed – which we all have and which we all don’t want.


Miller-Mutia:              St. Gregory’s strives for risk-taking that isn’t rooted in trendiness but which is rooted in faithfulness. A desire to do something and to discover, even if it fails miserably, that it’s still part of God’s new creation. I’ve been the beneficiary of that generosity. I’m always astonished that Paul doesn’t shut down new ideas, that he doesn’t shut down my ideas, that he doesn’t say, “We have a reputation to uphold.” Except that the reputation that we have to uphold is one of being willing to take risks.


Fromberg:                  That necessarily means that we’re going to fail at what we do. That’s only as bad as it feels – and feelings are kind of stupid when it comes to leadership. You can make stupendous mistakes, and they’re not mistakes, they are only things that don’t work. If you only do things that work then you’re dead. It’s not a way to be if you’re preaching resurrection.


Miller-Mutia:              That’s what animates our parishioners. We believe that a desire and passion to do something is what qualifies you to do it. And if no one is passionate about something that may help us discern that we don’t need to do that right now. That means that there isn’t a lot of energy going into maintaining things that God isn’t calling anyone to do.


Elfert:                          How delightful – and how nerve-wracking!


Miles:                          Having things be uncomfortable puts you in actual touch with, “Where is our safety” and “Where is our hope?” To be able to communicate to the people we’re worshiping with that our safety is in God, not in having the same piece of music every single Sunday; it’s nerve-wracking but it’s also incredibly freeing.


Elfert:                          There is something good and generative about being a little uncomfortable sometimes.


Miles:                          That’s heavenly comfort!


Elfert:                          Most of us do our best work when we’re relaxed – but I’m not sure how many of us have figured out how to get to that relaxed place consistently and on purpose.


Fromberg:                  My personal trainer always encouraged me to have soft knees, not to stand rigidly, so there’s a relaxed posture but there is also a strong energy. In innovation, you need to know where your strength is. If you’re not strong in your core, then you can’t afford to be relaxed anywhere else. That was almost a sports metaphor!


Miles:                          We did an outdoor procession for St. Francis’ Day. It was a completely beautiful sunny day, and there was a crowd of people and animals. And Paul was presiding, standing at the table, and he was about to do the Prayer of St. Francis. And he totally freezes and forgets. And yet with the core strength of knowing what he was doing and what it was about, he called out, “Lord, make us instruments…” And then the people gave him the next line. The congregation crowd-sourced the entire prayer. It was beautiful. Paul could have treated it like a mistake, like something shameful. Instead, it was this incredible collective prayer.


Fromberg:                  That’s an example of the rule of life that we stole from Nadia Bolz-Weber: We’re anti-excellence and pro-participation.


Miles:                          Except that I think that there is an excellence. We have 52-page script that we study so that we don’t have to use it. We steep ourselves in it so that we understand not just what we’re doing but why we’re doing it.


Miller-Mutia:              That “why” is not just the secret gnosis of the clergy and staff. We want that to belong to everyone.


To see images from the St Francis Day event mentioned in the article can be seen here


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Vik Slen

As a long-time member of St. Gregory’s currently in the diaspora, I can assure you that no one there believes that tie-dyed vestments promote justice especially. Why tie-died vestments (among many others)? I believe it’s an attempt to offer an aesthetic for church in an American, or perhaps a Californian, idiom. Not in the sense that tie-dye hearkens back to the Summer of Love, because the vestments, as I understand it, are actually a traditional style from West Africa — but in the sense that America is a melting pot, or tapestry, of traditions from many cultures, favoring bright colors and bold statements. Offering a suggestion that our tradition is and should be much broader than the particular way nineteenth-century ritualism revamped post-Reformation English church fashion. Liturgical dance? First, that’s kind of a misnomer, because the term almost always refers to modern performance dance enacted for spectators. The dance — which I, like many others, never expected to like, until I tried it — is real and earthy and connecting and embodied and sacred/spiritual. I notice there is a tendency among writers I respect to refer to the dance of Christians as a metaphor, which is fine as far as it goes. But dance has been an integral, if not the original, part of human worship for millennia. The calls to dance for joy before God in the Old Testament are not metaphors. And the traditions of dance at St. Gregory’s are rooted, not only in folk dance, but in medieval customs that I believe survive to this day in one or more European monasteries. I hope we can increasingly encourage one other in creatively embodying the love of God and trying to sensitively retrieve our own, and thoughtfully borrow, others’ traditions, more than we criticize things we have not experienced or don’t understand.

Donald Schell

Chaz Brooks:
As one of the founders and co-rector of St. Gregory’s for 27 years, I can actually report that Ethiopian and Byzantine visitors to St. Gregory’s (both lay and clergy) predictably a point of telling us “thank you” after liturgy for sharing and adapting material from their tradition with sensitivity and respect.

We heard repeatedly that St. Gregory’s liturgy, while recognizably Western made deep sense to them. Of the many significant borrowings from the Christian East, one these Easterners mentioned regularly was a liturgy with leadership shared among lay and clergy leaders and multiple concurrent centers of action, a liturgy of woven action rather than linear and purely sequential actions.

Over the years, as St. Gregory’s grew and began to attract interest, we did begin to hear critical and dismissive voices from some Orthodox, but we didn’t hear that from people who had come, visited, and sung and prayeed with us. Dismissive or scandalized criticism we heard was from Orthodox (and friends of Orthodox) who had heard something about what we were doing (often online from another critic) and complained about it online. They didn’t come and see. So what they heard and imagined about St. Gregory’s offered them a sort of Rorschach test. The particular shape of their criticism or the offense that they claimed amounted to a summary of whatever they they feared about Westerners misunderstanding and appropriating their prayer life and tradition.
The Orthodox critics we began to hear via the internet had never come to sing and pray with us.

Having been engaged in building this liturgical tradition from our first days when Rick Fabian began adapting material from the Christian East in 1970 at Episcopal Church at Yale, having shared with Rick learning sacramental theology from Alexander Schmemann whose course in the subject was the only one offered at General Seminary when we were students there, having studyied patristics and Christology with some remarkable Orthodox teachers who mentored and guided me out of an evangelical revivalist background to the Episcopal Church, and learning from Rick’s work all he’d learned from Benedict Green C.R., his liturgics and New Testament tutor at the College of the Resurrection (the theological college sponsored by the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, England), the online critique grieved and grieves me. Our work was an offering of love. The Spirit was at work in ecumenical dialogue, in conversation among liturgical scholars, and even in the hierarchy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In those early days of seminary and beginning our work, Christians East and West were drawing closer and laity and clergy in our different traditions were delighted to be learning from each other. Some time in the early 1980’s a post-ecumenical suspicion set in. We felt in in Roman Catholics turning non-Romans away from communion (as they’d not been doing for a decade). We heard it in the Religious Right successfully branding the name “Christian” in the U.S. media from the early 1980’s until (thank God) it may be beginning to change now. In that same period Roman Catholics retreated from sharing the name they’d happily begun to share with their separated sister churches after Vatican II. And through this same time, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and yes, Episcopalians began drawing harder, sharper distinctions between themselves and other Christians, lines to defend and protect their unique ecclesial turf.

Massey Shepherd, one of the guiding lights of our 1979 Prayer Book reform once observed that if you lined up every successive Anglican and Episcopal Prayer Book on a shelf in chronological order, starting with England’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer and ending with our 1979 Prayer Book (at that point the most recent Prayer Book in our tradition), that the one consistency through the unfolding chronology was “more borrowing from the Christian East.”

Jack Zamboni

Rick Fabian and Donald Schell, the founders of St. Gregory’s, were the chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale in the late 70’s when I was an undergraduate there. ECY was, if you will, the first draft of St. Gregory’s. The formation in hospitable liturgy I received then remains with me 31 years into priesthood, even though I’ve always been involved in much more traditional parish ministry. Having had that formation, I probably should have taken more risks than I have. Maybe I will in the years remaining before I retire…

Chaz Brooks

Joseph Farley: I doubt Copts or Byzantines would find much affinity with the liturgy at St. Greg’s. Adding a Coptic processional cross and some icons doesn’t make for “deep rooting.”

Joseph Farley

An essay on the Liturgy at St Gregory’s by Fr Richard Fabian, one of the founders, can be found here:

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