One Weird Church

A tale of faith, hope, and serendipity

Rick Fabian thought he was right where he wanted to be in 1967. After graduating from Yale with honors and picking up a master's degree from Cambridge, the deeply religious 24-year-old settled in at the College of the Resurrection, a stately Anglican seminary in Muirfield, England. But he did have one small problem.

"I remember the evening it happened," Fabian says. "I was kneeling in the monastery church. There was singing. I looked around and it dawned on me that all these people around me actually believed this stuff, and I never had. At Yale, most of my friends were not religious, but I was. So I lived in a kind of fortress that I was always defending. But I realized at Muirfield that night that I never really believed any of it."

Fast forward nearly 30 years to a striking, cedar-shingled building at De Haro and Mariposa in Potrero Hill. Completed last year, the structure was inspired by everything from Siberian wooden architecture to Japanese cinema. Inside, dressed in tie-dye, the same Rick Fabian glides on a dance floor. He rings bells from Tibet. He burns frankincense. He chants.

Odd thing is, the Rick Fabian engaged in all this seeming shamanism is of a piece with the doubting Anglophile of 30 years ago. True, the tie-dyes are African vestments, the incense is designed to recall the synagogal practice of Jerusalem's temple, and the chants are Navajo. But the building is St. Gregory Nyssen Church. And Rick Fabian is an Episcopal priest.

The dances he leads are a sacred two-step that calls the congregation to Communion and a more festive number marking the end of the service. His sermon is predicated on the unlikely notion that "the more we study the New Testament, the less and less we know about Jesus." He invokes Zen-like meditative silences after the Gospel readings. And it's all sanctioned by one of the putatively stodgiest, ornate Christian denominations on the planet.

How did Fabian go from questioning the very fundaments of Christianity to building a church of his own and filling it with provocative works of art? How did the affluent son of a successful businessman go from riding out his stint at seminary to creating a groundbreaking liturgy?

The answer is a mix of faith and serendipity.
There was the architect who collects vintage Italian motorcycles and whose most visible work before St. Gregory's was a Chinese restaurant. There was the painter of icons, who had chosen his career based on a vision of himself dirty, destitute, and dressed in rags. The Yale alumni network and pictures of grain elevators came in handy. The millionaire sure helped. And there was the influence of John Coltrane, Akira Kurosawa, the Maori, the two Russians, and the folks at Anchor Brewery.

Of course, none of it might have been possible without the help of Surfer magazine.

All in all, it adds up to one weird little church -- but a church that offers a window on the soul of San Francisco and, perhaps, the future of religious devotion.

With the right wardrobe -- maybe an austere black cassock with a pair of starched white L.L. Bean boxers underneath -- the Rev. Richard Fabian would be the Episcopalian cleric from central casting. Tall, fit, and upright, Fabian could easily pass himself off as the sort of pious, gray figure George Bush might listen to on Sundays in Kennebunkport. He's even got the lifestyle. An Ivy Leaguer who prepped at Choate, Fabian lives in a tasteful Cow Hollow home with a view that's remarkable even by San Francisco standards. He's an art collector. In addition to his priestly duties, he moonlights as the chief of a successful corporation. He drives a nice, tasteful Audi.

But the stereotype of a stuffy, upper-crust priest falls apart with Fabian's first remarks to a visitor. Few men of the cloth quote National Lampoon: "There are three hells," Fabian says with a sly grin that makes him look a bit like a slender, angular version of actor John Lithgow. "The Roman Catholic hell is where you're sent for masturbation. The Methodist hell is where you're sent for having crab grass. And the Episcopal hell is where you're sent for eating oysters with your dinner fork."

Sundays at St. Gregory's can be as refreshing -- or startling -- as Fabian himself. The priest admits that it's not unusual for visitors to walk out during the service, but it's less common than it was during the church's early years. A Hebrew canticle, a Russian folk tune, and an early Christian hymn from the fourth century -- all sung in challenging harmonies -- are likely to be on the playlist. Fabian sits while delivering the sermon in a symbolic gesture that eliminates any fire-and-brimstone podium-pounding. What's more, his perch is a Thai howdah, a carved wooden chair used for riding elephants. After a brief meditation period, church members are called on to "complete" the sermon by relating highly personal reflections on depression, relationships, or whatever.

Via Fabian's jig -- an age-old step -- the congregation then proceeds to another room to celebrate the Eucharist. They line up, place a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, and take three steps forward and one step back until they reach the altar. Their arrival is announced by the rhythm of sistrums, thurible bells, drums, and processional crosses beating the floor. Later, worshipers link arms and perform the grapevine step popular at Greek weddings.

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