The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It was named after St Alban, Britain's first saint, who was martyred some time during the 3rd century or early 4th century (the exact date has never been established). Legend has it that a series of simple churches were built on the spot, which still bore droplets of Alban's blood. A Benedictine abbey and church were built there in 793. The present cathedral was begun in 1077 and includes bricks and flint from the Roman city of Verulamium, the predecessor of the city of St Albans. With the longest nave in England (85 feet), the cathedral is said to be the second largest church in England, after Winchester Cathedral. It includes a mixture of architectural styles: Norman, Romanesque, Gothic and Victorian. At the east end is St Alban's chapel, containing the shrine of the martyr, which was built in the 13th century and demolished at the Reformation; the rebuilt shrine incorporated over 2,000 fragments of the shattered shrine. This chapel has the only surviving watching loft in England, where monks guarded St Alban's shrine. There is a 14th century rood screen of stone, and there are numerous medieval wall paintings from the 12th to the 16th century. The church became a cathedral in 1876. By the mid 19th century, repairs were badly needed and were undertaken under the direction of the prolific champion of Gothic Revival, Sir George Gilbert Scott. However, Scott died in 1878 and the work fell to Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe, known primarily for having designed the great clock for Crystal Palace and the inner workings of Big Ben. Beckett, an arrogant and bilious but extremely wealthy fellow (he offered to pay for the work entirely out of his own pocket), was determined to have his way. His restoration of the west front has been called "awesomely hideous" although, in all fairness, he did show sensitivity to many of the building's original features.
Almost from the start, the site of St Alban's execution and burial became a major focus of pilgrimage. On the nearest Saturday to his feast day (22 June), an annual procession takes place, stopping at three stations to commemorate Alban's arrest, trial and execution. The story, along with miracles that were said to have occurred, are dramatised with giant puppet-like figures that depict the protagonists. Each segment of the story is rounded off with prayer. For example: the story goes that as Alban was being led to the place of execution, he became thirsty, and a spring miraculously gushed forth at his feet for his benefit; after he had slaked his thirst, the spring again fell dry. During the procession, the local fire department reenacted this phenomenon. Also, according to the story, Alban's executioner was overcome with awe at this and other miracles that occurred, and so refused to deliver the fatal blow. A second executioner had no such compunction and quickly did the deed, whereupon his eyeballs fell out of his head so that he couldn't gloat over the results of his labour. This bizarre event was re-enacted on one of the giant puppets. Two giant eyeballs, carried on attached sticks, were a conspicuous feature of the procession. Finally, the story goes that the hill upon which Alban was beheaded bloomed with myriad flowers, especially red roses. Children dressed as flowers and roses were a part of the procession. Pilgrims could buy red roses in the cathedral and deposit them at the shrine.
The city of St Alban, with a population of 58,000, is located 20 miles north of London, which makes it a convenient location for London commuters to live. It is an enjoyable place to visit, especially on market days.
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Gregory Clayton Smith, Bishop of St Albans, presided. The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, was the preacher. (In 2015 she became the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England.) Additionally, I counted 44 clergy persons, including three bishops, attending in choir.
What was the name of the service?Festival Eucharist: The Alban Pilgrimage 2017.
How full was the building?
The central section of the nave was full. The side sections were partially filled. Making a rough guess, I think that a thousand people attended.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No personal welcome. A steward encouraged the entering visitors to move right in and go up the aisle in front of you.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service pilgrimage procession through the streets of St Alban was the virtual starting point for this service and set the tone for this eucharist. The procession was well organised, attractive and engaging, bringing the story of a Christian martyr into the public realm. The surprisingly long and colourful procession consisted of pilgrims from various parts of England and even America; it attracted hordes of spectators who filled the sidewalks. The story of St Alban has had a magnetic effect. Countless pilgrims have come to his shrine for centuries, right up to the present day. Apparently, people need places where divine presence has revealed its sovereignty within the fearful ruthlessness of this violent world; such holy places give one a sense of security, identity and rootedness.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. A program contained all of the words and music notes of the service.
What musical instruments were played?
Large organ, a 1962 opus of Harrison & Harrison Organ Builders of Durham, incorporating a design by the cathedral's master of music. It was refurbished in 2007-2009 by the original builders.
Did anything distract you?
A huge distraction for me were the video screens. The immensity of a cathedral conveys something of the awesomeness of the divine presence. The leaders of worship, despite their ornate vestments and high offices, appear puny by comparison. This contrast is one of the elements that make worship in a cathedral so compelling. However, several video screens had been set up next to the pillars of the nave, one directly in front of me. I tried to concentrate on real life, but my eyes could not resist the video display. The digital transmission reduced the awesome scale of the service to the size of a TV picture.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This festival eucharist was as high church as it gets: billows of incense, bells during the eucharistic prayer (which was spoken not only by the presiding bishop, but also with quiet voices by the assembled clergy). As is to be expected in cathedral worship, the choir and the organist were magnificently competent.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The sermon addressed the story of St Alban, current events, and the two biblical readings, presenting a vision of hope.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
St Alban was killed brutally. Our world is full of such brutal events. Brutality and uncertainty produce and enhance fear. Brexit, terror attacks, and the recent election have intensified uncertainty. Social media fuel uncertainty and fear. Fear diminishes our humanness. Oppressors and terrorists have a lack of love, and this diminishes human dignity. St Alban was able to exhibit fearlessness and selflessness. In catastrophic situations, people do indeed demonstrate loving care in small acts of kindness. Such acts of love can be considered indications of the coming kingdom of God, which will be a complete transformation and restoration, fully revealing God's generosity of love in Christ. We are not to feed on fear, but on love.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Heavenly was the awareness of being at a place that embodies 1700 years of history not dead history, but history that seems to have a life of its own, refusing to fade away, providing a focal point where heaven and earth meet.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the reading of the gospel (the Beatitudes in Matthew 5), the aggressive barking of snarling dogs could be heard through the open west door: a vivid reminder that the world outside the cathedral is not peaceful. And as is customary in this day and age, there is always someone who forgets to turn off that blasted mobile and, of course, it invariably rings at an inopportune moment.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not possible among the masses of visitors.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No free coffee. Coffee, tea and refreshments could be bought in a tent set up outside the church, but I was not in the mood to stand in line.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – If I were to attend cathedral worship regularly, it would no longer be something special. I would rather keep it exceptional, so that it remains delightful and enchanting.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Glad is not the right word: It is a humbling privilege to be allowed to participate in such a splendid, vibrant and elaborate event, which could only occur because hundreds of people invested hundreds of hours of painstaking preparation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two giant eyeballs on sticks, which to me represent the Easter laughter of divine victory over evil and death.