Puppet of St Alban in St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral, St Albans, Hertfordshire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Albans Cathedral, St Albans
Location: Hertfordshire, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 22 June 2024, 4:00pm

The building

St Albans Abbey was founded on the likely site of execution of Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr, who was beheaded sometime between 209 and 350 CE, as part of the Roman Empire’s anti-Christian persecutions. Alban has sheltered Amphibalus, a young soldier and secret Christian convert. The cathedral is on a hill overlooking the site of the Roman garrison town of Verulamium, today a public park on the southern borders of the modern city of St Albans, which bears the name of the saint. There appears to have been an Alban shrine as early as the 4th century.

The abbey church standing today has the longest nave of any English cathedral. An early case of architectural salvage, much of the church’s structure of 1077 is built of rubble, especially recycled Roman tile bricks from Verulamium, which became slowly ruined after the Roman legions retreated from the British Isles. The stout crossing tower of the 1080s is the cathedral’s most famous element and is almost entirely made from Roman bricks. The use of recycled rubble in place of masonry was not entirely successful. Part of the nave collapsed in 1323, and was alarmingly wobbly in the 18th century; while in the 19th century the crossing tower was saved by massive underpinning and strengthening in the nick of time.

The shrines of St Alban and St Amphibalous date from around 1320 and their elaborately carved ornament attracted the attention of Reformation vandals, who in 1539 comprehensively smashed them and buried the shards under a floor and in a wall recess that they then blocked up. In the 19th century, the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott directed the careful reconstruction of the saints’ shrines from the 2,000 fragments discovered in 1872 during restoration. Most of the other abbey buildings now have no trace above ground.

The church

A cathedral only since 1877, St Albans functions well as the mother church of its relatively compact diocese. One of the distinctive elements of its ministry is ecumenism. German Lutheran, Orthodox, Free Church and Roman Catholic services take place regularly in the cathedral. Music is important, with a large choir and the St Albans International Organ Festival taking place biennially.

The neighborhood

St Albans is a prosperous market town that in the 20th century segued into being a prosperous commuter town for those working in London, and as a retail destination. More recently still it has attracted its own employment within the city boundaries, especially in fintech and pharmaceuticals, and is also beginning to get onto the map as a tourist stop. These changes perhaps explain why the city council is keen to partner with the cathedral in making St Albans Day an event for the whole community, not just churchgoers.

The cast

The procession into evensong was led by the diocesan bishop, a visiting diocesan bishop, the dean plus the full chapter and cathedral officals, visiting and assistant bishops, archdeacons and others. There was obviously a three-line whip on attendance. The cathedral choir sang the service under the direction of the Master of Music, supported by the Assistant Master of Music on organ, with lay readers reading.

What was the name of the service?

Festival Evensong and Procession to the Shrine of St Alban.

How full was the building?

The central part of the nave was fairly full, the aisles mostly empty. It is a long nave, so I would estimate 400 in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We arrived in the nick of time, following signs and entering via the gift shop, seemingly the main entrance these days. As the service was in the nave, the long procession was already forming and we found the inner doors closed to us. A volunteer verger kindly took pity and ushered us to discreetly follow in the slipstream of the procession behind the choir, even giving her own order of service as supplies had run dry. We wondered afterwards why the cathedral doesn’t make the main entrance the west end of the nave, so that this clash doesn’t occur. Besides, the gift shop seems an unworthy entrance to a great church, and is so low-key that a temporary sign has had to be placed beside it declaring the building open with a wobbly arrow pointing the way. Thanks to the verger’s assistance, we soon found a seat.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chair did its job.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We missed the pre-service atmosphere inside the nave. But outside, much of central St Albans was more crowded than usual for Saturday, especially around the cathedral where streets had been closed to motor traffic. This was due to the earlier Pilgrimage procession through the centre of the town in which giant 4-metre puppets acted out the arrest, trial and execution of Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr. The east end of the cathedral was still welcoming tourists who didn’t want to go to evensong. Outside the cathedral a number of festival food stalls were packing up, having provided lunch to the pilgrims. The city and the cathedral have come together over recent decades to promote the pilgrimage and Alban Day as a major event. St Albans city centre felt as it might on a busy public holiday, quite festive. And we were blessed with wonderful sunshine.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The hymn, ‘Hail thee, festival day’ was sung during the procession. The dean informally welcomed us and read a list of 25 organisations and parishes who were in attendance as pilgrim groups. I assume there were also a good proportion of freelancers, like us. The evensong proper then kicked off with the traditional words, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything was clearly set out in the service sheet, including music for the hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

The large cathedral organ, which sounded good.

Did anything distract you?

We were sitting beside one of the massive nave columns, so had only a partial view of the nave altar platform. A video screen beside was relaying proceedings for those without a view, but facing away from those of us who only had a partial view. As the area in the aisle faced by the screen had nobody sitting in it, I momentarily toyed with the idea of swivelling the screen to face us, but abandoned this thought as it didn’t look as though the screen stand did self-service swivels. This is clearly a switched-on cathedral, and at another point the tech distracted; the ancient 13th century murals in the nave suddenly lit up and turned into hi-fidelity coloured images. This must have been some sort of son et lumière presentation intended to show how the nave looked in medieval times, before time and Puritan whitewash bleached the imagery. I assume someone hit the wrong switch and that they don’t normally flash on and off for evensong.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A traditional cathedral evensong as practised in many English cathedrals. The large cathedral choir was in excellent form; there was enthusiastic hymn singing; and the language of the 1662 Prayer Book somehow suits the grand spaces of cathedrals well. The magnificat and nunc dimittis were in a setting by that most English of composers, Herbert Howells, specifically his St Paul’s service. This is music that takes its time, and I felt the choir were possibly even more leisurely than usual, but Howells’ climaxes were magnificent.

During the magnificat, the relic of St Alban – which resides in a rectangular silver reliquary casquet within the saint’s shrine and which had been placed on the nave altar for this service – was copiously censed. A lady three rows in front of me started fanning herself frantically at the first sign of liturgical smoke and looking anxiously at her neighbours. She seemed to be panicking about the possibility of asphyxiation by incense. I am myself an asthmatic but love church incense as I find it works as a bronchodilator, which momentarily eases breathing – I am not sure whether its the perfume oils or the resin that do it.

The Bishop of St Albans wore his gold mitre throughout the service and has perfected the skill of bowing his head deeply without it falling off: fine style, bishop! At the end of the evensong service, everyone filed past the nave altar through a tiny door into the choir of the cathedral, and then through another narrow door and past the lofty ‘pedestal shrine’ of St Alban. We processed further past the nearby shrine of St Amphibalus, the Roman soldier-convert sheltered by Alban, resulting in execution for them both. This is hardly less magnificent than Alban’s shrine and, like Alban’s, scrupulously reconstructed from fragments. Many in the procession were carrying red roses and left these at the Alban shrine as we filed past.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The post evensong procession passed the 4-metre high puppet of Alban resting beside the high altar, inanimate. It looked incongruous but strangely moving in its fragility as the representation of the martyr, who was probably a teenager when he was beheaded. Also, in the procession past the shrines, we sang a modern hymn to the tune of the rousing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. As the principal civic dignitary in the procession was the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire (that is, His Majesty the King’s official local representative), it brought a smile to my face as he sang the rousing chorus, ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Not hellish, but I really did want to offer words of comfort to the lady distressed by incense, though doing so in the middle of the service would have been disruptive – and probably unwelcome.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

After filing past the saints’ shrines there was then a bit of a jam before we left the cathedral by yet another small door to be greeted by the dean and two bishops who shook every hand. ‘Well done, pilgrims!’ exclaimed the dean with an expansive gesture to the procession. There was quite a lot of hanging around outside and a group of tourists taking photos of us. Maybe we looked an interesting bunch, but more likely it was the Bishop of St Albans’ gold mitre – still firmly in place and radiant in the bright sun – that caught their attention.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We thought a refreshing cup of tea might be in order, as it was a hot, sunny day, but the cathedral café was closed and the stalls that had offered pilgrims lunch were gone by the end of evensong. Not a drop of tea to be had.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 — Perhaps there is a trend. I read the previous week that 18,000 young people had walked from Paris to Chartres on a pilgrimage there. So while St Albans has some catching up to do on numbers and distance, it has made an impressive start, and I will try to return next year.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The lifeless puppet of St Alban.

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