The Abbey and Cathedral of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire

St Albans Cathedral, St Albans, England


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Mystery Worshipper: J Whitgift, accompanied by two others
Church: St Albans Cathedral
Location: St Albans, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 23 June 2007, 11:30am

The building

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban is huge – it has the longest nave of any cathedral in England. The building itself is a mixture of architectural styles incorporating carved stone, Roman brick and other building matter. A tour around the outside of the building will show a mish-mash of architectural styles and materials. Internally a number of medieval wall paintings remain, reminding us of how colourful the church would have been before the iconoclasm of the English Reformation and Commonwealth. These have now been supplemented by modern icons of the saints that have been placed in the niches of the choir screen behind the nave altar.

The church

There are four eucharistic celebrations each Sunday, as well as matins and choral evensong. Each weekday there are two eucharistic celebrations, including a Roman Catholic mass on Fridays and Lutheran and Free Church services once each month, as well as morning prayer and evensong. The ecumenical outreach of the cathedral is strong, with several non-Anglican clerics on staff who participate fully in the spiritual life of the cathedral. The cathedral also maintains an education centre that conducts workshops to tie in with national curriculum demands, as well as a primary school and a study centre offering courses on biblical subjects, prayer and spirituality, Christian doctrine, philosophy, and church history. The work and upkeep of the cathedral is supported by a host of volunteers working in several trusts.

The neighborhood

St Albans is a small dormitory/market town in Hertfordshire. The surrounding area is a mixture of small beautiful cottages and town centre facilities. Verulamium, the Roman settlement where St Alban was martyred, is close by. The cathedral is surrounded by attractive parkland.

The cast

The Most Revd Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, presided at the service. The Venerable Mark Oakley, archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe, was the preacher. Concelebrating with Archbishop Tutu were the Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, bishop of St Albans; the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, dean of St Albans; the Rt Revd Richard Neil Inwood, suffragan bishop of Bedford; the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, suffragan bishop of Hertford; and the Most Revd Maurcio Jos Arajo de Andrade, primate of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. Also assisting were various visiting priests, deacons, lay readers, and ecumenical representatives.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn and Concelebrated Eucharist for the St Alban Festival Pilgrimage.

How full was the building?

Packed to the rafters – quite literally. According to their website, about 5,000 people had come for this special event. Loudspeakers had been set up outside the cathedral to accommodate those who could not fit inside.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. Given the size of the congregation it would have been impossible. However, being that the main part of the cathedral was full when we arrived, we were directed to the Lady chapel at the back, where more seating was available.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. It was a wooden seat which served its task adequately.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Chatty/noisy with the arrival of people. But this does not mean that the atmosphere was undignified. There remained a feeling of prayerful and expectant peace.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially prepared service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and what sounded like an accompanying band that included at least one trumpet.

Did anything distract you?

As we were sitting in the Lady chapel, we had to view the service on plasma screens. Unfortunately the image wasn't brilliant or always in focus, making it difficult and sometimes distracting to try to watch.

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

Liberal Anglo-Catholicism at its best, with solemn liturgy and the exuberant singing of hymns recounting the life of St Alban. The service had a festival atmosphere with plenty of colour, incense and ceremony. All the visiting clergy concelebrated with Archbishop Tutu, reciting the words of the eucharistic prayer and extending their hands toward the sacred elements at the moment of consecration. Archbishop Tutu's presence can only be described as charismatic – he has a wide, joyful smile, and when he looked at the congregation and smiled, as he did several times during the service, we felt like we were transported several feet into the air.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

10 – Archdeacon Oakley spoke at great length at the beginning of the service about the work both Archbishop Tutu and Dean John had done in the field of inclusion in society and the church.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The archdeacon spoke about the martyrdom of St Alban. Alban had been made a witness to a glimpse of the glory of God, and we are to be the same. But the false gods of the modern world (Gloss, Obese, Instantaneous and Punch) would demand our allegiance. We must turn away from them and turn back toward Christ, who, like Aslan (the central character in CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia), is the "defroster," removing the winter from our hearts so that we may witness the kingdom of Heaven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being present at a service that included one of my all time heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Also the general festive atmosphere, including concelebration by so many priests and bishops.

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

Trying to get into the cathedral before the service. The main body of the church had become so clogged with people that it was almost impossible to move either forward or backward. I generally don't suffer from claustrophobia, but I felt it quite badly on this occasion.

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

Nothing. With so many people visiting the cathedral for the service, we just followed the rest of the congregation out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no after service coffee, but there was a burger stall and ice cream van. There are also a number of good pubs locally, which we visited following evensong later in the day. Several events had been planned for the afternoon, which were all quite good; these included a Roman chariot race (after all, if it weren't for the Romans there would have been no Alban) – our team lost! It was good to see so many people catch up with their friends in the cathedral grounds.

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

5 – Whilst the service was brilliant and the theology embodied by the dean, Jeffrey John, very much one I subscribe to, this was nevertheless a special event and probably not indicative of everyday spiritual life at the cathedral. However, I couldn't make it my home church because it is too far away from where I live.

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

Absolutely. Whoever said that liberal Anglicanism is dead was wrong. The service was affirming both of our life in Christ but also of our need for unity as a church.

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

The sight of the altar absolutely covered in ciboriums and chalices awaiting consecration by Archbishop Tutu and his concelebrants.

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