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1132: St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, England
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St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, England
Mystery Worshipper: Ecclesiastical Flip-flop.
The church: St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London EC1, England.
Denomination: Church of England (Anglo-Catholic).
The building: The original structure, built in 1863 by a leading architect of the day, William Butterfield, was largely destroyed in 1941 by the German blitz. After the war, Adrian Gilbert Scott was asked to produce a new, more economical design, incorporating those features of the old building that had survived. The present building was consecrated in 1961 and features such liturgical innovations as a free-standing high altar. The sanctuary wall is filled by the enormous mural The Trinity in Glory, by the noted German muralist Hans Feibusch, generally regarded as Feibusch's crowning masterpiece.
The church: The first vicar was the legendary Fr Mackonochie, known for his devotion to high liturgical standards and his tireless work among the poor. Since those early years to the present day, St Alban's has always been a bastion of the catholic tradition in the Church of England. It is the sort of church whose impeccabe liturgy and outstanding choir program attracts worshippers from many areas inside and outside of London.
The neighbourhood: The church is situated off High Holborn, within walking distance of the nearest tube station at Chancery Lane. It is in the heart of the commercial world of central London, with shops and offices nearby. Opposite the church is the parish school, with which the clergy are much involved.
The cast: The Rt Rev. Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guilford, was the preacher, with the Venerable Howard Levett, vicar, celebrating. Both the bishop and celebrant were accompanied by a deacon and subdeacon. There were about a dozen visiting robed clergy, including three Eastern Orthodox clergy in their black cassocks and caps. There was a full team of servers vested in cassock and cotta, including a thurifer and torch-bearers.
What was the name of the service?
Procession and Solemn Mass for the Feast of Title, St Alban's Day, Wednesday 22 June, 2005.

How full was the building?
Almost completely full – perhaps 200 people in the nave, not to mention the choir and orchestra out of sight in the gallery.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived in good time and I was greeted by a sideswoman who handed me the booklets needed. After taking a short comfort break outside, I returned to the church to find the Bishop of Guildford duly arrived but not yet robed. I exchanged greetings with His Grace, as I am a member of the diocesan synod.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard and passed muster. There were folding kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a final musical rehearsal going on when I arrived. The atmosphere was reasonably reverential, with some chatter but not excessive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us proceed in peace." "In the name of Christ. Amen." The processional hymn followed, "Alban, high in glory shining", sung to the tune of Abbots Leigh.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed service booklet for the occasion, and a booklet giving the ordinary of the missa normativa (an earlier version of the novus ordo mass).

What musical instruments were played?
Organ plus full orchestra.

Did anything distract you?
The Trinity in Glory was enough to distract anybody. And the celebrant commemorated John Paul, not Benedict, in the eucharistic prayer. And the people: so many familiar faces both from the church and from elsewhere.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a full-scale solemn high mass with incense. The bishop presided in cope and mitre but without crosier, and did not concelebrate. The vicar celebrated on his own, in the eastward facing position. The mass setting was Hummel in B flat, and during the communion Mozart's Te Deum was rendered. The congregation sang the contemporary Martin Shaw setting of the Credo, and the third eucharistic prayer was used (Father, you are holy indeed..." with the acclamation "Dying you destroyed our death...").

St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, England

Exactly how long was the sermon?
19 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 or even a 10 – a scholarly sermon but not too intellectual. Really excellent!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop reminded us of the story of St Alban's martyrdom. Alban was a Roman soldier who gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing arrest. In the days that followed, Alban agreed to be baptised. When officers came in search of the priest, Alban met them, dressed in the priest's cloak. He refused to renounce his new faith and was beheaded. The bishop's sermon then turned to a discourse on the Greek words marturia (witness or testimony of a believer), liturgia (duty), and diaconos (service).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The orchestral music, the choral works and the fine ceremonial.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing hellish or even purgatorial about it – it was bliss all the way through. The only thing in the least bit hellish was the heat wave we were having at the time.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of that! The minute the service came to an end, the woman sitting next to me with her daughter engaged me in a chat. The next thing I knew, someone tapped me on the shoulder and it turned out to be an old acquaintance. Then someone else began to talk, and so on, conversation after conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was only one small part of a sumptuous spread of wine, cold meats, salads, cheese, biscuits, fruit, etc. With all that, I almost forgot to sample the coffee, which I found satisfactory.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – It would be on my short list of London churches if I were prepared to commute each week. The service lasted well over two hours, but the time passed quickly. I enjoyed hearing choir with full orchestra for a change, but I would wish for a more congregational setting on an ordinary Sunday, and a shorter service as well.

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 bishop's excellent sermon.
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