TOMORROW, on the balcony of St Albans Town Hall, a 12-foot-high
puppet will stand, representing a Roman magistrate, flanked by six
young people dressed as lictors (legal officials). Underneath will
be a large puppet (Alban), flanked by two gruesome
On the high street, closed to traffic, will be about 2000
pilgrims of all ages, some in costumes as Roman soldiers, monks,
red roses, lions, and eyeballs; some carrying flags; concelebrating
priests; and, last of all, mitred bishops. On the pavements will be
busy market-stalls and traders, and the public, looking on, many
At the town hall, the story of Alban's trial will be read, and
Alban will declare before the magistrate, the pilgrims, and the
public his faith in the "true and living God who created all
things". From there, the procession will move on to the cathedral,
where Alban will be beheaded. His head will be crowned, and then
carried in procession by the Dean.
Just before Alban's declaration, the Archbishop of Canterbury
will also be standing on the balcony, to address the pilgrims and
Saturday shoppers. Afterwards, the fire brigade, hidden on the
town-hall roof, will release a jet of water - a miraculous spring -
trying not to drench the crowd below.
PILGRIMAGE is a growth industry, whether walked routes, such as
the Pilgrims' Way; annual gatherings, such as the Walsingham
National; or public spectacles, such as the Wintershall
Pilgrimage is an attractive concept, fitting into current
thinking about evangelisation and the catechumenate. Anyone can be
a pilgrim: none of us has arrived; we journey together. Pilgrimage
is often bold and contemporary in form, beyond the confines of
traditional expressions of church, and yet it taps into deep
As the shrine of the first British martyr, pilgrimage is nothing
new. Bede recounts the visit of St Germanus of Auxerre, in AD 429,
during which relics were exchanged.
The shrine of St Alban was restored in 1993, and a relic was
returned from Cologne in 2002. The relic figures in the pilgrimage
again, as it is venerated at an Orthodox service, and then carried
in procession to the shrine altar, where pilgrims stream past, and
lay their red roses.
BEFORE the vote on the ordination of women, the Alban Pilgrimage
had been a firm Anglo-Catholic fixture. It then attempted to strike
out in a more ecumenical direction by including a procession from a
local Roman Catholic school, but lost its wider profile.
In 2005, the youth chaplain, the Revd Stuart Cradduck, persuaded
the new Dean, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, to bring the
pilgrimage to a new level of pageant and participation, inspired by
the Notting Hill Carnival, while also giving a clear inclusive
A group of multi-disciplinary artists, Mahogany Carnival, was
commissioned to work with young people to create costumes and
puppets, and a route was devised that began at the site of Roman
Verulamium, and went through the park up the hill to the cathedral
- the traditional route from Alban's trial to execution.
Since then, high-profile preachers have brought in the crowds:
Archbishop Desmund Tutu; the Archbishops of Canterbury and York;
the US Presiding Bishops; the Roman Catholic Archbishops of
Westminster, Loreto, and Rouen; John Bell, of the Iona Community;
and the Revd Lord Griffiths. Such preachers reflect the continuing
ecumenical slant: Alban belongs to all Christians, predating
Over ten such pilgrimages, a challenge has been to sustain the
enthusiasm and resources. A few years ago, a sense of tiredness
began to creep in, and, after some debate, the decision was taken
to become more visible, and so to change from the historical route
to the city centre.
The local authority has been a keen supporter, and it now links
the pilgrimage with an Alban Weekend. It sees the value of bringing
pageantry on to the streets, and increasing visitors. We have
benefited from shared marketing.
ALTHOUGH the new route lacks the historical integrity of the
former one, it has taken the pilgrimage and the story of Alban to
the heart of the city that bears his name.
Those in the procession are not simply spectators of a costume
drama; we have become the spectacle, bearing witness to our
Christian faith and its beginnings in the British Isles.
This meant some further adjustment. The year we changed the
route, and were accompanied by a BBC film crew. Several members of
the public whom they interviewed expressed ignorance of what was
going on, or even who Alban was.
We realised that we needed to work harder; so, last year, we
distributed flags and flyers, and hired a public-events commentator
to interpret the story and draw in the crowd.
Tellingly, as the procession moves through the city centre, it
now gets longer, as the boundaries between pilgrim and bystander
Other issues are more practical, such as the weather, which does
make a big difference. The "wet-weather plan" has yet to be
implemented, but only because it is now the "very-wet-weather
plan". This year's engineering works on the railways will be an
inconvenience. I emailed, apologetically, the Archbishop of Rouen,
conceding that the French SNCF was surely more fiable -
WE HAVE to be careful also to strike a balance between frivolity
and fun on the one hand, and the seriousness of martyrdom on the
other. The execution is graphic - the executioner's eyes really do
fall out - but one debate has been how we might have to adapt,
should a real martyrdom appear on our TV screens. Alban's costly
witness has resonances today.
What of the future for the pilgrimage? We believe that we have a
mission to the wider Church and nation: to tell of Alban's faith,
and his stand for justice, openness, and courage; and to take us
back to the very beginnings of faith in our nation.
For the cathedral community, Alban's values have become ours.
That same process is happening in the wider community, as the date
becomes a permanent fixture in the public and civic consciousness.
This year, schools have been holding Alban-themed days, with
There are also ongoing challenges: sustaining the momentum,
raising the profile, engaging the community, and building on
opportunities. Perhaps, also, there is the opportunity for the
national Church to learn collectively from such pilgrimages: how
can pilgrimage be encouraged? What principles of discipleship and
mission can be transferred?
Conceptually, pilgrimage is a combination of journey and place.
The place for us is the holy intimacy of the shrine and the packed
cathedral nave, as we celebrate the eucharist and evensong.
The journey is the riskier element: taking to the streets,
exposed to the elements, and encountering the public. It is about
taking the sacred into the secular, and allowing the secular into
Canon Kevin Walton is Chancellor of St Albans