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The journey, not the arrival

19 June 2015

The Alban pilgrimage is now fixed in the calendar. Kevin Walton describes its impact


Trial: St Alban, flanked guards, is tried in the city centre (note the eyeball in the procession)

Trial: St Alban, flanked guards, is tried in the city centre (note the eyeball in the procession)

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 puppet-executioners.

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 waving flags.

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 Passion.

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 spiritual roots.

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 Catholic ethos.

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 divisions.

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 are blurred.

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 - reliable.


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 suggested activities.

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 the sacred.


Canon Kevin Walton is Chancellor of St Albans Cathedral.


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