(first published on June 24, 2010)
We thank you for this place built to your glory
and in memory of Alban, our first martyr:
Following his example in the fellowship of the saints,
may we worship and adore the true and living God,
and be faithful witnesses to the Christ,
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.
Whether simple or bold, whether we influence one person or an entire civilization – – all our actions have the power to change the world. St. Alban’s Parish has two moving stories on which to look back that help shape its current work as a faithful presence in the city of Washington. The story of Phoebe Nourse is one. She was a young woman who saved $40 in gold from the sale of her needlework, then specified in her will it should be used to start a church that would not charge pew rental fees. From that simple gesture 160 years ago a parish church, and indeed the possibility for a grand cathedral next door, became reality.
The other story that we take note of as we celebrate St. Alban’s Day this coming Sunday, a story which serves as a guiding force for the work of this parish, is that of Alban himself. A 3rd century soldier, Alban gave safe haven to a priest during times of Christian persecution, and angered the Roman rulers when he exchanged places with the priest, declaring that the man’s teaching and prayers had led to his conversion. Words attributed to Alban at his trial are still used in prayers at the Abbey – “I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.” While martyrdom is a difficult issue to get our minds around in 21st century America, Alban’s courage in proclaiming his Christian faith and his commitment to helping society’s vulnerable are profound reminders of the ministry to which we are all called.
The Venerable Bede wrote about Alban around 760, saying that “when the peace of Christian times was restored a beautiful church, worthy of his martyrdom was built, where sick folks are healed and frequent miracles take place to this day.” The miracles attributed to Alban include a spring of water appearing on the hill just before his execution.
It requires a bit more imagination these days to see the green hill upon which our own St. Alban’s is built, but in fact Mount St. Alban, the (disputed) highest elevation in Washington, was so named because of its similarity to the still very visible green hill upon which St. Alban’s Cathedral and Abbey, our mother church in England, is built. St. Alban’s Abbey is a mish-mash of architecture built over several centuries (including a wonderful, very modern addition that adds office and program space) and is built around a square Norman tower, very like the tower at this St. Alban’s, which incorporates bricks from the ancient Roman town of Verulamium that are some 2,000 years old. But one step inside and you realize this isn’t a museum, but a living, breathing place where today’s faithful gather to pray and worship and gain strength for their work outside those cathedral walls. That too is certainly a lesson which the good people of this particular St. Alban’s Parish have taken to heart.