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Sermon at the Festival of St Albans

Saturday 24th June 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave this sermon at St Albans Cathedral after taking part in a colourful procession to pay tribute to Alban, Britain's first martyr, who was beheaded for his Christian faith.

When Alban was examined before the magistrate, says the Venerable Bede, the magistrate asked him, "What is your name, what is your race and your family?" Now a good Roman magistrate would need to know these things. It was not a good idea to execute one of the gentry without realising it. Roman society was heavily based on patronage, on who you knew. If you put your foot in it, your professional future might be at stake with the friends of the people you'd offended, let alone the friends of the people you'd executed. The magistrate really needs to know who this man is.

And Alban replies, famously, "My name is Alban and I serve the true and living God. I am a Christian and my duties are Christian duties." The good news, that Alban proclaims to the magistrate who is about to sentence him to death, is that that unfortunate magistrate, the wicked prince as the Venerable Bede calls him, the magistrate doesn't have to worry. Nobody is going to come after him, nobody is going to ruin his life because of the execution, because I am a Christian, my duties are Christian duties. That's to say my duties are not just to my friends and my family, the system of patrons and clients, to the complicated world of honour and manipulation that kept Roman society going. My duties are Christian duties. What might those Christian duties look like? What might that Christian loyalty be, that is more than just loyalty to a system of patrons and clients?

The Christian's duty is of course to the Body of Christ. Not to the Body of Christ as clear, fixed, present reality that you can sign up to, much as you sign up to the Golf Club. But to a mysterious and living community whose fullness has not yet appeared. Christian duty, Christian loyalty is not just to the people who happen to be with you now, but to the future. Christian loyalty and solidarity is being with, and being for, those you have not yet met and a world you have not yet seen. It's why, though this is one among many implications, it's why Christians ought to be passionately and sacrificially concerned about the environment. For the very simple reason that we are called to be faithful to the future, a future of people we haven't met and a world we haven't seen, and our failure to be loyal to that particular future is one of the most crass and troubling forms of injustice that afflicts our world and often sadly our church today.

But you could also say that what Alban is doing is defining the kind of loyalty, the kind of duty that properly belongs to pilgrims. What is the loyalty of a pilgrim to the future? The pilgrim is loyal to where he or she is going. To the place where God's power and love have appeared. A pilgrim is somebody who keeps his or her eyes on that future, on that goal. And is loyal not only to the people alongside them on the pilgrimage, but to the people around the next corner of the road . Knowing that whoever they meet around that corner is someone God has given them to stand with, and to be for.

It's a good beginning for the Christian faith in this country. A vision of Christian belonging that doesn't try and build the walls too quickly. A vision of a Christian belonging with those people who have not yet heard the good news but for whom we must be. On whose side we must be. The people who will hear the good news, and also of course the people who won't hear the good news, but who need us to be there embodying it, whether or not they agree and whether or not they want to listen.

The heaviest of those Christian duties laid upon us, as they were laid upon Alban in his short but rather effective Christian life, the heaviest of our duties at times is that demand to be in loyalty, in solidarity, not only with the people we haven't met, but with the people who don't particularly want to be with us, and don't even want us to be for them. That's the heart and the energy of the Christian embrace of the world in which the Christian is placed. That's the Christian duty. It's a duty which constantly presses up against and challenges the loyalties we think are obvious. We heard in this afternoon's New Testament lesson the harsh words of Jesus about the loyalties that we think are obvious and pressing, the loyalties of family and friends. Unless, Jesus is saying, unless you have a loyalty that is greater than that, your limited and local loyalty will be something dangerous and corrupt, inward looking and destructive. Jesus himself not only speaks about, but acts out a loyalty to what is not yet, the joy that is set before him, says the writer to the Hebrews, the Kingdom which he burns with passion to enter. Our local loyalties are put under question, when we come into loyalty and solidarity with Jesus. We no longer know so obviously whose side we are meant to be on, because the Gospel seems to say uncomfortably "well, everybody's really", in the sense that we are to stand alongside, to pray for, to give to, and to be for everyone. Anything less than that and we're back in that world of patronage and clients and influence. And in our present age, back in a world of xenophobia and suspicion, fear of the other, fear of the stranger.

Were Alban ever to be recognised as the patron saint of this country, an issue which I am told is much discussed in these parts, were Alban ever to be so recognised, perhaps it would be a way of reminding our whole society, of the terrible dangers of misunderstanding loyalty and solidarity and the immense exhilarating and rather terrifying gift of being given the possibility of opening our lives, our hearts, our homes and our economies to strangers. And perhaps we could overcome that deepest and most disturbing of contemporary pathologies, that terrible fear of the refugee, the helpless stranger in our midst, that so distorts so much of our social and political life. But meanwhile, God with his well known sense of irony has of course given us a patron in St George, who happened to have been what we now would call a Palestinian Arab. And I do wonder occasionally whether all those who fly the flag of St George with such enthusiasm at the moment, fully realise that they are paying homage to somebody whose company might have been a little more unsettling than they imagine.

Alban is a preacher of challenging good news for us, not just in his death but in those words with which he answered the magistrate. I am a Christian and my duties are Christian duties. I am a Christian and my loyalties are Christian loyalties, and my solidarity is with the body of Christ, a body still in formation, whose limits I don't yet know.

It's helpful always to be reminded that our loyalty as believers is not first and foremost to "The Church" as we see it, but to the body that is in formation, that community which no-one can number who respond to the call of Jesus Christ, today and tomorrow and the day after. And our lives must be structured around that kind of prayerful hospitality which today, tomorrow and the day after is willing to be open to those whom God give us to be with and to be for.

We thank God for Alban's death. We thank him also for Alban's theology, that single proclamation in which is contained so much of the New Testament, so much of our hope and so much of our judgement. "My name is Alban and I serve the true and living God, I am a Christian and my duties are Christian duties."

May those duties be ours, those loyalties be ours, that freedom and that hope be ours. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2006 

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