What are they here for?
What is their connection with us?
We can be very proud that four of these martyrs are local to St Albans. Alban and George Tankerfield both died here; Amphibalus was put to death in Redbourn a few miles away and his body buried here; and Alban Roe was arrested here and imprisoned in the Abbey gatehouse before being martyred in Smithfield.
St Elisabeth Romanova, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero are all martyrs of the modern period, making it clear that Christian martyrdom remains a reality to the present day. They also represent three of our ecumenical congregations. St Elisabeth was, of course, a Russian Orthodox; Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran; and Oscar Romero a Roman Catholic.
The presence of all these saints together, and especially that of Alban Roe with George Tankerfield, is a powerful statement that sanctity is not the possession of any one faith or denomination. They remind us that St Alban and the original Abbey both pre-date the divisions in Christianity. They reflect our conviction that the Abbey truly belongs, not to the Church of England alone, but to all of us.
What are they here for?
It is very important that these statues remind us that martyrdom is still very much a reality, and that they should inspire us to follow their example of Christian witness and courage in our own time. Nevertheless that is not all. The main point of these statues is not historical or didactic. The most important thing is that they represent real people who are still with us in Christ.
If St Albans Cathedral has a unique feature, it is its sense of holy presence. Very many people come here to light a candle and pray. This is a place where the veil between here and the beyond, between time and eternity, is at its thinnest. This sense of holy presence is connected with the great age of the place, but it is a personal, spiritual experience, not an historical or intellectual one. Our Communion is not with the past but with a God who is living here and now, and with the whole Communion of Saints, our brothers and sisters in the fellowship of the Church. The Alban Prayer used in the shrine ends with a direct address to the saint: ‘Pray for us Alban; pray for us all saints of God’. The point is: the saints are here. We can talk to them.
Nowhere is this sense of presence clearer that in the eucharist, which is the celebration of the whole Body of Christ. At the eucharist more than anywhere else or any other time, the Communion of Saints is realised; we are one in Christ and he is us.
This is why the statues in the Nave sanctuary are so much more than historical reminders or examples. At the eucharist especially, but outside it too, the saints are living brothers and sisters in the one Mystical Body that transcends time, space and death. These are our friends who literally stand with us around the altar, and who constantly care for us and pray for us, as we follow our own Christian pilgrimage of faith and witness.
- The Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John