June 22 is the feast of St Alban. Alban was England’s first English martyr. Faith Today asks, who was he, how did he die, and what can we learn from his life and witness?
St Alban was England’s first English martyr, executed in Roman times, around 304 AD. The city of St Alban’s is named after him, and the Cathedral built on the site where he was beheaded.
The story goes that Alban, though a pagan, hid a priest in his house during a time of Christian persecution under Emperor Diocletian. The priest made such an impression on him that Alban became a Christian himself. When the authorities heard that there was a priest hiding in Alban’s house, soldiers were sent to arrest him. Alban wrapped the priest’s cloak around himself and allowed himself to be arrested in place of the priest, giving his friend time to escape. The Roman governor was angry and when he discovered this, and when Alban refused to offer sacrifice to the gods (declaring, ‘I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things’) the governor had him whipped and ordered Alban to be beheaded. Alban surrendered his life rather than his faith. He leaves us in no doubt about his commitment to God. How can we draw inspiration from his example?
It is unlikely that any of us will be killed for our Christian faith. But there is a poster which reads ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ We all have a baptismal commitment to witness and proclaim the Gospel message. As in Carolyn Arends’ hymn, They will know we are Christians by our love, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that for lay people this ‘is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world’.
But the Catechism goes on to state that we should also be looking ‘for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers…or to the faithful’ (CCC 905). Saints Paul and Barnabas attempt to announce the word of Christ to the faithful, but the assembled Jews are unreceptive, and so instead they preach to the pagans who were grateful to hear the good news (Acts 13: 44-52). As we in modern society are only too aware, not everyone is receptive to the good news. Indeed, Jesus himself says that the Gospel message will not always be welcome: ‘As for those who do not welcome you, when you leave their town shake the dust from your feet as a sign to them’ (Luke 9:5).
However, the point is that we try to evangelise. This isn’t always easy. We might not be asked to lay down our lives, but as Peter Hitchens has written, the modern persecution we encounter is a challenge, ‘It is all very well to be reassured that ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.’ But in its 21st-century form, this reviling does not feel blessed. It often just feels embarrassing, which is not specially ennobling. The power of soft persecution is sometimes greater than that of the old-fashioned hard kind. If someone tries to bully us out of our faith, then our pride may compel us to fight for it. But if our enemies more subtly seek to make us look foolish, then we may well give in’ (Journeying with Jesus, edited by Lucy Russell).
‘We don’t do God,’ former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell is reputed to have said when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, was asked about his faith (contrast this to St Alban’s declaration of faith). Tony Blair was received into the Catholic Church after leaving office, but was always a man of deep Christian faith. Why were his aides so keen to keep religion out of politics? When Blair wanted to end a speech ‘God bless Britain’, he was told that this was not the United States. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in England, doesn’t ‘do God’ either. In an interview with The Catholic Herald on 4 April he is reported to have said ‘little about his Catholic faith and how it connects with his current work…We make the briefest touches on his Catholic mother and his own Catholic schooling… [he] will go far as to say that ‘obviously if you’re a Christian and a Catholic you would draw inspiration from the Gospel’, but that he looks to the example of novels and ‘great events in history too…’
Are public figures and their advisors falling victim to the soft persecution Peter Hitchens has warned of? Are they being embarrassed out of talking about their faith and how this informs their work? Reactions from those in society who don’t share our faith range from amusement to hostility, how many of us become slightly apologetic about our faith as a result? In 2011, in conversation with Dr Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Canterbury), Frank Skinner said that to be ‘cool’ on the comedy circuit all you had to do is be an atheist and make a few jokes about God and Christianity. Skinner went on to say that, ‘I think the English Anglican church has been one of the most guilty of this – too much apologising for the magic in religion. People saying, we don’t actually believe in the Virgin Birth, and we’re not certain about the Resurrection. Don’t give in to them – if you believe in God, all bets are off. There can be angels, the Red Sea can part… There’s a temptation: let’s be a little bit reasonable, let’s be a little bit atheist, let’s go over to them. I don’t want to do that…I was on Radio Five Live yesterday and Richard Bacon said, do you believe in angels, and I said ‘yes’. He looked a little nonplussed. He thought I was going to try and get round it a bit. I’ve never seen an angel, but if you believe in God why shouldn’t there be an angel?’ As Timothy Radcliffe writes in his book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, ‘The point of Christianity is to point to God as the meaning of our lives.’ Timothy Radcliffe is right to argue that our lives should point to Jesus and arouse curiosity about him.
We cannot separate our faith from who we are and what we do, ‘If the truths of Christian teaching do not have any effect in one’s life, any fruit, then what sort of truths would they be? If God is the point of everything, then being religious, being pointed towards God as one’s ultimate goal, must show itself somehow in one’s life.’ It showed itself in Alban’s life and in the lives of all the saints. We are all called to sainthood. Help us, St Alban, to defend the faith you died for.