A 1700-year old Christian shrine, the longest Nave in England, 12th century wall paintings, an 11th century bell tower; I reached this remarkable place having stepped on a train at Elephant & Castle only thirty minutes earlier. And previous inhabitants of St Albans presumably never asked “What have the Romans ever done for us?” because this was once Verulamium, Britain’s third largest city, with a basilica, a forum and a theatre, the last of which you can still visit – the only visible Roman theatre in the country.
Despite its grand history, St Albans Cathedral is a domestic building tucked away below unremarkable streets and shops. I was visiting to celebrate a particularly fine piece of recent history – the 20th anniversary of the institution of the Abbey Girls Choir in Cathedral services. Former choristers were there, as well as the present group, 26 strong and in very clear fresh voice. I’d written a short anthem (Holy Innocents to words by Christina Rossetti) for a celebratory Evensong in which Holst’s gorgeous 8-part upper voice Ave Maria was also performed by present and past choristers under Tom Winpenny’s direction.
These young women and their predecessors are part of a now unstoppable movement in Cathedral worship, but this twentieth anniversary was a reminder that it’s a recent development; the very earliest cathedral admitting girl choristers, Salisbury, started doing so only in 1991. Nowadays the feeling is very positive; major institutions without a girls’ choir tend to say that they hope to have one in the future, they’re limited only by a lack of teaching hours, it’s only a matter of time etc. But in early days there was some opposition in the background, presumably related to the equally irresistible onward march of women clergy in the Anglican church. The choral outcome has surely been positive in that St Albans, and similar musical establishments, now have two groups of trebles to share weekly evensong responsibilities; and a whole new cohort of young people are linked to the church by this opportunity (a hard working one, involving three choir practices as week at St Albans). If you’re positively minded you could say that it “only” took a couple of decades to convince the cathedral world that this was a good idea. After a very cheerful Evensong, it was good to salute the founder director of the choir Andrew Parnell, and his successor Simon Johnson, amongst a large group of people (including many former choristers and their families) who made this happen.