Foreign Christians Find a Haven in Denmark Saint Alban's Anglican Church, Copenhagen First Sunday of Epiphany, 7 January 2007

Article excerpt

Mean-spirited cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad were published by a Danish newspaper in September 2005, eventually provoking world-wide demonstrations that led to scores of deaths. The situation was characterized by the prime minister, Mr. Rasmussen, as Denmark's worst international crisis since World War II. It brought to the world's attention two particular characteristics of this small nation of 5.4 million people. First, it is one of the most secular countries in the western world, where the language of religious conviction figures seldom in public discourse, and where only 4 percent of the population go to church at least monthly (in the United States, 44 percent go to church weekly). second, it is one of the most intentionally homogeneous countries in the western world. Foreigners find it hard to be accepted, laws on immigration and asylum are western Europe's toughest, and cultural identity is a dominant political issue. St. Alban's Anglican Church in Copenhagen thus represents a double minority: it is religious, and it is foreign. On the feast of Epiphany, a day that celebrates the meeting of diverse cultures in Christian faith, a visitor seeks out this little island of faith and internationalism. He finds a community of remarkable national heterogeneity worshipping together in a tolerant and respectful Christian ethos.

Located next to one of the canals that are so prevalent in Copenhagen, and quite near the royal palace, Saint Alban's is a beautiful Victorian gothic revival church, emulating Early English style, that towers over Churchill Park. Historical information is given in an excellent booklet available in the narthex for a suggested offering of one euro, and at the church's website (www.st-albans.dk). Only Lutheran churches were allowed in Denmark before 1849, when the Grundlov or Constitutional Act dismantled the absolute monarchy and declared freedom of religion. However, exceptions had generally been allowed for diplomatic legations, and Anglican chaplains could be found in Copenhagen as early as 1728. The little English community began renting quarters for worship in 1834, and in 1853 formed a building committee. An appeal for funds in 1864 to the prince of Wales (later Edward VII), soon after he had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark, was successful, and the two were present when St. Alban's, Copenhagen, was consecrated by the bishop of London in 1887. The church has held services regularly ever since. A thorough restoration was undertaken in the 1980s as a centennial project. The church has always been maintained by voluntary contributions. Since the 1980s it has been part of the Church of England's Diocese in Europe. It is the only Anglican church in Denmark, although an Anglican congregation meets eight times a year in Arhus, served by Saint Alban's clergy.

On 7 January 2007, when St. Alban's is celebrating the Epiphany, a visitor arrives for the sung eucharist at 10:30 AM. The building is itself international in inspiration: designed by an English architect, Sir Arthur Blomfield, it uses Danish stone for wall facings and dressings, Swedish stone for the bell tower, and English tiles for the roof. It is oriented to the east. Entering through a south porch at the west end, the visitor finds himself in a narrow and rather small narthex. Entering the nave through a large door at the right, he finds a single central aisle between rows of attractively carved oak pews (there are no side aisles), leading the sight to the very handsome chancel, with choir and sanctuary. Its dominant feature is the altar, adorned with candles; behind it stand three tall stained-glass windows, the central one portraying Jesus Christ crucified. The reredos, font, and pulpit are in terracotta and Doulton ware. A Christmas tree is placed to the left of the altar, which is adorned with a number of candles. In front of the pulpit stands a small table with a nativity scene. The ceiling is made of wood, the walls of Danish stone. …