St John’s Day

Museum of the Order of St John Katy Wild, Collections Volunteer

St John’s Day is celebrated here in London with a ceremony that combines all the grandeur and pageantry of the Order of St John’s historical past with a contemporary message, relevant to members of the St John Ambulance today.

ALT="A man in the black robes with white eight pointed cross of the Order of St John talks from a lectern in St Paul's Cathedral"
Prior Rodney Green, 2015

The Annual Service of Commemoration and Re-dedication takes place at St Paul’s Cathedral, but its origins sit way back in the Order’s medieval past. The Feast of St John the Baptist was usually celebrated everywhere in England on 24 June and was a major festival in the church calendar – as can be seen from the modern word “holiday”, which derives from “holy day”, it was also an opportunity for ordinary people to have a day’s break from work, accompanied by feasting and drinking.

When Henry VIII broke from the Church in the sixteenth century, the cult of saints was one of the areas that met with official disapproval. The Feast of St John the Baptist largely disappeared from Protestant countries, though it is still celebrated in Catholic Europe, such as the Festa de Sao Joao in Oporto in Portugal. With the revival of the Order in the nineteenth century, this traditional celebration day was revived and adapted into an annual event, to commemorate the Order and rededicate members to its original charitable purposes.

The Annual Service of Commemoration and Re-dedication, in the magnificent baroque setting of St Paul’s Cathedral, is the high point of the day, which starts early with Holy Communion at the Priory Church followed by the General Assembly – usually held at Mansion House, though moved this year because of the anti-austerity march in the City. The ceremonies of the Order, like those of other orders of chivalry, are based upon those of the Order of the Garter, but have been adapted to suit the circumstances of the Order. Priory Affairs have to organise the processions according to a strict hierarchy, with senior members of the Order and the Lord Mayor entering the Cathedral last but exiting first – you may have noticed another example of this ancient practice at church weddings, where the bride always enters last, but leaves first!

The Order symbols are an important part of the ceremonial: the Sword of the Order represents the temporal or earthly jurisdiction of the HM The Queen as Sovereign Head of the Order, and is customarily carried by the most senior member of the Order present. The Cross of the Order represents the spiritual jurisdiction of the Prelate of the Order and is carried before the Priory Dean. The Priory Banner is carried before Representative Officers and Commanders and Knights and Dames of Justice and of Grace of the Order. All these important symbols of the Order, along with the National Colour of St John Ambulance, are received at the High Altar as symbols of loyalty, honour and devotion. The Lord Mayor (who is the elected Mayor of the City of London, not the more recently created office of the Mayor of London) enters last, accompanied by his Sword Bearer and the Sergeant of Arms, carrying the impressively substantial ceremonial Mace.

Once everyone is in place in the Cathedral, there is a magnificent trumpet fanfare from the Fanfare Trumpeters of The Band of the Prince of Wales’s Division. This signals the start of the service, with hymns, lessons and prayers. An important focus in the 2015 service was the commemoration of the First World War: the First World War Roll of Honour, recording 1,077 members of the St John Ambulance who gave their lives during the First World War, was placed on the altar and their supreme sacrifice remembered by the lowering of Banners in salute. The Dean, in his sermon, also stressed the enduring importance in a busy world full of division and conflict of the Order’s original motto: Pro Fide – for the faith – and Pro Utilitate Hominum – for the service of humanity.

Impressive though the ceremonial undoubtedly is, it can never overshadow the Order’s guiding purpose: to help all who are in need through sickness, distress, suffering and danger, without distinction of nationality or religious belief.

ALT="Members of a brass band in red play during the St John's Day service at St Paul's Cathedral"

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