YolanDa Brown performs during Commonwealth Day 2023 at Westminster AbbeySaxophonist YolanDa Brown performs Bob Marley's 'Is this love' at WEstminster Abbey. [source: BBC TV]

2023 is the flagship Year of Youth for the Commonwealth and this theme ran through the events on Commonwealth Day on 14 March.

The annual Service of celebration for the Commonwealth at Westminster Abbey delivered a line-up of young performers in a pacey event. As website editor of the Commonwealth Round Table, I’m often invited to take part in the BBC World Service coverage of the Westminster Abbey Service and I have served as “presenter’s friend” to veteran broadcasters including Jonathan Dimbleby and, most recently, Eleanor Oldroyd. At this year’s service, I have to admit that, even with all our radio experience, there was little space for additional commentary in the fast-moving delivery of readings, affirmations and, for the first time, a live Abbey address from the Head of the Commonwealth.

King Charles III took to the pulpit to deliver his address which the Palace had shared hours earlier with the Abbey and broadcasters. In previous years, the Head of the Commonwealth’s address had been presented the weekend before Commonwealth Day. This live delivery at the Abbey by the new monarch added a pace to proceedings, as did his message of “listening to each other” to “find so many of the solutions that we seek” and the “restless and practical pursuit of the global common good”.

King Charles said: “This extraordinary potential, which we hold in common, is more than equal to the challenges we face. It offers an unparalleled strength not merely to face the future, but to build it.”

He added that the Commonwealth has “an incredible opportunity, and responsibility, to create a genuinely durable future – one that offers the kind of prosperity that is in harmony with Nature and that will also secure our unique and only planet for generations to come”.

King Charles had also re-signed the Commonwealth Charter, marking ten years since his mother signed the original accord on Commonwealth values. A number of Commonwealth watchers expect the Charter’s tenth anniversary to trigger renewed focus on what King Charles called in his Commonwealth message the “defining values – peace and justice; tolerance, respect and solidarity; care for our environment, and for the most vulnerable among us”.

The King’s Commonwealth message
Commonwealth Day 2022
The King and the Commonwealth

Saxing up the nave

Another first at the Abbey was the jazzy delivery of Bob Marley’s Is this love by saxophonist YolanDa Brown, representing the Caribbean. YolanDa Brown must have been one of the first musicians at a Commonwealth Day Service to play while moving along the nave – to the delight of the schoolchildren and adults attending.

The lively performances often led to applause. This included appreciation of the lively National Ballet of Rwanda and the Sri Lankan singing duo Roshani Abbey and Nuwan Hugh Perera, performing Anagathaye – a song of longing for a hopeful future.

The Reflection by climate change activist Suluafi Brianna Fruean, from Samoa, also had the urgency of youth stamped across it. She said that there were millions of passionate young people like herself across the Commonwealth, not waiting to be leaders of tomorrow but embracing their role as active citizens today.

“We are not simply victims of this (climate change) reality, we have been fighting climate change and its causes, consumerism, pollution and the expanding fossil fuel industry for decades,” Brianna said.

“Youth have shown what real climate leadership looks like,” she added, describing her generation as “the most connected generation the world has ever seen”. She called for the world to give young people the space, opportunity and investment to be change makers on important issues.

She described herself as coming from “a Pacific village from a long line of voyagers … voyagers who knew that the strongest canoe was anchored and steered by our elders but powered by our youth.”

The Commonwealth Day Service:

The range of protests outside Westminster Abbey indicated some of the challenges the Commonwealth and its new Head will have to tackle – including LGBT+ rights and the role of the monarchy. UK diplomats around the world worked hard to push the profile of the Commonwealth in events published on social media.

A younger presence

The pace and energy of the Abbey service transferred later to the Commonwealth Day reception, this year held at Buckingham Palace. The reception is usually held at Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

This event included a number of young representatives from the Prince’s Trust and young people attending the Commonwealth Youth Leaders Summit and Commonwealth Youth Council at the Commonwealth Secretariat. As guests waited in the Palace grounds, young people from Kampala and Bristol shared their experiences of having their voices heard at the ongoing youth summit. They were strong in their intentions to “keep behind” the Commonwealth Secretariat, as one young person told me, to make sure that their goals are not just listened to, but acted upon.

In between these lively conversations as we waited to be shown into the Palace, these young and energetic representatives of the Commonwealth entertained one another with selfies, group photos and recording posts for social media with Buckingham Palace as the backdrop.

As we were shown into the reception and told to switch our phones off, it was then the turn of the new Head of the Commonwealth to hear their experiences.

Meet the King

At the reception, King Charles III seemed to make a beeline for the groups of young attendees. In turn, they flocked around him, enthusiastically sharing their tales and their experiences. For a long period into the reception, King Charles was surrounded by young people, listening intently to what they had to say.

The networking of representatives of Commonwealth associations moved into full mode as attendees, fatigued by Zoom gatherings, welcomed one another like long-lost family members.

Much of the talk was of the pace of the earlier Abbey service, the future of the Commonwealth and how to be more inclusive of the younger people around us.

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) had been the organisers of the Abbey event, in tandem with Westminster Abbey. As they mingled, its representatives explained how the design of the 2023 Abbey event had been agreed between the RCS, the Abbey and, most importantly, the new monarch.

History in the making

These felt like changing times with a new template being carved out between monarch and Commonwealth.

The year-long theme of youth will see a wide range of events particularly pitched at young people. After all, people aged between 15 and 29 represent 60% of the Commonwealth.

As the Commonwealth’s youthful representatives left the Palace reception, taking pictures and filming themselves on the Mall, it felt like a day’s snapshot of a new, energetic and youthful Commonwealth being forged by a Head who has had a long time to think this through.

Debbie Ransome is the website editor for the Commonwealth Round Table. There is also a website for articles from The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs publication.

Related articles:

The King’s Commonwealth message

The King and the Commonwealth

Royal Family website on Commonwealth Day

Commonwealth Day 2022