On November 1 – All Saints Day – the Very Reverend John Hall stepped down as Dean of Westminster Abbey. So comes to an end a truly remarkable thirteen-year period of adaptation, innovation, consolidation and expansion. We owe him much.
The Abbey is a unique institution. Its embrace of the Commonwealth is likewise unique, as multi-faceted as it is stimulating and reassuring.
By far the best known feature of this unique association is the annual interfaith Service on Commonwealth Day – the second Monday in March – attended by The Queen, members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and other members of the UK government, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, the High Commissioners, representatives of the numerous Commonwealth non-governmental organisations, leading Commonwealth personalities, and hundreds and hundreds of young people.
I have been, in one capacity or another, among those present at each of the last 37 of these inspiring occasions, and have kept the Orders of Service for them all.
The collection affords an incomparable triangular insight into the evolution of the Service itself, notably the breadth and depth of participation, in keeping with the evolution of the Commonwealth itself; into the development of interfaith contact and worship, in which the Abbey has been a weighty pioneer, and into the meaning for the UK of the Commonwealth, a sphere in which, forty years ago, there was considerable scope for improvement. It was a great advance when, in 2002, there was included as one of the themes for the Golden Jubilee celebrations in the UK “the significance of the Commonwealth in the development of our nation”.
That significance is now thoroughly grasped. There was a vibrancy about the 2018 Commonwealth Day Service that I had never before observed. It took place on the eve of the London Commonwealth Summit, one of the greatest international gatherings ever held in this country. In 2019 it was more of the same, as the UK pursued the discharge of its duties as Chair-in-Office.
The Commonwealth Charter points to the way ahead. Westminster Abbey, thanks in no small measure to John Hall, is unrivalled at illuminating it.
Sir Peter Marshall is Past President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a former Deputy Commonwealth Secretary-General, a former British diplomat and has served as a Permanent Representative to the United Nations.