[The Chair of the Round Table Editorial Board, Victoria Schofield, reflects on activities to mark Commonwealth Day 2022.]
Her Majesty the Queen’s presence at the traditional Commonwealth Service in Westminster Abbey was much missed, especially given that the service was to mark the beginning of her 70th Platinum Jubilee celebrations. So last minute was her absence that the schedule of events, as listed in the programme, still stated that, on arrival, the Queen would be received by the Dean of Westminster. Instead, as has already become increasingly frequent, the Prince of Wales fulfilled her role, accompanied by the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and other members of the Royal Family. Seated close by was the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Boris Johnson, MP and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland, QC, who, in turn, were flanked by a galaxy of diplomats and officials as well as representatives from all Churches and faiths.
Sitting further back in a row of seats in the North Transept, I found myself in the company of friends and colleagues, looked over by a statue of a former foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, whose imposing figure dwarfed the living sitting beneath him. Old and young, with a good representation of school children, filled the Abbey’s nave. As Chair of the Editorial Board of The Round Table journal, I have always enjoyed the privilege of attending the Commonwealth Service in Westminster Abbey, amidst dignitaries, past and present. But this year it was doubly special after the two-year break because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected all our lives whatever our circumstances or nationality. My presence in this hallowed place also provided time for reflection.
I’d spent the morning in a committee room of the House of Commons listening to the wise words of another former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who had extolled the value of education and the importance of the rule of law, as practised by democratic countries, rather than ruling by law, as was the habit of dictatorships, the two uppermost in his mind, being Russia and China. Like all of us who believe in the values of the Commonwealth, he’d reminded his listeners that the organisation was unique, transcending continents and ethnicity – and yet sharing social, ethical and political values. Where there was failure, he said, citing the criticism often made of the United Nations, one should not blame the institution but ‘the failure of the member states for not having the collective will to use the institution’.
At the Abbey, once the members of the Royal Family had all taken their seats, the service began, the procession of the flags of the Commonwealth nations through the quire and lantern reminding us why we were there – to celebrate the fifty-four members of the Commonwealth, from the largest to the smallest, from the richest to the poorest, the oldest members to the newest. And, despite the Queen’s absence, I liked to think that, devoted as she is to the Commonwealth, she was sitting comfortably watching the service from her home, as any 95 year-old might feel entitled to do. During the address given by the Right Reverend and Right Honourable, Lord Sentamu, we were once again reminded of the Queen’s memorable speech on her 21st birthday in 1947, when she declared that her whole life ‘whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’
Inclusivity and diversity characterised the proceedings, which was part Church service with hymns, part concert and poetry-reading, the contributions carefully selected to represent the Commonwealth member countries in the Caribbean and the Americas, the Pacific, Asia and Africa. While English soul and gospel singer, Mica Paris, sang ‘Mama Said’, the Whãnau Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand gave a beautiful rendition of the popular Maori hymn, ‘Ka Waiata’. This was followed by Elizabeth Kite, the founding CEO of ‘Take the Lead Tonga’, giving a ‘Reflection’ of her life and work. Asia came next with poet, artist and video filmmaker, Imtiaz Dharker reciting one of her poems ‘Over the Moon’, accompanied on the sitar by Jasdeep Singh. Together with the London Africa Gospel Choir, Scottish blues singer, Emeli Sandé sung ‘Brighter Days,’ their respective voices resounding through the ancient Abbey with its spectacular vaulted ceilings, themselves a reminder of the building’s longevity and the transience of our times. As the service concluded, I especially noted the words of blessing given by Maulana Sayed Ali Abbas, who described people as being of two kinds: ‘brethren of religion or brethren of humanity’.
Yet the reality of the current political crisis dividing humanity was all too evident. With a dress code encouraging guests to wear ‘lounge suit or day dress with hats and gloves optional’ and that ‘national dress is also welcome’, one young woman in particular caught my eye. She had a yellow and blue floral wreath on her head, and was wearing a blue overcoat, with yellow trousers, and a blue and yellow handbag – a powerful indication that, while, year after year, the service might run along traditional lines, events worldwide are perpetually changing. When I asked the young woman where she was from, unsurprisingly she said ‘Ukraine.’
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