The London African Gospel Choir and Emeli SandéThe London African Gospel Choir and Emeli Sandé practice ‘Brighter Days’ ahead of the Commonwealth Day Service. [photo: Debbie Ransome]

There was an air of getting back to business at Westminster Abbey for Commonwealth Day 2022.

The 14 March Commonwealth Service, billed as A Celebration of the Commonwealth, had the theme of Delivering a Common Future with special focus on the importance of service, framed around the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

The gathering of royalty, diplomats, Commonwealth association leaders, religious representatives, artistes and, most importantly, excited schoolchildren, heralded the return to as close to normal as the Commonwealth has been in two years.

The most obvious change was the absence of the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth. The Queen’s legacy was very much present at the service, however. Speakers paid tribute to her 70-year reign as monarch and Head of the Commonwealth and her message of service. Lord Sentamu, formerly the Archbishop of York, took time from a reflection on world affairs to rally worshippers to shout “hip hip hooray”.

Perhaps a sign of things to come was the reduction of the royal family party at the Abbey. There was only one row of VIP chairs for Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Princess Alexandra.

Brighter days

The service was a life-affirming youthful message with songs reflecting the route of the Queen’s first Commonwealth tour in 1953. The Caribbean was served by British Queen of soul, Mica Paris, who sang that it was “gonna be alright” in her rendition of ‘Mama Said’. The Pacific was represented by New Zealand’s Whānau London Voices. In her Reflection, Tongan youth leader Elizabeth Kite spoke passionately about the importance of the “strength of the family unit” as volcano and tsunami-devastated Tonga re-established communications in December 2021 and received a message from the Queen. Pakistan-born British poet Imtiaz Dharker read a thoughtful poem exuding optimism to the accompaniment of sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun. The London African Gospel Choir and Emeli Sandé sang ‘Brighter Days’.

The streak of optimism in the service continued later with a rendition of the song ‘Beacon of Brightest Light’ by English National Opera soprano Nadine Benjamin with the Commonwealth Ensemble.

Click here to watch BBC TV: A celebration for Commonwealth Day

“Common Good”

The troubles of the wider world – from climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – were never far away. Delivering his Reflection, Lord Sentamu said, “Pessimists write this world off as a spent force; others await a divine airlift to carry them safely to another planet called ‘heaven’. Big mistake. God has not done with us, God’s plan is to transform his creation, not bin it.”

He added: “The word – Commonwealth – may be more of a vision than a reality, but it’s still of immeasurable worth. Not a power bloc, a political or military confederation, but a prototype of countries working together for the Common Good” (the capitals are his).

In her Commonwealth Day message, the Queen said: “In these testing times, it is my hope that you can draw strength and inspiration from what we share, as we work together towards a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future for all.”

She also took the opportunity in her message to renew her commitment to service, stating: “In this year of my Platinum Jubilee, it has given me pleasure to renew the promise I made in 1947, that my life will always be devoted in service.

“Today, it is rewarding to observe a modem, vibrant and connected Commonwealth that combines a wealth of history and tradition with the great social, cultural and technological advances of our time.”

In her Commonwealth Day message, Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland also spoke of the importance of service. She added: “After the change and challenge of the past two years it is fitting that, in such a momentous year for the Commonwealth, we are back together as a family to celebrate our special day.”

The Commonwealth in 2022

The Commonwealth Games baton was at its halfway point on 14 March as it is carried through nations slowly re-opening to a semblance of normal life. Games organisers are promising a USP at the July events, offering young athletes a chance to advocate their causes, without fear of sanction.

A series of royal tours are due to get underway, starting with Prince William and Kate on a three-nation tour of the Caribbean from 19 March. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall will attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June in Rwanda. The Earl and Countess of Wessex will visit other parts of the Caribbean in April, Prince Charles will visit Canada later this year and Princess Anne will visit Papua New Guinea in April. Two years on from Commonwealth Day 2020, it is clear that the royal family is embarking on what the British press has dubbed a royal charm offensive.

The message of family and unity sounded as loud and clear from Westminster Abbey as the bells at the end of the service.

The Telegraph’s headline was typical of the British press coverage, stating: “‘An example of duty and service’: The Queen watches from home as her spirit defines Commonwealth Day. Spontaneous ‘hip hip hooray’ for Her Majesty captures mood of a service devoted to celebrating the ‘modern, vibrant’ Commonwealth.”

Ms Kite’s message on Tonga summed up the role of a post-pandemic Commonwealth emerging into an unstable world. She spoke of “the importance of being there for one another.” She added: “This is the Commonwealth way because we are family”.

Debbie Ransome is the website editor for the Round Table and was a part of the BBC World Service radio coverage team for the Commonwealth Day Service.

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