Sandwiched between International Women’s Day (8 March) and St Patrick’s Day (17 March) is Commonwealth Day. Celebrated in 2016 on Monday 14 March, this is not a date-bound commemoration but always falls on the second Monday in March. Like the celebrations of the global achievements of women and the usually more exuberant affirmations of Irish identity, Commonwealth Day is marked across the globe, and not only in the 53 member countries of the modern Commonwealth. Geneva, Stockholm, Hong Kong and New York have all seen ceremonies recognising the role and achievements of the Commonwealth, as well as more public events across the association itself.
London is invariably the focal point for Commonwealth Day activity – but only because that is usually where the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth, will be found. She is the Commonwealth’s most enthusiastic supporter and has worked in a myriad of unobtrusive but often significant ways to sustain and embolden the organisation.
2016 is the year in which the Queen turns 90, and for 64 of those years she has been the Commonwealth’s Head, the second to hold office. Commonwealth Presidents and Prime Ministers – and a few Kings and Queens – have come and gone. Deeply contentious issues – like Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa – have convulsed the association and occasionally brought it close to dissolution. In over half a century, the world has changed beyond measure, as has the Commonwealth itself. Yet her commitment to the association has been constant.
The roots of this special day stretch back to 1898, and the pioneering efforts of Clementina Trenholme, a Canadian. From a celebration marked in schools in Ontario, Empire Day (as it was called) quickly became a Canada-wide event, before being picked up and instituted in the United Kingdom on the initiative of Lord Meath. Thereafter, it was established across the Empire in order “to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens”.
After the First World War, the scale of the Empire’s losses in the conflict and the awakening of national self-determination and colonial freedom gave the annual commemoration a more sombre and partisan character, though it was not re-named as Commonwealth Day until 1958. Even so, it took another Canadian initiative – this time, by the Canadian government itself, after pressure from the Canadian National Council of the Royal Commonwealth Society – to breathe new life into the annual event. Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, initiated a debate at the 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Jamaica. The long-standing link to Queen Victoria’s birthday (24 May) as the date for the celebrations was abandoned in favour of a day earlier in the year, without historical connotation, when children across the Commonwealth might be at school and able to take part in activities.
In the UK, the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), together with others, first organised a service of affirmation and faith on Commonwealth Day in 1966, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, by Trafalgar Square in the heart of London. This was attended by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh but aroused huge controversy because of the multi-faith character of the event. With the Archbishop of Canterbury making known his displeasure, the Bishop of London, Robert Stopford, ruled that neither St Martin nor any other Anglican church in the diocese could be used for such unsound theological practices.
For some years, the Observance retreated to the secular surroundings of the City of London’s Guildhall, though some felt that a multi-faith ceremony deserved a sacred setting. That was evidently the view of the Queen who resolved the issue by offering Westminster Abbey as the venue. As a ‘royal peculiar’, the Abbey lay outside the jurisdiction of any Bishop or diocese of the Church of England, with the Dean of Westminster directly accountable to the monarch.
The way was therefore clear and the first Observance at Westminster Abbey took place in 1972, amid protest and dispute. However, since then, with the active support of a succession of Deans, the Observance has continued there ever since.
While the event is no longer controversial, in recent years the Observance has lost much of its multi-faith content and has, ironically, become much more of a Church of England service. Indeed, in 2016, it is simply described as a ‘Commonwealth Day Service’, and no longer “a Multi-Faith Observance for Commonwealth Day”.
This is a pity. The Abbey, as a national shrine, provided the nine principal faiths with a home for multi-faith worship when no other church, mosque, temple or synagogue would have sufficed. The essentially theistic ceremony (albeit with a Christian orientation) was intended to draw together, with Christianity, the different religious traditions in the Commonwealth (being Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Jain, Baha’i and Zoroastrian faiths).
What has made the ceremony special has been the search for common ground in the values and principles of all faiths (and revealed in their sacred texts) and how these also find expression in the core values underpinning the Commonwealth and embodied in its Charter.
Given the degree of religious conflict and persecution in the Commonwealth, this is surely a point of commonality worthy of more attention and better understanding, rather than less.
Nevertheless, whatever its character, the celebration of Commonwealth Day in Westminster Abbey this year will reach a wider much audience than usual, given the BBC’s plans to televise the service. It promises to be a joyous and exuberant occasion, and a thousand schoolchildren are expected to take part.
The RCS, which (with the Abbey) organises the Service, on behalf of the Council of Commonwealth Societies, is also involved in other events in and around Commonwealth Day, including through its worldwide network of societies and branches. Other Commonwealth organisations use the opportunity to mount conferences, lectures or social events, and there are many activities involving young people and schools.
A recent innovation, inspired by the Pageantmaster Bruno Peek, is the practice of flying the blue and gold Commonwealth flag in prominent positions in the UK and across the Commonwealth.
So far, so colourful – but does it all matter? Should Commonwealth Day – like Empire Day before it – be allowed to slip away into history?
There is the argument that the practice of selecting special days to highlight a particular organisation or cause – a much developed habit at the United Nations – is usually an indicator of their unimportance and poor profile.
In an association of such diversity as the Commonwealth, presenting a common and visible image to the world is a constant challenge. The Commonwealth Games, which takes place once every four years, are probably the most high-profile expression of the Commonwealth, followed by the biennial gathering of Commonwealth leaders and governments (and increasingly their businesses, civil society organisations, women and young people). But, these fleeting moments apart, the modern Commonwealth can mean very little to its 2 billion citizens, unless there is a particular programme or activity which is having a specific impact on a member country.
All this therefore argues for an annual, worldwide celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations – its achievements, its peoples and its ambitions – on Commonwealth Day; and for the active involvement in those festivities of the association’s Head. She, at least, is someone whose global profile could scarcely be higher.
Stuart Mole is the Chair of the Commonwealth Round Table and the Vice-Chair of the Commonwealth Association. As Director-General of the Royal Commonwealth Society, he was involved in the organisation of the Commonwealth Day Observance in Westminster Abbey between 2000 and 2009.