Senior members of Britain’s royal family, led by Queen Elizabeth II, have attended the annual Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey. The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent nations who, within the commonwealth, are of equal status. Commonwealth countries are present in 26 Anglican provinces from the Americas to Oceania. The Christian service was attended by leaders of a number of different denominations and leaders of other faiths – some of whom read prayers.
The flags of the 53 Commonwealth nations were paraded through the Abbey at the start and end of the service, carried by young people nominated by the different High Commissions in the UK.
After Henry Baker’s hymn O Praise ye the Lord, the service began with a dramatised song of welcome by Ngāti Rānana – the London Māori choir. This was followed by a reflection by poet and teacher Jaspreet Kaur on the value of serving others. “The moment that you recognise than you will make more of an impact by being righteous, than always being right, rewards will come and fall into your lap,” she said. “And the moment that you are more concerned about learning to love than to be love, positive emotions of oceanic depths will engulf you; and the moment that you are more concerned about understanding others than to be understood, that is when your mind will truly begin to learn.”
It was a theme that echoed through the service. Diplomats, ambassadors and high commissioners from around the Commonwealth were present at the service, as were senior politicians from the UK, including opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Theresa May. Mrs May, the daughter of a Church of England priest, read from Romans 12: 3-13, before Liam Payne, from the band One Direction, sang Waiting on the World to Change, a song by John Mayer.
The doctor and eye surgeon Dr Andrew Bastawrous, who has developed a smart-phone app to help detect eye problems in the developing world, spoke about his own experience at being given a pair of glasses at the age of 12. “For the first time, I saw that trees had leaves on them,” he said. “And that night, I saw stars in the sky. It literally took my breath away.
“What else had I been missing? It turned out, a lot. With that simple pair of glasses, my education, social life, and hopes for the future changed dramatically. In fact, the entire trajectory of my life changed.”
He left the UK’s National Health Service to establish 100 eye clinics in Kenya, and there he developed the smart phone apps “that made it possible for non-specialists to measure someone’s vision, see inside their eye and connect them to the right services,” he said. The work was developed in India and then in Botswana, which, he said, “is set to screen every child in the entire country by 2020. . .
“For the first time in human history, it is within our power to eliminate avoidable blindness and poor vision for everyone, everywhere. Every country in the Commonwealth has the opportunity to transform their citizens’ eye-health in a matter of years, not generations. But no country can do this alone. Our work would not be possible without collaboration from our friends in Kenya, India, Botswana, and beyond.
“That is why the Commonwealth is so important. We have a shared history. But more importantly, we have a shared future. By working together, we can make that future better for millions of citizens across the Commonwealth and the globe.” He said that leading banks and health organisations are working to create a £1 billion GBP fund for universal eye-health across the Commonwealth.
The service continued with Paul Simon’s classic song Bridge over troubled water, sang by the Portsmouth Gospel Choir, before the hymn Lord of all hopefulness. Prayers were said by the Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, the Superintendent Minister from the neighbouring Westminster Central Hall Methodist Church, and Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of London, as well as a Rabbi, an Imam and representatives of the Baha’i and Zoroastrian communities.
The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, led an Act of Affirmation to the Commonwealth, in which the congregation were invited to “affirm our belief in justice for everyone, and peace between peoples and nations” and to “affirm our belief in the Commonwealth as a force for good in the world.”
In addition to the Queen, the service was attended by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall; his two sons, Princes William and Harry, William’s wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Harry’s fiancé Meghan Markle. Two of the Queen’s other children, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York; and Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, were also in attendance; as was Princess Alexandra, the Countess of Wessex and the Duchess of Gloucester.
“We all have reason to give thanks for the numerous ways in which our lives are enriched when we learn from others,” Queen Elizabeth said in a Commonwealth Day message. “Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future. There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.
“We shall see this in action at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which takes place in the United Kingdom next month, bringing together young people, business and civil society from across the Commonwealth. These gatherings are themselves fine examples of how consensus and commitment can help to create a future that is fairer, more secure, more prosperous and sustainable. Having enjoyed the warm hospitality of so many Commonwealth countries over the years, I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming the leaders of our family of 53 nations to my homes in London and Windsor.
“Sport also contributes to building peace and development. The excitement and positive potential of friendly rivalry will be on display next month as we enjoy the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. Contributing to the success of the Games, alongside athletes and officials, will be thousands of volunteers.
“Voluntary effort, by people working as individuals, in groups or through larger associations, is so often what shapes the Commonwealth and all our communities. By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.”
Next month, the political leaders from the 53 Commonwealth countries will meet in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). There will be a number of Anglican-related events happening around the CHOGM summit, following the appointment by the Archbishop of Canterbury of Flora Winfield as his Special Representative to the Commonwealth. More details of that meeting are due to be released later this week by the Commonwealth Secretariat.