The second Monday in March is Commonwealth Day, one of the most important dates in the Abbey's calendar.
4 minute read
Marked every year since the 1970s, Commonwealth Day recognises the unity and diversity of a remarkable family of nations, with a special service in the Abbey at the heart of the celebrations.
Darrion Narine from Trinidad and Tobago carried the Commonwealth mace in 2020. The mace is decorated with the flags of every member nation and was a gift of the Royal Anniversary Trust to The Queen on the fortieth anniversary of her accession to the throne
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster
Founded more than 70 years ago, the modern Commonwealth is an association of 54 member states with a combined population of 2.4 billion citizens, almost a third of the world's people. Commonwealth countries span Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. Members are diverse – they are amongst the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries, and are home to myriad cultures and religions. All members have an equal say regardless of size or wealth, ensuring even the smallest countries have a voice in shaping the Commonwealth.
The organisation has its origins in Britain’s former Empire, with almost all of its members having formerly been under British rule. Today’s Commonwealth was formally established by the 1949 London Declaration, which modernised the community and acknowledged the member states as free and equal. The declaration recognised King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth, a position held today by his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
Members work together to promote prosperity, democracy and peace, values which are celebrated each year at the Abbey service. Welcoming the congregation in 2020, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, said:
'We gather, in this house of prayer, to celebrate our common life as God’s people and to celebrate as a Commonwealth of Nations. Today, we look for the words to express a hope we can share, the common future in which all might flourish.
‘So, we pray for God’s guidance. We seek the gifts of an imagination that can hope abundantly and a courage to seize that hope. Confident in the richness and range of our Commonwealth, we are one people with one hope under God.’
Held on the second Monday in March, the service is Britain’s largest annual inter-faith gathering. It is traditionally attended by HM The Queen accompanied by members of the Royal Family.
They are joined by a 2000-strong congregation of High Commissioners and Ambassadors, faith leaders, honoured guests, and 800 school children and young people from across the United Kingdom.
The service is among the most colourful held at the Abbey, and begins with a procession of the flags of all 54 member states, proudly carried through the church by young citizens from each country.
Performers from across the Commonwealth share their traditions of music and dance, with congregations in recent years enjoying displays as diverse as Scottish dancing, Indian drumming, steel orchestras and didgeridoo playing.
The service has also heard addresses from inspirational figures ranging from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who spoke of the vital importance of girls’ education; to endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh on the impact of climate change on the oceans; and world heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medallist Anthony Joshua on his pride in his dual British-Nigerian heritage.
The service concludes with the Act of Affirmation to the Commonwealth, led by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, in which the congregation affirms that:
‘… every person possesses unique worth and dignity. We affirm our respect for nature, and that we will be stewards of the earth by caring for every part of it, and for it as a whole. We affirm our belief in justice for everyone, and peace between peoples and nations.’
As well as an important occasion for the Commonwealth, the annual service is a significant moment for members of the Abbey community, too. For the Abbey choristers, aged from 8 to 13, it’s a chance to sing for The Queen and members of the Royal Family, often live on television, and also to meet them afterwards.
The service in 2016, the year of The Queen’s 90th birthday, presented a particularly special opportunity. The boys presented Her Majesty with a framed picture of 'Choir Boy' – her first winning racehorse which won the Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot on 17th June 1953, just a few days after her coronation in the Abbey.
From all those who contribute to the Abbey service to the Commonwealth’s many institutions and partnerships, Commonwealth Day is an annual opportunity to celebrate this remarkable international organisation to which HM The Queen has lent her unstinting support throughout her life. As she said in her Commonwealth Day message in 2020:
‘On Commonwealth occasions, it is always inspiring to be reminded of the diversity of the people and countries that make up our worldwide family. We are made aware of the many associations and influences that combine through Commonwealth connection, helping us to imagine and deliver a common future.
‘This is particularly striking when we see people from nations, large and small, gathering for the Commonwealth Games, for meetings of Commonwealth governments, and on Commonwealth Day. Such a blend of traditions serves to make us stronger, individually and collectively, by providing the ingredients needed for social, political and economic resilience.
‘Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to see and hear how membership of the Commonwealth family means so much to those living in all parts of the world, often in places that are quite remote. Advances in technology and modern media have now enabled many more people to witness and enjoy - with remarkable immediacy - this experience of Commonwealth connection, in areas such as education, medicine and conservation.
‘As members of this very special community, on this Commonwealth Day, I hope that the people and countries of the Commonwealth will be inspired by all that we share, and move forward with fresh resolve to enhance the Commonwealth’s influence for good in our world.’
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.