800 young people joined the Her Majesty The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth and senior Members of The Royal Family, High Commissioners, Commonwealth dignitaries and hundreds of invited guests at Westminster Abbey for the Commonwealth Service, to celebrate Commonwealth Day on Monday 11th March.
Commonwealth Day, the UK’s largest inter-faith celebration has been celebrated on the second Monday in March since the 1970’s however this year’s event was extra special, as it marks 70 years of the Commonwealth as it is today. Schoolchildren and youth group members attended from all over the United Kingdom, from Belfast to London to Manchester. Young people of ages 5-18 in 74 school and youth groups attended the Service this year. St Andrew’s Church of England Primary School, Barnsbury had a cohort of students attend with the rest of the school watching the Service broadcast live on BBC One. The Service broadcast live on BBC One and on the BBC Youtube channel allowed many more young children across the UK and around the Commonwealth to watch the Service and celebrate Commonwealth Day.
The Commonwealth Service typically contains a mixture of testimonies, musical and dance performances and readings. Each year the Service is based on the annual Commonwealth theme, which for 2019 is ‘A Connected Commonwealth’. The event has in previous years attracted contributions from Kofi Annan and Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, as well as performers Ellie Goulding, Annie Lennox and Liam Payne.
This Commonwealth Day children came together to explore what it means to be part of a ‘Connected Commonwealth’ in recognition of this year’s Commonwealth theme. This was highlighted by the diverse range of young people in attendance, including nine special needs schools, primary and secondary schools, state and private schools and a number of youth clubs. Eight groups from Northern Ireland benefited from the ‘Dean’s Fund’ which provides financial assistance to groups which are usually underrepresented in attending the Service to widen this unique experience to those from all backgrounds.
All groups were gifted a ‘Goody bag’ of educational resources, designed to facilitate learning about the values of the Commonwealth such as democracy, human rights and tolerance, respect and understanding. Our Bright Future, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the House of Commons, the British Council and WE Schools kindly gifted the materials included. These organisations provide learning tools and opportunities to young people in the UK.
The Tropical Flowers Séga Dancers from London opened the festivities, performing a traditional Mauritian dance as a procession of Commonwealth Flags representing all 53 nations proceeded through Westminster Abbey. The flag-bearers are chosen to represent their country with the support of the High Commissions, the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Pacific Islands Society. All of these individuals were chosen because of their contribution to their communities. Liam Malone, flag bearer for New Zealand is one such example as a para-athlete and two time gold medal winner in the 2016 Paralympics.
Lydia (Year Five) from St Andrew’s CE Primary School said:
“I really enjoyed finding out about the countries in the Commonwealth and seeing all of their flags paraded.”
Grammy Award-winning Clean Bandit, Britain’s Got Talent Finalists B-Positive and The Hertfordshire Commonwealth Choir with the Dionysus Ensemble, performed where the young people were seated. They thoroughly enjoyed this with one young student from Lancaster Road Primary stating “The music was amazing.” The Nation’s Tenor, Alfie Boe, The Dhol Foundation and William Barton who gave an enchanting recital on the didgeridoo also performed.
Lewis Pugh, UN Environment Patron of Oceans and one of the world’s leading inspirational speakers gave a very interesting speech. Lewis, a maritime lawyer, ocean advocate and a pioneer swimmer, spoke about his swim in the North Pole and the state of the planet’s oceans. He stated the importance of listening to our young people about climate change as they did not cause the problem but will ultimately have to deal with its consequences. Michael Brennan, a student from Four Seasons at the Learning Room stated:
“Lewis Pugh was inspirational. This had been one of the best days of my life.”
Faith leaders Rabbi Debbie Young-Sommers, representing Reformed Judaism; Maulana Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, representing the Shia Muslim Community; Lord Singh of Wimbledon, representing the Sikh Community and Father Daniel Humphreys, representing the Roman Catholic Church led the Prayers during the Service. The Rt Hon Theresa May MP, UK Prime Minister read the Bible Reading and Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, The Rt. Hon Patricia Scotland QC the congregation in the Act of Affirmation to the Commonwealth. The B Positive Choir, featuring Lurine Cato, concluded the Service with a stunning rendition of ‘Rise Up’. B Positive is the choir of NHS blood donation and it comprises people whose lives are affected by the lifesaving power of blood donation.
Young People who attended the Service had a marvellous time. A student from Fitzalan High School summed up the event saying:
“It was an amazing day; I felt honoured to be part of such a wonderful ceremony.”
Below are a few testimonials from young people who attended the Service who asked that their experience of the event be shared.
Maia Kazakova Garcia – Head girl (Year 12) Archbishop Holgate School said:
“I, along with a group of other fortunate students, had an amazing time on our trip to London to see the Commonwealth Service. After seeing the hustle and bustle of the city as we moved swiftly between Kings Cross Station, the Underground, Covent Garden Market and a brief yet detailed tour (given by Mr Nihill) of the National Art Gallery we couldn't possibly imagine the experience heightening in emotion. Yet, as we were ushered through the Great West Door past the paparazzi and took our seats just that goal had been achieved. Looking around, not one student failed to plaster a grin on their face as we waited with anticipation for the service. The build-up was most definitely worth it as we saw the choirs stand to sing, heard the trumpets begin to sound and felt the beat of the drums in our bones. Alongside the rest of the crowd we stood to see Her Majesty the Queen enter along with members of the Royal Family we had heard of for so long, yet never seen in real life. After hearing, seeing and feeling the instruments, the interesting speakers and the music performed I realised that the service was over and they were ushering everyone out, but instead of disappointment I remained elevated as we did not just attend the Commonwealth Service, we were part of it”
Emma Pomfrett (Year 10) Archbishop Holgate School said:
“Of all the opportunities school has given me, none has been as exhilarating, rewarding and unique as our trip to Westminster Abbey to be a part of the congregation in the 2019 Commonwealth Service. As well as visiting the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street and many more, we were able to experience a service in the presence of the royal family and the prime minister. This celebration of different cultures and faiths included a performance from Clean Bandit, Alfie Boe and a man playing a didgeridoo, which was made even more spectacular by a procession of flags before and after the service. For me, this experience has been truly memorable and has provided a sense of unity among different communities. Well done Archies!”
Emma Beale (Year 9) Archbishop Holgate School said:
“The commonwealth service was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see. There were amazing performers from dancers to trumpeters to Clean Bandit performing (my favourite were the drummers) and we could see the royal family and prime minister. For someone who loves learning about other cultures from our own, this was a great chance to learn about some of the other countries in the commonwealth, and their religions. Before the service, we were reminded of our own culture by visiting the national gallery and seeing the sights of London. We had a really memorable experience and it was beautiful to see 53 countries and many religions coming together to be a 'connected commonwealth'; the theme of the service.”