“To serve the Queen and help other people” – The Commonwealth Service, 11 March 2019

Written by Sue Corrance

Ding! The sound of another email from Girlguiding pinging into my inbox. Girlguiding LaSER was seeking volunteers to usher guests at a service at Westminster Abbey in March. It was years since I last visited, put off by the crowds and the entrance fee. I wasn't working that day and I had the chance to go in for free, so I signed up.

Emails passed back and forth checking security details, passport info, official names and eventually, the day dawned bright and extremely chilly. I put on my best uniform and set off early, dropping in at HQ for a spot of shopping. Badges bought – and a Girlguiding waterproof in distinctive blue as the wind was bitterly cold – I still had an hour to kill and the reception team showed me to the members’ area for free tea and coffee (and wifi)! What a lovely facility we have access to, and one I’m definitely going to use again. Thanks team!

It was soon time to set off. As I left, there was another leader heading for the Abbey so we walked together, chatting all the way. What a fantastic sisterhood we have, that gives us so much in common and makes conversation and friendship so very easy! We soon reached our designated entrance and found our names “on the list” so security let us through the fencing, barriers and gates, where we met a few more uniformed sisters braving the chill. The blue of those waterproofs is visible a mile off!

As I saw the sniffer dogs and the ranks of police, security guards, and TV broadcast vans, it was starting to dawn on me that this service was going to be a bit of a big deal.

Our group grew to 15 and we were welcomed by the Royal Commonwealth Society team. We were given a few minutes to familiarise ourselves with the seating layout (and take a couple of pictures at the Baden Powell memorial) before a stewards’ briefing in the impressive surroundings of the wooden panelled Jerusalem Chamber. The directory of instructions and timings ran to 40 sheets – thankfully we didn’t have to absorb all of the intricacies - and once the security briefing was over, we took our places. I was stationed with the team in the south transept. The guests started to filter in soon after 1.30pm and the cameras went live at 2.15pm. My team’s responsibility was to check tickets for the seating area behind the Royals and the diplomatic guests - this included the faith leaders and representatives of the press. We also seated the flag bearers - including four Brownies and Cubs who were to escort the actual Commonwealth Flag. It was fantastic to see Girlguiding and Scouting represented so significantly at such a prestigious event.

By 2.30pm, the seats were almost full and our team expected to take empty places behind pillars. Yet, at the last minute, our allocated steward placed us in seats just a few rows behind the Diplomatic Corps – almost the best view in the Abbey. What a treat! The procession began: honoured guests from around the world, athletes, representatives from faith communities and churches, and the flags from the countries of the Commonwealth, and then the Royal family – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, and Her Majesty the Queen accompanied by the Duke of York. We were metres away. Singing the National Anthem has never felt more poignant and I longed to make my promise hand at the same time but wasn’t quite brave enough.

And so to the service.

This 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth in its current form was truly a joyous celebration of all that it embodies. The Dhol Foundation performed an impressive drum reel, the tantalising beat echoing round the ancient structure of the Abbey. Then, a distinct move to the modern, ringing sound of Symphony by Clean Bandit. Lewis Pugh, the Arctic swimmer, shared what drives him as he dives into the icy waters; namely, the importance of commitment to an aim. We were audibly shocked as he told us how the temperature of those polar waters has risen from 3 degrees to 10 degrees on his last swim. For those who still doubt that climate change is a thing, the thermometer doesn’t lie.

The Prime Minister read a Bible passage from Corinthians – “the body does not consist of one member but of many”. The press seemed to miss the irony.

And then the didgeridoo, an instrument I had never heard, played live. William Barton has a fascinating technique, combining vocal sounds, vibrations, and knocking to create a deeply mystical resonance; when the full force of the sound waves was pointed directly at you, it was easy to imagine how it became a spiritual experience to the Aboriginal people.

Alfie Boe followed with an unaccompanied rendition of Snow Patrol’s “Run” and after a hymn (aptly, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways”) and prayers from Jewish, Shia, Sikh and Catholic leaders, we pledged to uphold the values of the Commonwealth. How reminiscent of our own Girlguiding promise. “We affirm our belief in the Commonwealth as a force for good in the world, and pledge ourselves to its service, now and for the future”. Whatever happens with Europe, we can all stand behind the kinship of Commonwealth, its respect for nature, justice for everyone and peace between peoples and nations.

The service began to draw to a close with a gentle yet powerful and passionate performance of “Rise Up” by the B Positive Choir, finalists of Britain’s Got Talent 2018, many of whom have blood-related conditions. Another hymn (“Lead us, Heavenly Father”) and a Blessing, and the Queen and her family processed to the Great West Door where they received posies, including one from a Rainbow (although the tabloids described her only as “a little girl all dressed in red”).

Once the Royals had left the building, photos were allowed and we snapped away, soaking up the atmosphere. After tidying up our transept, I stopped to talk to one group of Guides and their leader who had come from Wiltshire to attend the service; this is the sort of event that none of us will ever forget. I floated through the rest of the week, absolutely buzzing and telling anyone who would listen about the amazing opportunities that Girlguiding gives. I am so fortunate to have a job that allows me to swap my working hours around, so I could say “yes” when Girlguiding LaSER asked for volunteers. Thank you to Girlguiding for days like this. Yes, I absolutely promise to do my best. Yes, I will continue to develop my beliefs and yes, I will willingly serve my Queen and help other people. And I’m definitely keeping an eye out for the next request for help!

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