A day of jubilant observation

Ashley Johnson

This year, Commonwealth Day and festivities for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee coincided in the annual Observance at Westminster Abbey. The event is Britain’s largest multi-faith gathering, and representatives from every major religion in the Commonwealth took part. Celebrating the association’s cultural diversity and wealth of talent, the ceremony included addresses from Dame Jane Goodall and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as well as standout performances from Hugh Masekela and Rufus Wainwright.

Commonwealth Day, marked on the second Monday in March every year since 1977 (the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year), is celebrated across the association’s 54 member nations. In the UK, an inter-faith Observance is held in Westminster Abbey, organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society on behalf of the Council of Commonwealth Societies. The event is Britain’s largest multi-faith gathering, and representatives from every major religion in the Commonwealth take part.

This year, the event took on new significance as it kicked off the Commonwealth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The Commonwealth theme for 2012, ‘Connecting Cultures’, also allowed for some of the association’s most renowned cultural icons to come together for a truly spectacular occasion.

During the proceedings, the South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, a civil rights activist and one of the world’s greatest horn players, filled the abbey with the soaring, joyful notes of his trumpet, and Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright performed his haunting interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

Dame Jane Goodall, DBE, the renowned primatologist and conservationist, gave the main address, while awardwinning Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also spoke in front of an audience that included Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Countess of Wessex.

Scotland’s national poet, Liz Lochhead, read her poem ‘Connecting Cultures’, which was specially commissioned for the Observance. Its final stanzas were particularly poignant for an audience acutely aware of the particular challenges facing the modern Commonwealth:

Commonwealth means A free association of independent member nations bound by Friendship, loyalty, the desire for Democracy, equality, freedom and peace.

Remembering how hard fellow feeling is to summon

When Wealth is what we do not have in Common,

May every individual

And all the peoples in each nation

Work and hope and

Strive for true communication –

Only by a shift and sharing is there any chance

For the Welfare of all our people and Good Governance.

Such words can sound like flagged-up slogans, true.

What we merely say says nothing –

All that matters is what we do.

In a moving embodiment of the Commonwealth theme, the Descarga Dance Company performed an extract from their full-length Afro-Caribbean streetdance spectacular, Asere: On My Mind. The word asere is a traditional Nigerian greeting that, in contemporary parlance, can be translated as ‘brother’ or ‘good and trusted friend’. The piece explores themes of love, friendship, shared history, possible futures and a meeting of cultures between a young Namibian woman and a man making his way from the Caribbean to Europe.

In her traditional Commonwealth Day message, the Queen acknowledged the enormous contribution Commonwealth citizens have made to the arts, and called the Commonwealth a “pathway” towards “mutual respect and common cause… which can draw us together, stronger and better than before”. She recognised the wealth of diversity within the association and the remarkable similarities of a shared humanity that bind us together.

A thousand children also attended the Observance. Each of the students had submitted an entry (a story, poem, drawing or video about themselves, their family, community or country) to the Royal Commonwealth Society’s ambitious online history project, the Jubilee Time Capsule. A selection of 60 of the best entries from around the Commonwealth will be chosen to form a special collection that will be sealed later in the year and presented to the Queen.

About the author:

Ashley Johnson is External Affairs Officer at the Royal Commonwealth Society


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