For a blog that tries to follow the liturgical year, things get confused because the Cathedral does other things as well, for instance on the second Sunday in March we hold a service for Commonwealth Sunday. The Queen’s Message is sent from Westminster Abbey (where a splendid service is held) to the Royal Commonwealth Society which then distributes the message around the world. The protocols for the message stipulate a time before which the message is embargoed. This year there was a delay and it was touch and go whether we would receive it in time for the service (or for the address to be prepared). It is a civic service; it has a strong focus on the young; and the challenge in the address (from my point of view) is not to be too ‘preachy’ …
From the start of her message, HMTQ (Her Majesty the Queen) gives us an image of the Commonwealth as she speaks of a baton that will be carried around the world by thousands of people. It will involve people of different races, diverse backgrounds and it will traverse vastly different types of terrain, coasts and mountains, through different climates, across islands and continents. It is an ambitious concept: it is not just delivering a message to the Commonwealth Games but it is mapping in the most direct and tangible form the physical and cultural diversity of the Commonwealth. It gives the abstract idea of the Commonwealth renewed substance and form.
In a time when digital technology, social media and globalisation have shrunk the world and made diversity and difference accessible on your smartphone, this finite physical journey recreates the imagination of the Commonwealth. Differences, people and places and their connections (and disconnections) become real.
Her Majesty suggests that this real sense of difference and diversity is what makes the Commonwealth a good agent for building peace. That seems reasonable: the kind of familiarity that grows through acquaintance, experience, mutual respect and tolerance has the capacity to build bridges, make connections across cultures. The Commonwealth can indeed be a force for good in the world.
The trouble is that this capacity for being such a force for good is more often aspirational than substantial.
The Commonwealth may be described as a family of nations but there are states in conflict with each other; in many nations there is rampant corruption and an ever widening gap between the affluent and the poor. (That is always a recipe for disaster.)
The fact is that the Commonwealth does not inhabit a privileged space or hold a secure identity. It experiences all the forces that trouble the rest of the world, especially now: climate change, global warming, pollution, the destruction of the environment and wild life. Globalisation has broken its boundaries and challenged its identity. And as members of the Commonwealth will know, the Commonwealth identity does not always confer any privileges at an airport’s immigration control and, on entering the United Kingdom, I still remember my sense of indignation at being directed to wait in the queue for aliens.
Is the Commonwealth just an idea? It has historical connections and shared narratives – but now, is it just an idea, a sentimental association fading away almost as we watch, as the world changes?
These are uncomfortable questions but is it an idea that has the capacity for good; an idea worth holding on to? I believe so and that is the strength and the faith in the Queen’s Message. The story of the baton is the symbol of an idea – of a shared story, diverse, often tenuous in its sharing but with this capacity to draw people together and to seek a common good and a peaceful path. Today is a moment when we celebrate those who hold honours for their service to the nation; a time when, in our hearts, we pass on the baton for such service to a new generation as we acknowledge our schools and university colleges represented here. We pass on the baton today and the idea lives.