A hush comes over the crowd as 3pm approaches. The screen on the pillar above us shows the royal family arriving outside Westminster Abbey. The organ plays slowly but loudly. You can feel the sound reverberating through the building as it begins to ramp up.
The Queen’s car pulls up and the volume climaxes. Trumpets blare. I see on the screen that the people near the abbey entrance stand. It takes about five seconds before we’re all, like a wave, on our feet.
The Commonwealth Service had begun.
On Monday March 11, I sat a few rows behind the Queen during the annual ceremony. When the BBC cameras panned to her and the royal family, I can be seen behind them in the sea of faces.
In January, the Canadian High Commission (Embassy) mentioned in their monthly newsletter that they were looking for a flag bearer for the service. So, I secretly nominated my partner, Christian, who is also Canadian and a student at Oxford University.
We were eating breakfast a few weeks later when my phone dinged.
“I need to tell you something,” I said, before explaining what I had done and that the High Commissioner had selected him. “Commonwealth, what?” he said.
As the Canadian flag bearer, he was allowed one guest — AKA, me.
The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of 53 former British Empire countries, encompassing 2.4 billion people. This year marks the 70th anniversary since the London Declaration was signed, allowing India to remain a member following its independence and continues to be the group’s foundational document.
The Commonwealth Service is the UK’s largest multi-faith celebration, bringing together over 12 religious communities.
I asked the young woman beside me near the end of the service if she has a grandmother who is always on her case to go to church. She replied that yes, her mother is like that. “I feel like this is the Queen’s way of getting kids to church,” I said, and she agreed.
Despite the excitement of sitting in such a grand venue in the presence of possibly the most-photographed woman in the world, I began nodding to the readings and messages of the service.
The theme was ‘a Connected Commonwealth.’ Sermons from Prime Minister Theresa May and representatives of Reformed Judaism, Sikhism, Roman Catholicism and others spoke about the conservation of nature and protecting future generations. Climate change wasn’t mentioned directly but was clearly part of the narrative.
“Let us pray for a renewed commitment to work together, to appreciate our connectedness, and through it to repair the damage we have done,” said Maulana Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, representing the Shia Muslim Community. “That there may be a future of Shalom, which means wholeness for the planet and for us all.”
Christian and I talked about the day’s events over a couple of pints afterwards and how, yes, there is actually a lot of literature in religious scripture about protecting and caring for the environment. The message had hit home.
Before the church service, I attended a reception at Canada House where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, were special guests. Most of us, students or young professionals, were given white slips of paper, while a select few were given purple or green ones.
Like some weird social experiment, we were segregated into different rooms. The royal couple sat and chatted with the purples and greens, while their last stop was with us whites. We all stood and listened to two Aboriginal Canadian throat-singers perform on a small stage.
Admittedly, it was awkward. Most of the room stared at the Duke and Duchess while they stood in the centre of the room and casually watched the performance in front of them. Cameramen and photographers jostled for the best shots.
“We kind of claim you,” the Canadian High Commissioner said to the Duchess in her speech and we all laughed. The couple’s relationship bloomed while she was living in Toronto. Their first public outing was there during the 2017 Invictus Games.
As the Queen walked out of the abbey with a big smile at the end of the service, I couldn’t help but think that she looked a little smug, in a good way of course. Whether she was involved in the day’s message, I can’t say. But I felt she was pleased, like my own grandmother used to be, to see so many young faces in the congregation.
Even if it was on Monday afternoon in a ceremony filled with pomp and ceremony, celebrities, world leaders and the royal family.