Lady Howe - Civic Service Address at BPC 


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"From the moment that I stepped out of that very early tube train from Amersham, my thoughts moved to the King and his Queen, and to the significance of the occasion I was about to witness.   It was of course 70 years since anyone had seen a Coronation.   In 1953 many millions of people crowded round small black and white TV sets to catch a glimpse of the historic crowning of the late Queen.  Yesterday, I was amongst the thousands of well-wishers who, in person, had flocked to our capital city to witness for themselves a ceremony and a pageant like no other. I had immediate feelings of a sense of gravity, of purpose, and optimism for the future which I am sure were just what people experienced 70 years ago.

But many of us may not have fully appreciated the weight of history that rests on the Coronation service.  It is, as it has been for a thousand years, the dedication of the Sovereign before God.  It signals the sacrificial role they will play in the service of the nation. Many of the traditions still present today date back to ancient rituals even as far back as to King Solomon. And the English Coronation rite is the only one of its kind which remains in the Christian world.  The ritual of both anointing and crowning the new Monarch.

Both my husband and I were lucky enough to be guests. He, as a peer, was successful in the ballot at the House of Lords and me in my position as His Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. My role is to serve the Monarchy in the county, to uphold the dignity of the crown and to celebrate successes and thank people who work for the good of our county, so you can imagine that I couldn’t have felt more proud to be at the service representing Buckinghamshire.  

Having arrived in Westminster at 7.30am we promptly had to go our separate ways, each of us with a different coloured ticket, assigned to different parts of the Abbey. As I approached the north door, the mood of excitement and good will was almost tangible, with police in huge numbers acting as helpful marshals; along with hundreds of scouts, girl guides, and St John Ambulance volunteers.  Then as I joined the queue to enter the Abbey in front of me was a recent BEM recipient from Buckinghamshire, she turned saw it was me and spontaneously gave me a hug!  She was thrilled to have been selected to come to the Coronation.

But it was only on entering Westminster Abbey that the magnitude of the occasion struck home. 
The King had requested that as many members as possible of the ordinary public should be present; Indeed despite the earliness of the hour much of the nave was already full; not full of the traditional ‘great and good’, but the good; 450 extraordinary men and women, recent recipients of the British Empire Medal, invited in recognition of the service they have given to their local communities. Soon, alongside them there appeared foreign heads of state, former prime ministers, a procession of faith leaders, representatives from Royal families around the world, heads of the Commonwealth, and then the King’s own close family.

All this I witnessed from my seat; and even now, I can hardly believe the privilege accorded to me in being able to do so. We were able to choose where we sat in the nave and I had the incredible good fortune to find an empty seat next to The Governor General of Jamaica. We enjoyed a lively conversation as soon as I sat down!

In front of me, there was a lady from South East Asia. Behind me was a holder of a British military medal. And simply from the juxtaposition of those three people it was impossible not to appreciate that one of the themes of this unique occasion was that of diversity; men and women from all parts of the world and from all parts of our own community, meeting together with a shared purpose. It was the palpable diversity in the congregation that instantly set apart this Coronation from any of its predecessors in our history. And that theme of diversity manifested itself in all sorts of ways throughout the service that followed.

Most of you, I am sure, will have seen something of yesterday’s ceremony, and if you were watching the TV coverage, you will undoubtedly have seen even more than I did, and would I am sure agree with me that the service was as magnificent as it was moving – and moving not least for its rich array of music. The King had personally chosen the programme – a heady mix of anthems by famous English composers and works specially commissioned from composers of our day. The Choristers from Westminster Abbey school, the Abbey organist, and the Coronation orchestra have surely never played and sung more wonderfully. But again, in the music, we found that theme of diversity revealing itself as never before: contemporary women composers alongside the men; the Abbey choristers alternating with Afro-Caribbean Gospel singers. I experienced those goosebump moments when the grandeur of the sound was almost overwhelming.

We were lucky enough from our positions in the nave to have large Television screens judiciously positioned on the abbey pillars so that we could see beyond the magnificent rood screen which separates the chancel from the nave.  

And so as the service progressed we could witness the solemn rites and rituals that combine to make the crowning of a monarch such a deeply spiritual occasion. To speak of the proceedings as a blend of the old and the new fails to capture its true essence. One felt the ancientness and hence the deep significance, of each step in the process of sanctifying a king; the royal anointing, out of all public view, with oil from the Mount of Olives; the humility of a king stripped of his finery; the powerful symbolism of each element of the royal regalia; and the time-hallowed words uttered by the archbishop and in turn by his sovereign.

Together, these rituals achieved something almost other-worldly. There were times when the abbey fell totally silent, and you could have heard a pin drop. When the crown was at last placed on the king’s head, I felt the tears pricking. I also felt the weight of those crowns on the Heads of their Majesties. The magnificence of the jewels but also the immense weight of responsibility on their shoulders.   

And in all those words uttered by the king, the Archbishop and the congregation, one could not mistake another theme permeating the occasion: that of service. With the sanctification of a king comes the king’s declaration of service to God and his people, and alongside it, the solemn promise of all those present to serve both the king and those in our communities. A message which everyone in the Abbey would have recognised as already integral to their own lives.

As the Coronation came to its magnificent conclusion with the William Walton Te Deum, and the King and Queen processed out, I dropped to a curtsey in deep respect.  I realised that I had been in the Abbey for no fewer than five hours. The time did not drag. Indeed, I am sure I was not alone in barely believing I had been part of such a momentous event. I had not just been observer of the event; I felt I had shared in it - the Coronation of our new Sovereign! And to have represented the county of Buckinghamshire, as I was privileged to do, made me doubly proud.

In designing the service and its guest-list as he did, and in the way that he has comported himself ever since his accession, the King has demonstrated, unmistakeably, a continuation of Her late Majesty the Queen’s wish that the citizens of this country should feel that the Crown – in however intangible a way – 'belongs' to them. I am sure that yesterday, the thousands of people gathered to line the streets of London to cheer their King and his Queen, will indeed have felt that the Crown and its wearer was truly theirs."

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