A few months ago I was invited into Westminster Abbey to discuss writing some music for a service being planned for the evening of Armistice Day, the 100th anniversary and a Sunday (I’ve since learned that the actual Armistice was signed at 5am on a dull Monday morning.) The plans were as yet vague, still on the ecclesiastical equivalent of the back of an envelope. I departed with a few lines of New Testament and Psalms to set to music, on the general theme of light emerging from darkness.
Come the actual evening, and something very much greater was taking place than the ‘evensong plus’ I ‘d been expecting, with many dignitaries milling about, the Abbey packed, and BBC 1/Radio 4 presenting a live broadcast, with a thoughtful commentary by Fergal Keane. This turned out to be one of the most genuinely dignified national occasions I can recall. The tone was reflective, meditative and non-military. I will always remember its conclusion, the Queen and the German President beside the Unknown Warrior's grave which had been decked unusually in spring-coloured flowers, wordlessly shaking hands and smiling at each other before walking out of the Abbey in a downbeat, grandeur-resisting way. Leaving the building later, I had the rare sensation of being surrounded by an atmosphere of public hope and grace.
But the following week, hostilities soon resumed. In the Abbey on Sunday night, the Prime Minister had read an inspiring lesson on the subject of reconstruction [Isaiah 58: 6-12] but a few days later went on to make a deeply discourteous speech about EU citizens in the UK. Had she so quickly forgotten the concluding words from another of Sunday’s lessons, read with decorum, in German, by the President ? “Ihr Lieben, hat uns Gott so geliebt, so sollen wir uns auch untereinander lieben.” [Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another: 1 John 4: 7-12]
Pictured: Myatts Fields, Camberwell. Tents were quickly erected here in 1914 to house an extensive military hospital (in which Vera Brittain began her nursing career, and was later to learn of the death of her fiancé.)