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Seventy years on, Churchill’s veterans give thanks

15 May 2015


FLAG-WAVING crowds in glorious May sunshine warmly applauded hundreds of Second World War veterans, and enjoyed a military parade outside Westminster Abbey last Sunday morning. In the Abbey, the national service of thanksgiving to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day recalled, in King George VI's words, "a great deliverance".

The Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching briefly, gave thanks not just for "victory over the greatest darkness of the 20th century, perhaps of all history", but for the "reconciliation-in-Europe" that had followed.

He spoke of the "course towards reconciliation and the dismantling of hostility" set by the Provost of Coventry, Richard Howard, in a broadcast sermon on Christmas Day 1940, after the German air raid that had destroyed much of Coventry, including its cathedral. The Provost had spoken of trying to banish all thoughts of revenge: "We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler - a more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife."

The Archbishop commented: "The peace for which we give thanks today - 70 years of the greatest peace in Western Europe since the departure of the Roman legions - remains an ongoing project of reconciliation in that world of which he spoke, not only for us but as a gift to our world, where conflict and extremism destroy hope, devastate prosperity, vanquish aspiration to a better life."

It had been not just a European but a world war; and the cramped side streets near the Abbey were full of diplomatic cars flying the pennants of nations around the world. The diplomats packed the south transept, and overflowed into the rows of press seating. The reporter next to me had been sent from China to cover Britain's commemoration of victory.

But the most numerous section of the congregation was made up of British and Commonwealth people who had served between 1939 and 1945: more than 1000, some in wheelchairs, many 90 years or more of age, decorated with their medals, even two or three rows apiece. One married couple from Dunstable - he had served in the Far East, she as a land girl - who were being interviewed in Victoria Street afterwards said that they were both now 94, and had found the Abbey service very moving: "I thought", the former land girl said, "of those who had gone before."

The Abbey doors opened at 9.30, and the Band of the Welsh Guards, a splash of colour halfway down the nave, and the cathedral's organists played the congregation, including representatives of Churches and other faiths, into their seats. The Duke of Kent, the Earl of Wessex, the Duke of York, the Prince of Wales, and the Duchess of Cornwall arrived before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who were greeted by a fanfare. Then there was silence as the Queen laid a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Warrior.

Most of the order of service would probably not have struck anyone as out of place in 1945. It was clearly Anglican in character, and included Bairstow's setting of Psalm 107 and Vaughan Williams's Te Deum in G (both composers who lived through the war), as well as hymns, which included "I heard the voice of Jesus say" and "Christ is the world's true Light".

But the Master of The Queen's Music, Judith Weir, also contributed an anthem in a contemporary style, which was a setting of verses from Psalm 136 and of a prayer said in the hourly services of thanksgiving in the Abbey on 8 May 1945. Those had been attended by 25,000 people, the Dean, the Very Revd John Hall, noted in his bidding.

The Air Chief Marshal, Sir Stuart Peach, read from Isaiah 58, and the Prime Minister read from Romans 8. Both lessons were in the Authorised Version. "It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again," said Mr Cameron, looking tired after his election victory, and pronouncing "yea" as "ye".

Seated not far from him was the Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, joining in the hymns lustily, with no hint of defeat. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, was in one of the stalls in front, wearing one of the morning's eye-catching hats.

After the sermon, the actor Simon Russell Beale went to the nave pulpit to read an extract from the King's VE Day speech, "speaking from our Empire's oldest capital city, war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed. . . In the hour of danger, we humbly committed our cause into the hand of God and he has been our strength and shield."

A VE Day veteran, Barbara Hurman, and several young people joined the Canon in Residence, the Revd Jane Sinclair, in leading the intercessions. After the Precentor led the General Thanksgiving from the Prayer Book, there was an Act of Rededication jointly led by another veteran, John Wilson, and the great-great-granddaughter of the war leader Sir Winston Churchill, Zoë Churchill.

The Last Post and Reveille were expressively sounded from the triforium gallery, and, as we left the Abbey after the National Anthem, the day's most extraordinary sound was heard: all the Abbey bells were fired - that is, struck simultaneously - as church bells up and down the land had been on VE Day itself.

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