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
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
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
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.