WESTMINSTER ABBEY opened its doors on Thursday evening to 2000 or so people who have made a difference to their communities at a carol service held in memory of the late Queen.
The “Together at Christmas” service was led by the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, but hosted by the Princess of Wales, in that the invitations to guests and performers were issued in her name, and she is reported to have helped shape the programme. The aim was to reflect the late Queen’s “strongly held values of duty, compassion and faith”, the order of service said.
The Princess arrived first, alone, to be joined later by the Prince of Wales, their two older children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the King and Queen Consort, and other senior members of the Royal Family, dressed in co-ordinating outfits of burgundy and cream. It was business as usual in the face of the harsh winds blowing east from California. The crowd outside the Abbey seemed unaffected by the Netflix criticism, greeting each member of the Royal Family with enthusiastic cheers.
The congregation — many of whom had queued outside the Abbey for a considerable time in bitter temperatures — represented charities particularly important to the Prince and Princess of Wales and supported by their Royal Foundation: organisations promoting mental health, supporting families, creating a more inclusive society, and supporting early childhood.
The service offered a mixture of well-known carols and celebrity turns. It began with “Once in Royal David’s City”, the first verse sung solo by a chorister. An opening prayer was followed by a seasonal serving of Rutter (“What sweeter music”), sung by the Abbey choir, before a reading from the second chapter of St Luke’s Gospel (“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus. . .”), delivered by the boxer Nicola Adams, a late stand-in for the Paralympian Kadeena Cox.
After a congregational carol — “O Little Town of Bethlehem” — the former Spice Girl Mel C and the operatic tenor Alfie Boe sang a setting of “Silent Night”.
There followed a reading by the Prince of Wales: a poignant extract from the Queen’s Speech of 2012, in which she called for a spirit of togetherness, inspired by Christ’s example. “It is my prayer this Christmas Day that his example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.”
The film composer Alexis Ffrench played his own piano arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter”. And then the actress Dame Kristin Scott Thomas stepped forward to read a poem that the congregation was told was personally suggested by the King: “Refugee” by the priest-poet and Church Times columnist the Revd Dr Malcolm Guite.
The St Mary’s Ukrainian Choir, a choir of refugee primary-school children, sang “Away in a Manger”, which was followed by “I’m Walking in the Air”, the theme tune from The Snowman, performed by Samantha Barks.
Paddington Bear quite naturally made an appearance. The actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Mr Brown in the film franchise, read a comforting extract from Paddington’s Christmas Post, in which the eponymous bear discovers the joy of giving at Christmas.
Then came “The holly and the ivy”, sung by the Abbey choir, followed by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, performed by Craig David.
The Dean read from St John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the Word”), and offered a short reflection. Christmas was a time when we noticed change, he said, especially if “someone is missing” from a family; joy and sorrow were woven together in life. He spoke of the late Queen’s ability to speak to the nation out of her own experience, something that took courage, as it was not always easy to find the right words. His prayer was that, this Christmas, people would make the effort to look for the words that helped to build relationships. The baby in the manger was the way God spoke to us of life and love, he concluded.
Prayers followed and candles were lit around the crib. Then the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing, and a rousing “O come all ye faithful”.
The smiling Royals departed into the biting cold of a clear-skied evening. But the congregation seemed unwilling to leave, preferring to linger in the warmth of the Abbey, taking selfies in front of the splendid decorations. Or perhaps they just wanted to savour the stardust for a little longer.
The Abbey service will be broadcast on ITV on Christmas Eve.
Other community carol services under the same “Together at Christmas” banner have been taking place around the UK.