I had the great privilege of attending the Remembrance Day service in Westminster Abbey when the passing of the First World War generation was commemorated. It was a most impressive service. What made it all the more interesting was the insight I was given into the arrangements and planning that is required for such a notable, national occasion.
The Dean of Westminster, the genial Dr John Hall, provided accommodation for us in the Deanery on the night before the service. Over breakfast on the morning of the service he shared his concern that everything would run on time, and in the event, everything came together perfectly. Her Majesty The Queen was due to arrive at 10.54 am precisely, which she did. The Mall and Whitehall had been sealed off to make her journey from Buckingham Palace straightforward. The Dean had a small digital clock attached to his order of service and was able to adjust the speed of his speech during The Bidding so that he finished at precisely 10.59 am and 30 seconds. That was to coordinate with Big Ben ringing out at 11 am which marked the beginning of the Two Minutes’ Silence. After that, everything flowed smoothly. Over lunch afterwards, the Dean reported that Her Majesty had been well-pleased with the service.
One of the minor canons of Westminster Abbey is Graham Napier, who hails originally from Donaghadee, and who was responsible with others for planning the service. He told me that lots of thought had been given to the words and music that were used, not least building the service towards a climax with the singing of a piece by John Tavener based on the closing verses of Romans 8, specially commissioned for this service. The service planners had also given much thought to the participants in the service so that all parts of the United Kingdom were represented on what was seen as a national event.
On the evening before the service, we watched the Colour Party, comprised of members from the various armed services, being put through their paces, and every move being carefully orchestrated and timed. As we made our way into the Abbey just prior to the service, I overheard the officer in charge of the Colour Party exhorting his men to “relax and enjoy the occasion”. Clearly even those who are used participating in formal occasions have butterflies in their stomach before such an event.
Administering Westminster Abbey and managing all its work and ministry is no small task. Altogether there are 200 people employed in the Abbey. The canon responsible for the finances and fabric revealed that it takes around 10 million pounds per year to run the Abbey and that 91% of this income comes from tourism. So while the Remembrance Day service brought huge publicity to the Abbey, its closure to regular tourist visitors meant a loss of over 20,000 pounds of income for that one day alone.
It was a great event and it was an honour to be part of it.