WHAT IS THE QUEEN DOING TODAY?

Today (12th March) is attending the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey. Her annual message to the Commonwealth will also be broadcast to all member countries. If you are visiting London and have walked down the Mall to Buckingham Palace you passed the Marlborough house which houses the Commonwealth Secretariat, it stands next to St James’s Palace. To many visitors from abroad the Commonwealth is a bit of a mystery, what exactly is the Commonwealth? It is a voluntary association of 53 independent countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule at the time of the British Empire. The membership includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Brunei, Nigeria, Singapore, Cyprus, Malta and Kenya. It is a remarkable international organisation, embracing every geographical region, religion and culture. Its aim is to encourage international co-operation between people all over the world. Two of the newest members, Mozambique and Rwanda, have no historical ties to the British Empire and there are more nations on the waiting list hoping to join.

George VI became the first head of the commonwealth in 1949 and following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II as his successor to that role. The Queen is very much endeared to the commonwealth because she has seen it grow during her reign from just 8 countries at the beginning to 53 now. She has helped the Commonwealth to develop and to hold together, she is passionate about it and regards its growth as one of the greatest achievements of her reign.

The Commonwealth is home to nearly 2.5 billion people, 33% of the world population. It covers 11.5 million square miles, 21% of the world’s land area. It is home to one in three people aged 15-29. 5 of the countries are republics, 5 have their own monarch and the other 15 are Commonwealth realms which means they have the Queen as their monarch. The Queen is represented in her 15 commonwealth realms by the Governor General in that country who carries out duties in her name. The Queen is however the most travelled monarch in history and much of the success of the commonwealth is due to her travelling to member countries. During her reign she has made nearly 200 overseas visits to commonwealth countries, the only two she has not visited are Cameroon and Rwanda ,the two newest members and it was only when she reached the age of 87 that she began to pass on the baton for Commonwealth visits to Prince Charles who has undertaken extensive Commonwealth travels recently. The Queen has also attended 19 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, these happen every two years in a different Commonwealth country each time. The next meeting will be held in London and Windsor in April.

India is the biggest country in the Commonwealth with 1.2 million people the smallest is Nauru with 10,000, by the way Nauru is the most successful nation per capita in the Commonwealth Games which is held every 4 years. All countries in the organisation have equal say regardless of their size. That’s one of the really great things about the Commonwealth, it allows smaller countries to interact in diplomatic forums with larger, more powerful countries.

The Commonwealth promotes, democracy and good governance, freedom, human rights and sustainable development. There are no formal agreements for trade but the Commonwealth enables prime ministers and trade ministers to meet informally and opportunities for trade can result. The Commonwealth cannot sanction member states by force, but when governments persistently violate Commonwealth principles, they can be suspended. This was the case with Zimbabwe in 2002 following allegations of rigged elections. The Commonwealth also played a role in championing the boycott of apartheid South Africa. Living in South Africa in the 1990s as an expat I remember that country’s joy at being able to return to the Commonwealth shortly after Nelson Mandela had been made President. The Commonwealth is also involved with conflict prevention and its role in this is marked by respect, impartiality and discretion. It has observed 140 elections across 40 countries since 1980. It offers member countries the chance to work together to achieve solutions to a wide range of problems. There are lots of commonwealth associations which allow countries to access advice and expertise and to have dialogues. Over the years it has proved to be a major force of change for the better.

During her reign the Queen has sent over 175,000 telegrams to all those in the Commonwealth celebrating their 100th birthday and 540,000 cards to couples celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.

The Commonwealth is able to promote and facilitate the type of networks which are desirable and sought after in the challenges of today’s world, it fits well with the 21st Century and looks set to continue for many years to come as future generations of the royal family pledge themselves to continuing service to the organisation. I am fortunate to have a ticket for the Commonwealth Day Service today and I feel proud to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country.

MOTHER’S DAY IN GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SIMNEL CAKE

Today is Mother’s Day in Great Britain. Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday is celebrated in many countries but often it is in May. There are special reasons why it is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in lent here in Britain. There is also a unique tradition associated with it of the Simnel Cake, a special Easter treat.

The history of Mother’s Day can be traced back to pagan traditions and celebrations in honour of Rhea the mother of the gods which took place in ancient Greece. During the 1600s, the early Christians in England set aside a day to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus on the fourth Sunday in lent. The church later ordered, that the holiday be expanded to include all mothers known as Mothering Sunday. Another Christian significance of Mothering Sunday is rarely mentioned today but originally the passage appointed to be read in churches today was Galatians 4 :21-31 which contains the verse “But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is mother of us all’. The full Bible passage talks about Abraham who has two sons Ishmael with Hagar and Isaac with Sarah who symbolically represent two covenants, the Old Testament covenant brought to the jews and the New Testament one which is the fulfilment of the old covenant brought to us through Christ’s death and resurrection and which is for all people. This new covenant is symbolised by the new Jerusalem in the Bible passage above described as our mother.

The tradition in England came to be that on the middle Sunday in Lent those working away from home would return to their mother church in their home town. Sometimes children left home to work in those days as young as 10 years old. It is thought that this tradition of returning to the mother Church is the origins of the tradition of children, particularly those working as domestic servants being given this Sunday off in the middle of lent to visit their mother and family. As they walked home, along country lanes, they would pick wild flowers particularly violets, usually in flower at that time of year to give to their mother. This is the reason why children in Sunday schools across Britian today will present small poses of flowers to their mothers as part of the church service. Later this time off was granted not just to children but to all maids and servants and to apprentices too.

The origins of the Simnel cake , this special easter cake which is unique to England and Ireland, are that, from the 18th Century, daughters would bake a fruit cake with marzipan on the top to take to their mother on Mothering Sunday, the cake would be kept until Easter day at then end of Lent and eaten as part of that days’ celebrations. Over time the tradition came to be to bake a fruit cake and put eleven marzipan balls on the top symbolising the 11 apostles, Judas being omitted as he betrayed Jesus. The name Simnel probably comes from simila which referred to the fine wheat flour used to make the original cakes which were initially more like an enriched, yeast bread. Simnel cakes are still enjoyed in British homes on Easter day today although these days they are not often baked by daughters! Mothers however are celebrated on Mothering Sunday in church and everywhere, they are taken out to lunch and given cards, flowers and other gifts.