The eyes of the nation were on St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, on September 13, as the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev George Davison, in the presence of King Charles III and the Queen Consort, led a moving Service of Reflection for the Life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. [Photo gallery at bottom of page]
The 800 invited guests came from all backgrounds and faiths, from different political beliefs and from every strand of society, to stand together and reflect in quiet dignity on the life of the late Queen during this national period of mourning.
Yet, despite the solemnity of the occasion, there was also a sense of celebration as the new King paid his first visit to Belfast – and indeed Northern Ireland – as monarch.
Across from the Cathedral, representatives of different charities and groups that had been honoured with the patronage of the Queen had waited in the September sunshine for several hours to get a glimpse of the King and Queen Consort. They were rewarded with smiles and handshakes from the Royal couple before they headed inside St Anne’s, and again when the service ended.
Security was tight – the invited guests gathered at the Eikon Centre near Hillsborough and were transported to the Cathedral by bus. The normally busy Donegall Street and surrounding area was cordoned off and eerily silent. Elsewhere in the city, crowds lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the Royal convoy, arriving from Hillsborough Castle where King Charles had received an enthusiastic welcome. He viewed floral tributes left in memory of his late mother and met with politicians and members of the Armed Forces. The King graciously accepted a formal condolence offered by the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alex Maskey.
On-the-ground preparations for this historic service at Belfast Cathedral had been ongoing since the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth on the previous Thursday evening. Brass had been polished, woodwork dusted, chairs positioned. The BBC had moved onsite, their equipment installed in such a way as to unobtrusively livestream the entire service.
As the Dean of Belfast is currently on medical leave, the honour of leading the service fell to the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev George Davison, with the sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev John McDowell. (Download an Order of Service).
The Royal couple were welcomed outside St Anne’s by the Lord Lieutenant for the County Borough of Belfast, Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, who presented dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of Belfast, the Sheriff of Belfast, the Chief Executive of Belfast City Council, and the Bishop of Connor.
Honoured guests already inside included British Prime Minister Liz Truss; Irish President Michael D Higgins; Taoiseach Micheal Martin; local politicians and leaders in public life.
As they entered the Cathedral, Bishop George introduced the King and Queen Consort to faith and community leaders from across Northern Ireland. With each handshake, King Charles shared a warm smile and words of greeting. After the introductions, the Bishop and the King chatted together until, at 3pm, the Band of the Royal Irish Regiment struck up a trumpet fanfare heralding the commencement of the Service of Reflection.
As His Majesty the King and the Queen Consort were escorted to the Royal seats, the Priory Singers, who formed the choir at this special service, sang the Introit Confortare by Sir George Dyson.
Greeting guests, Bishop George said they had gathered to commemorate in word and prayer Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and to give thanks for all she had been as Queen and, as such, Head of State for the people of Northern Ireland.
“Within this act of worship, we shall pray for all whose lives have been touched by her Majesty, whether as part of her family circle or more distantly within the wide horizon of her concern, we mark with gratitude the dedication to duty that has exemplified her reign and give thanks for her presence, under God, as a pattern of all that is good and true in human life,” the Bishop said.
The first reading, from Joshua 4, was by Eoin Millar, Northern Ireland Duke of Edinburgh Youth Ambassador, and the second from Philippians 4, by Alex Maskey.
The choir sang the Psalm O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song, which King Charles later described as ‘sublime’ when being escorted out of the Cathedral by Bishop George. The choir also sang the Anthem They Are All Gone Into The World of Light! as part of an Act of Commemoration which included the lighting of a candle followed by a silence. The anthem was composed by the late Sir John Tavener, a personal friend of the King.
Archbishop John McDowell began his sermon by speaking of the profound impact news of the death of the Queen had had. “For many of us in the United Kingdom, there were two people whose deaths we could never imagine. Our own and the Queen’s,” he said. “I think that is one of the reasons why the death of Queen Elizabeth was literally felt so keenly by so many people when the news broke on Thursday afternoon.”
The Archbishop focused on the word reconciliation, saying that of the many words used about the Queen and her long reign, it was the one most associated with Queen Elizabeth and Ireland, north and south.
Reconciliation, he said, requires the greatest of all religious virtues, love. “And who can doubt that the Holy Spirit of the God of Peace was present in the mind and in the heart of the late Queen, when she spoke her judicious and generous words, and walked the hard road of reconciliation, in this Province, and island,” the Archbishop said.
Concluding his sermon with words spoken by Mr Valiant for Truth in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, some of which the Queen herself used in her first Christmas televised broadcast in 1957, Archbishop McDowell said: “At her baptism Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was signed on her forehead with the sign of sacrifice; the Cross. And for 96 years in a life which was a prodigy of steady endeavour she offered herself, her soul and body, as a living sacrifice to the God who loves her with an everlasting love.”
Download the Archbishop’s full sermon HERE.
Prayers were led by The Most Rev Eamon Martin, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh; The Rt Rev Andrew Foster, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe and President of the Irish Council of Churches; The Rt Rev John Kirkpatrick, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church; and The Rev David Nixon, President of the Methodist Church.
The final hymn O Christ the same, was sung to the tune of the Londonderry Air.
The Church Leaders contributed to the Celtic Blessing which closed the service, following the singing of the National Anthem. For many of those present, it was the first time the repeated line in the anthem would be ‘God Save the King.’
The organist was Jack Wilson; console assistant was Dr Paul Berry; and the choir was conducted and directed by Philip Bolton MBE.
Speaking after the service, Bishop George Davison said it had all come together well. “There was a huge amount of effort on the part of the Cathedral staff. The music was wonderful and everybody played their part superbly.
“It was something for us to look back on and be very thankful that we had the opportunity to be part of,” Bishop George said.
The Bishop added that as he left the Cathedral, King Charles had expressed this thanks for ‘a wonderful service,’ saying the first hymn, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, was one of his favourites, and describing the setting of the Psalm as ‘sublime.’
Lord Robin Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh, who was bestowed an Order of Merit by the Queen in 2007, was among the guests. The Order of Merit is a special mark of honour conferred by the Sovereign as a personal gift. Reflecting on the service, Lord Eames, said: “It was so dignified and I felt spoke to us inside the Cathedral and to so many people beyond these walls by its simplicity and its sincerity. The address by the Primate was so appropriate and touched the right note on this occasion.”
Anne Cromie, a parishioner of St Peter’s, Belfast, is a member of the Priory Singers – the choir which sang so beautifully at the service. She recalls how the opportunity to sing at such an historic service came about.
“Like so many others, I was surprised and upset when the news came through that the Queen had died, but my surprise was surpassed when a call came through later that evening to say that the Priory Singers had been asked to sing at the service in St Anne’s Cathedral for our new king, Charles III,” Anne said. “It was a huge honour to be asked and everybody in the choir was very excited, but first, we had to master the music.
“This was emailed to us on the Friday evening, with just four days to go! Rehearsals began the next morning, and continued on the Sunday and Monday. We loved the choice of music – the King chose the anthem – and under the direction of our musical director, Philip Bolton, we all worked jolly hard to get it just right.
“Singing for the King and Queen Consort and other assembled dignitaries was a privilege, of course, but for me it was more than that, it was a chance to express something of our sorrow at the death of a beloved monarch, and also to celebrate the elevation of her successor. And, given the importance of faith to both the Late Queen and our new King, I hope we played our part well in a service of worship designed specifically to thank God for them and for the stability and continuity which the monarchy has given us in these troubled times.”
Anne added: “Being part of the service was a wonderful experience in so many ways and singing the National Anthem with the King present was very special indeed. It was nice to play a little part in royal history.”
Speaking in advance of the service, June Butler, All-Ireland President of Mothers’ Union, said it had been a great privilege to be invited. “I am really looking forward to the service and to being able to play in some way a tribute to her late Majesty who was Patron of Mothers’ Union.”
Jacqueline Weir MBE, a parishioner of St Matthew’s, Shankill Road, and her friends from Girlguiding Ulster, were among those groups invited for the meet and greet with the Royal couple in Writer’s Square. They had arrived three hours ahead of the service to be sure to get a good view, and to be in the best position for a handshake. “It is a great honour to be here,” Jacqueline said. “The late Queen was our patron and we are looking forward to seeing the new King.”
Their early arrival paid dividends, as Jacqueline and her friends all got to shake hands with both the King and the Queen Consort. “We offered him our condolences and then wished him God’s richest blessings for the future,” Jacqueline said. “He commented that we were members of Girlguiding, and asked was it difficult to get volunteers these days. Before he moved on he said ‘keep up the good work’.”
Stephen Bell was among a 20-strong group from Scouts NI looking forward to welcoming King Charles. For Stephen this would be a second Royal encounter, as he met Queen Elizabeth during her jubilee celebrations in 2002 when he was just a boy.
Sam Porter, head sexton at St Anne’s Cathedral, had spent many hours preparing for this historic service, and said every member of the Cathedral team as well as members of the Board had played a part, as brass and glass were polished, floors cleaned, chairs positioned and television and security personnel accommodated. “There was a lot of pressure,” he admitted. “But now we can stand back and say we did it.”
Cathedral parishioners Verner McKinley, Dean’s Warden, and Terry Pateman, People’s Warden, had an important role to play, leading King Charles and the Queen Consort up and down the aisle of St Anne’s. Both were very calm about their task. “It is a once in a lifetime event,” said Verner just a short while before the service got underway. “We will be walking very carefully!”
Karen Webb, Evangelist at Connect Base, Connor Diocese’s North Belfast Centre of Mission, had been invited to the service, and was accompanied by Baby Basics project administrator Heather Gibson. They had lunch at the Eikon Centre before travelling to be Cathedral in the buses which were specially laid on. Karen recalled how she had been presented to the then Prince Charles when he attended an event in Carlisle Circus in Belfast a few years ago. Heather commended: “It is a great privilege to be here and be part of history in the making.”
Brenda Pateman, a parishioner of St Anne’s, said she had always loved big Cathedral services. “I think this service has brought so many people together, she said.
Roy Totten, a member of the Cathedral Board, said the service had been a good advertisement for St Anne’s and that all the preparation had paid off with the service going to plan.
Former Connor Lay Secretary Robert Kay and his wife Carol said they had enjoyed the service which Robert said was ‘straightforward and meaningful.’ Carol added: “It was absolutely perfect in every way. The music was beautiful and the atmosphere was brilliant.”
The service can be watched in full on the BBC iPlayer.