Britain stands shoulder to shoulder to mourn US dead

Memorial Service
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Everyone suddenly burst out singing, but it wasn't a traditional English hymn, there in the packed and echoing cavern of St Paul's Cathedral, last resting place of Wellington, Nelson and other British national heroes; it was "The Star–Spangled Banner".

It was so unexpected that for a brief second it was a profound cultural shock; and then the power of that tune and those words in that moment and that place took hold of the congregation of 2,600 people. All around they sang, and dissolved into tears.

The Great West Doors of St Paul's had only just closed, and the Queen and the Duke and the Prince had only just proceeded up the nave to join the US ambassador and Tony and Cherie Blair in Britain's memorial service for the dead of America's terrorist agony.

And with no preliminaries, before a word was said, the organ swelled into "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light..." and a foreign country's national anthem was being sung in Britain's national house of worship, and suddenly becoming the most resonant expression of grief shared between two countries that it was possible to imagine.

It was being sung outside too, in Ludgate Hill, crammed with thousands upon thousands of workers from the finance houses of the City, who had seen their exact counterparts in the Big Apple crowd hopelessly at the smoking windows of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre before meeting their awful deaths as everything collapsed into carnage and ruin.

St Paul's yesterday witnessed an outpouring of national grief unseen in Britain since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, married in this very cathedral just over 20 years ago, and it was directed at a city 3,000 miles away. The pond had narrowed abruptly. Yesterday lunchtime it felt very strongly that the transatlantic Special Relationship was real, and no longer a tired cliché used by British legislators hoping to court favour from American politicians.

The hour-long service was presided over by the Anglican church's leading prelates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, and senior figures from Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist communities were also present.

The Queen, solemn and in black, led in mourning about 400 members of Britain's governing establishment from Mr Blair down, but also in the congregation were relatives of the rapidly rising toll of Britons lost in Manhattan, as well as many members of Britain's US community, and all the City workers who could crowd in before the huge cathedral was filled. A 17-year-old American student in London, Lauren Willoughby, lit a candle for New York's dead. The American ambassador, William Farish, read the first lesson, a passage from Isaiah that seemed profoundly apt: "And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities ..."

The Duke of Edinburgh read the second lesson, from St Paul's letter to the Romans: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, of famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?"

Then Dr Carey gave the address. Condemning what he called "a senseless evil", the Archbishop urged people to pray for the leaders of America as they considered how to respond to the attacks.

"May God give them wisdom to use their great power in such ways that further evil aggression is indeed deterred, and the security and well-being of all is advanced in our interdependent world," he said. Those responsible "for such barbaric acts must be held to account", he added, though he warned: "We must be guided by higher goals than mere revenge. As we battle with evil, our goal must be a world where such violence is a thing of the past."

But there was little preaching. His principal message was one of solidarity with the American people in their traumatic hour of trouble.

Britons were "with you in your hour of need", he said, and he went on: "Like millions of others I watched in horror as the towers of the World Trade Centre disappeared under a cloud of dust and smoke. A modern icon of America had been reduced to rubble."

But he added: "I am hopeful for the people of America: hopeful that as ruins are rebuilt, so also a shaken people will be restored.

"For, as the twin towers of the World Trade Centre disappeared amid the smoke and carnage, across a short stretch of water another, older, American icon was not submerged. The September morning sun continued to shine on the Statue of Liberty, her torch raised like a beacon; a beacon of hope, and to millions around the world, a symbol of all that is best about America."

Such terms openly expressed might have been seen as rhetoric in Britain a week ago, but they were only welcomed yesterday. There was no place for irony, the dominant emotion of our age; too many people were dead.

And though religion itself may be dying in Britain, and Christianity may even be "vanquished" as was recently suggested, yesterday Christianity's ceremony and ritual, and its consequent power to solemnise people's feelings, supplied a very deeply felt need at the end of a barbarous week.

For the Americans in the congregation, a common feeling as they came out into the sunshine was gratitude: thanks for such a tangible expression both of grief and solidarity. "Being here gave us a sense of really belonging to a very strong international community," said Jacqueline Wilson, a representative of the state of New York in London who still has no news of a former colleague who worked on the 47th floor of one of the towers. "New Yorkers are very resilient, but these events may have changed many of our lives forever, and a moment like today really reinforces our resolve."

She stood in front of me in the cathedral and I watched her start her country's national anthem, under Christopher Wren's great dome, but not finish it; the tears were too much.

Comments