Sadiq Khan’s time as London Mayor formally began on the morning of 7 May 2016 with a ceremony at Southwark Cathedral. Previous London Mayors had done their signing in at City Hall, and Khan’s choice of a very different venue was significant and symbolic.
He had won the 2016 election despite a campaign by his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith, assisted by Tory-supporting media, which sought to exploit anxieties among some Londoners about Khan being Muslim. The signing ceremony was attended by a rabbi, an imam and a Salvation Army lieutenant as well as the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Southwark Cathedral’s Dean (pictured, right). Khan’s long-standing enthusiasm for building bridges between people of different religious faiths could not have been more clearly demonstrated.
That occasion was recalled by Khan at the annual Mayor’s Christmas Carol Service, held at Southwark Cathedral on Wednesday evening. This year’s service was of particular significance as it was Andrew Nunn’s final one as Dean – he had announced in July that he will be retiring next year. “We wanted an interfaith ceremony that brought together Londoners of all religions and backgrounds,” Khan said. “Andrew not only shared my vision but took on a key role in putting that into practice. I remember on arrival how pleased I was to see such a diverse crowd.”
It is easy to forget how novel and, to some, how disquieting it was to have a follower of Islam become the political leader of a vast global city in western Europe. It is also easy to take for granted how comfortably the Mayor has personified the ideal of London as a city where everyone can belong, regardless of ethnicity or religious creed. You don’t have to be a fan of Mayor Khan or his policies to recognise that achievement.
All this was borne out at the carol service where Khan praised the departing Nunn as “one of London’s finest servants” and thanked him “for his advice, his support and his friendship over the years”. The two men embraced, to loud applause from a congregation which included Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley, London fire Brigade Commissioner Andy Roe, both of them praised by the Mayor as “reforming” leaders
Much goodwill all round, though the Mayor did indulge in a spot of current affairs commentary. Speaking earlier, Nunn had mentioned that he isn’t London-born (he is from Leicester). Khan told his audience that he has never asked Nunn “where he’s from – where he’s really from”. The reference to what a Buckingham Palace lady in waiting said to domestic violence charity leader Ngozi Fulani was not unappreciated in the pews.
But Khan also dedicated a section of his ten-minute Christmas message to praising the late Queen Elizabeth II, paying tribute to her “70 years of extraordinary and unparalleled service to our nation” and quoting from one of her Christmas Day broadcasts – “when life seems hard the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat. Instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future”.
He had praise for London’s Christian communities too, citing their “immense contribution” and “day after day putting Christian principles into action” by providing “food clothing and shelter to those suffering the devastating effects of the cost of living emergency”. Such activities, he said, make “the difference between a child going to school hungry or fed, a fellow citizen sleeping on the street or in a bed, or a pensioner freezing or sitting warmly in their home”.
The carols sung were: Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night, We Three Kings, The First Nowell and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. There were also readings by the Mayor and others from the Bible and performances by The Spirituals.
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