The Archbishop of Canterbury has praised Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) staff as “models for everyone” who “risk their lives for those who are not known to them” as the charity celebrated its 200th anniversary at a thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey.

Crews, lifeguards and representatives from RNLI teams across the country gathered on Monday to mark the occasion, at the same time the organisation’s founding papers were signed in 1824.

The ceremony was attended by the Duke of Kent, president of the RNLI, who signed the charity’s 200th pledge scroll, which was also signed by Justin Welby and the Dean of Westminster.

RNLI chief executive Mark Dowie told the PA news agency: “The service was an incredibly special way to mark 200 years of selfless commitment and to remember all that’s gone before, including the hundreds of RNLI lives lost over the years.”

The archbishop said in his address that “a common purpose for 200 years is almost unknown” and thanked the 1,800-strong congregation for tackling “demands that could never have been imagined”.

The charity’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved more than 144,000 lives since its formation in 1824.

Mr Dowie gave a vote of thanks during the service and said the organisation had “survived the test of time, including tragic losses, funding challenges, two World Wars and, more recently, a global pandemic”.

William Dougan, a helmsman from the Stranraer lifeboat station in Scotland, told the PA news agency: “Days like these make you very proud – I’ve served with the RNLI for 22 years and it’s been great to come together and see other crews today.

“The service was very humble, there were some comical aspects which was nice, and it was also very traditional with the reading of the pledge and the prayers.”

The Duke of Kent arrives to attend the service of thanksgiving
The Duke of Kent (second from right) arrives to attend the service of thanksgiving

Three RNLI lifeboats were brought to the abbey and put on display – the historic William Riley, an oar-powered boat built in 1909; a modern Shannon class boat; and a D class lifeboat first introduced into the fleet in 1963.

A hymn was sung during the service which included a new verse, written by an RNLI crew member from Anstruther in Fife.

Richard MacDonald wrote the verse for the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save after three members of the French lifeboat service were lost at sea in storm force conditions.

It was aired for the first time on television on Sunday during a Songs of Praise special episode and was sung by the congregation at Westminster Abbey during the ceremony, after it was approved by the archbishop.

Mr Dowie said while the service was held to reflect and celebrate the past 200 years, he also hoped it would inspire the next generation: “We are really keen to inspire the next generation – although today was about looking back and celebrating the past 200 years, we want to make sure we keep going for another 200.”