IN 1923, John Reith, managing director of the year-old British
Broadcasting Company, welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury,
Randall Davidson, and his wife, Edith, to dinner. During the
evening, Mrs Davidson, charmingly, enquired whether, when listening
to the wireless, it was necessary to leave a window open.
In this anecdote, we glimpse the revolutionary importance of
what we now call "radio", when, for the first time, the sound of
the human voice could miraculously pass through the air, and go
right around the world.
The later impact of television, the internet, and the mobile
phone are arguably but an extension of the "marvel of modern
science" praised by King George V (in words drafted for him by
Rudyard Kipling), during the first royal Christmas broadcast in
Five years later, after the death of George V and the abdication
of Edward VIII, there was a new King, George VI. A reluctant
broadcaster in any event, as the Oscar-winning film The King's
Speech dramatised brilliantly, he was perhaps inclined to
accept the view of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that an
annual broadcast was not desirable.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, however, George VI
decided he must speak "live" to his people. On Christmas Day 1939,
he delivered a memorable address, culminating in a memorable
quotation: "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. .
By end of the war, there was no prospect of ending the Christmas
broadcasts, which now had an audience of about 400 million. So,
when the King died in February 1952, the royal Christmas broadcast
was a firm expectation for the young Queen who ascended to the
QUEEN ELIZABETH II delivered her first such broadcast at the age
of 26. Half a century later, in 2002, she said: "Christmas . . .
remains a time for reflection and a focus of hope for the future.
All great religions have such times of renewal; moments to take
stock before moving on to face the challenges which lie ahead."
She has used her broadcasts to reflect on all manner of things,
from conflict, change, and the Commonwealth to sport, science, and
space exploration. She has discussed the part women play in the
world today; what it means to be a free society; communication
between the generations; the reconciliation of ancient antagonisms;
religious tolerance; how we can have hope in the future; and much
more. And, always, she has rooted her words in a deeply held
In the millennial year 2000, her entire Christmas broadcast was
about faith and the person of Jesus Christ, and included the
To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For
me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability
before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I,
like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times
from Christ's words and example.
In England, politicians and other public figures rarely "do
God"; yet the Queen self-evidently does, and in a manner sensitive
to religious diversity, and alert to the reality of secularism. We
are in danger of forgetting how unusual and distinctive - even
radical - her perspective is; of taking her for granted because she
has been Queen for so long; and, for some, of not listening hard
enough to the message, because it is delivered with all the
trappings of establishment.
I UNDERSTAND that, since 1968, the Queen has written the texts
herself, with the help of Prince Philip, whereas before, they were
drafted for her. None the less, there is an impressive consistency
to the broadcasts (all of them are available online at
www.royal.gov.uk), although, if anything, their articulation of the
Christian faith has strengthened over time.
The sense of marvelling at scientific advance, present in George
V's 1932 broadcast, is very much there in the Queen's early
broadcast. In her very first, in 1952, she said: "Let us . . . use
the tremendous forces of science and learning for the betterment of
man's lot upon this earth."
In 1954 she said: "We are amazed by the spectacular discoveries
in scientific knowledge, which should bring comfort and leisure to
millions." When we recall that the polio vaccine was invented in
1952, Crick and Watson revealed the double-helix structure of DNA
in 1953, and the first successful kidney transplant took place in
1954, it is no wonder that, in 1955, the Queen said: "Year by year,
new secrets of nature are being revealed to us by science."
But this was only part of the story; for 1952 had also brought
the first testing of a hydrogen bomb by the United States; and, in
1954, Russia constructed the first intercontinental ballistic
In 1955, the Queen also noted rather pointedly that "the problem
of living peaceably together" had yet to be solved, and, by the
time of her televised Christmas broadcast in 1957, the tone had
changed: "That it is possible for some of you to see me today is
just another example of the speed at which things are changing
around us. Because of these changes, I am not surprised that many
feel lost and unable to decide what to hold on to and what to
And then again: "But it is not new inventions which are the
difficulty. The trouble is caused by unthinking people who
carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and
outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality
in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as
foolishness, and self-interest set up in place of
ARGUABLY, this passage from 55 years ago is as relevant as ever,
not least because we live in an age when it has become fashionable
for public intellectuals to argue in favour of having "religion
thrown aside"; even if you agree with the suggestion of the
Archbishop of Canterbury - in his 2012 Easter sermon - that "It
just might be the case that the high watermark of aggressive
polemic against religious faith has been passed."
In a different vein, and perhaps more predictably, the Queen has
often spoken of the social importance of the family. In 1965, she
said: "I think we should remember that, in spite of all the
scientific advances and the great improvements in our material
welfare, the family remains as the focal point of our
And then in 2007: "In my experience, the positive value of a
happy family is one of the factors of human existence that has not
Looking back over the past 60 years, one can hardly be unaware
of huge social and cultural developments that might seem to
challenge her argument. None the less, for all that more and more
families diverge from the traditional ideal, it is widely agreed
that the family remains the best context for the nurture of
children, the inculcation of values and faith, and, given the
dehumanising forces at work in society, a more vital source than
ever of intimacy, love, and trust.
THE Queen has often compared the domestic family to the
Commonwealth "family" of nations (in 1952, 1956, 1967, 1972, etc.).
As head of the Commonwealth, she has made it her most recurrent
theme. In 1956, she boldly claimed that the Commonwealth
"represents one of the most hopeful and imaginative experiments in
international affairs the world has ever seen".
There is, indeed, something organic and pragmatic about the
Commonwealth, a sense that it has emerged and developed without any
grand plan. In political terms, it is an intergovernmental
organisation of 54 independent member states. Nearly all were
formerly part of the British Empire, and their combined population
is 1.8 billion people - an extraordinary 30 per cent of the world's
"The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the
past," the Queen said, because it is no longer based on power and
submission, but on equal partners who have freely chosen to meet
and co-operate. Those who are convinced that it is a spent force
should perhaps talk to Rwanda and Mozambique, who have recently
joined, and South Sudan, whose application is pending.
In her 1993 broadcast, she said: "There is no magic formula that
will transform sorrow into happiness, intolerance into compassion,
or war into peace, but inspiration can change human behaviour." If
I understand her correctly, the reference to "inspiration" is
intended to encompass both the human and the divine.
In fact, what seems to inspire her most, are human lives that
express the divine, beginning with Christ, but also taking in
people such as the only four individuals whom she has ever singled
out for particular praise. Looking at them as a group, they seem to
to exemplify four overlapping kinds of inspiration: the spirit of
adventure, forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation.
Adventure: the round-the-world yachtsmen Francis Chichester was
praised in 1967 for his "enterprise and courage", a modern-day
exemplar of the spirit showed by the Tudor adventurers.
Forgiveness: in 1987, the Queen was moved by "the depth of
forgiveness" shown by Gordon Wilson after the death of his daughter
in the Enniskillen bombing.
Compassion: here the reference is to Leonard Cheshire VC, still
determined to make life better for others, especially those living
with disabilities, even as he was dying of motor neurone
Reconciliation: in 1996, the Queen said: "I shall never forget
the state visit of President Mandela. The most gracious of men has
shown us all how to accept the facts of the past without
bitterness; how to see new opportunities as more important than old
disputes; and how to look forward with courage and optimism."
This often cited theme of reconciliation and forgiveness was
central to last year's Christmas broadcast, and makes for an
Although we are capable of great
acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving
from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into
the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general . .
. but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the
heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can
restore friendships, and it can reconcile divided communities. . .
It is my prayer that, on this Christmas Day, we might all find room
in our lives for the message of the angels, and for the love of God
through Christ our Lord.
The Revd Dr Anthony Cane is Chancellor and Canon Librarian
of Chichester Cathedral.