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It’s 3 p.m. — time for the Queen

21 December 2012

The first royal Christmas broadcast was 80 years ago. So what have the Queen, and her predecessors, been talking about? Anthony Cane warms the valves


On air: the Queen, in the Long Library at Sandringham, in 1957, after making her first ever televised Christmas broadcast

On air: the Queen, in the Long Library at Sandringham, in 1957, after making her first ever televised Christmas broadcast

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 1932.

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 throne.

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 Christian faith.

In the millennial year 2000, her entire Christmas broadcast was about faith and the person of Jesus Christ, and included the following words:

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 missile.

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 discard."

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 self-restraint."

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 existence."

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 changed."

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 population.

"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 disease.

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 appropriate conclusion:

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.

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