By Catherine Pepinster — Originally published in The Guardian, via Virtue Online
To the royal household, it is known as the QXB — the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. To millions of people, it is still an essential feature of Christmas Day. To the Queen, her annual broadcast is the time when she speaks to the nation without the government scripting it. But in recent years, it has also become something else: a declaration of her Christian faith. As Britain has become more secular, the Queen’s messages have followed the opposite trajectory.
A survey of the broadcasts made during her 65-year reign reveals that for most of the time the Queen has spoken only in passing of the religious significance of Christmas. There have been references to presents linking contemporary Christmas to the three wise men, for instance, alongside trips to Commonwealth countries, family events such as weddings and funerals, and there were observations about contemporary society. In 1966, for example, she spoke of the progress of women, and in 1972, she commented on Britain joining the European Community in language that would make any Remainer proud.
But for the past 17 years, her messages have taken on a different tone, with the Queen explaining her own personal faith — “the anchor in my life”, as she described it in 2014.
Last year she said: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”
The turning point in the content of the broadcasts was the millennium. Her broadcast in 2000 was devoted to an account of Christ’s life and teaching which, she said, “provide a framework in which I try to lead my life”.
This personal commentary has continued ever since. According to Ian Bradley, professor of cultural and spiritual history at the University of St Andrews and the author of God Save the Queen — The Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy, “this truly makes her Defender of the Faith” — a reference to the title that all monarchs have used since it was first bestowed on Henry VIII in 1521 by Pope Leo X before he broke with Rome. Indeed, Elizabeth II’s faith impresses the papacy today, so much that one senior Vatican official described her to me as “the last Christian monarch”.
Explanations for these overtly Christian messages vary. Some royal watchers suggest that it was the Queen’s decision to use the 2,000th anniversary of Christ’s birth as an opportunity to speak openly about Christianity. Others saw the hand of George Carey, then archbishop of Canterbury. Bradley sees the influence of Prince Philip at work. “After her very personal account in 2000, she was encouraged to continue because I’m told she received 25 times more letters than usual from the public in response to that Christmas message than others, and she had huge support from the Duke of Edinburgh.”
But Stephen Bates, a former royal correspondent and author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand, believes it was the death of the Queen Mother that changed her. “She loosened up after her mother’s death. The Queen Mother kept a beady eye on her and now she is more relaxed,” he said. “She expresses more of what she feels. I think this openness about her own commitment is part of it as well.”
Before 2000, the Queen’s most explicit commitments of faith were made during a 1947 radio broadcast, when she spoke of dedicating her life to service, and ended it by saying, “God help me to make good my vow” and at her coronation service.
Accession to the throne also meant she became supreme governor of the Church of England, the established church, and since then her public life has been inextricably shaped by religious occasions: being seen by TV audiences at church at Christmas and Easter, distributing Maundy money on Maundy Thursday and attending the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph.
But it is the Christmas broadcast where the personal, as well as public, is evident. No government official is involved. Instead, those who cast an eye in advance over what she has written will be her private secretary, now Edward Young, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh. Lord Chartres, the recently retired bishop of London, has long been the go-to theological adviser to the royal family and is believed to proffer advice as well. Regular themes include forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and, most often, service.
Lord Williams of Oystermouth, who, as Dr Rowan Williams, served as archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, said that at times Lambeth Palace was consulted. “We were occasionally asked for any thoughts we might want to throw in.”
Last week, the BBC admitted that it has been reflecting a secular version of Britain and needs to do more to hold up a mirror to faith in Britain. According to Williams, the Queen has been bridging the divide. “I think that as there has been less overt Christian ‘messaging’ in the general cultural environment, the Queen has deliberately decided to fill the gap,” he said.
The recent messages always refer to Britons of other faiths, too. Williams also sees a link between the recent Christmas messages and a landmark speech the Queen made in 2012 at Lambeth Palace at the start of her diamond jubilee year, when she described the Church of England as, in effect, an umbrella under which other faiths could shelter.
“I think it is related to her position as supreme governor and in line with her speech at Lambeth in 2012 about the Church of England’s responsibility to be a positive gatekeeper for faith at large in the nation, without sacrificing its particularity,” he said.
The tradition of the royal Christmas message was begun in 1932 by the Queen’s grandfather, George V, and continued under her father, George VI. “George V wasn’t particularly devout but the Queen’s father was,” said Bradley. They began as radio broadcasts but became televised in 1957 and have been recorded at Buckingham Palace — once, famously, by David Attenborough in 1986 in a stable at the Royal Mews –Windsor Castle and Sandringham in Norfolk.
With the Queen now 91, thoughts turn to the succession. The Prince of Wales has become more public in confessing his own faith in recent years. Last week, at a service for persecuted Syrian Christians, he said: “We must do what we can to support our fellow Christians.” It looks likely, then, that as king he will follow his mother and make his Christmas message a personal credo.
THE CHANGING MESSAGE
‘Let us set out to build a truer knowledge of ourselves and our fellowmen, to work for tolerance and understanding among the nations and to use the tremendous forces of science and learning for the betterment of man’s lot upon this earth.’
‘In the modern world the opportunities for women to give something of value to the human family are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they are now beginning to play their full part in public life.’
‘Britain and these other European countries see in the Community a new opportunity for the future. They believe that the things they have in common are more important than the things which divide them, and that if they work together not only they, but the whole world will benefit. We are trying to create a wider family of nations and it is particularly at Christmas that this family should feel closest together.’
‘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.’
‘For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.’
‘For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none.’
‘Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.’