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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Peace, Goodwill, and Harmony: On King Charles’ Christmas Speech

In his first Christmas speech since the coronation, His Majesty King Charles III addressed the nation on the 25th of December to offer his thanks and blessings of peace to all. Taking the same format as those of the late Queen, the seven-minute video message aired at 3 o’clock from Buckingham Palace, this time with a special musical introduction from the royal guards. Like hers, it was awaited by households all over the United Kingdom and commonwealth, reaching almost six million views on the BBC alone.

The speech’s contents, however, were undeniably unique to the King, whose idiosyncratic ways have often attracted attention. Featuring prominently were two themes he has become famously (or, for some, infamously) associated with: religious pluralism and the environment. He opened with a typically inclusive homage to other faiths, saying that “many of the festivals of the great religions of the world are celebrated with a special meal.” He continued to affirm that these religions can all share in the Christmas spirit, whether that pertains to the faith “uppermost in their hearts” or simply “the joy of fellowship and the giving of presents.”

He later turned to the environment, praising those who have played their part in caring for the natural world. “During my lifetime,” he said, “I have been so pleased to see a growing awareness of how we must protect the Earth … as the one home which we all share.” He extended these praises to all of those who have been in service to others, recognising this to be another way of honouring “the whole of creation which, after all, is a manifestation of the Divine.” In an additional acknowledgement of other faiths, he said that this belief was “shared by all religions,” concluding with a reflection on how the values of stewardship and compassion are “universal, drawing together our Abrahamic family of religions, and other belief systems, across the Commonwealth and wider world.”

The King’s environmentalism has sometimes been dismissed as a vague, “new age” sentiment, or even as trespassing into political territory—or so the former Prime Minister Liz Truss thought when she dissuaded His Majesty from attending COP27 in 2022. Likewise, his inclusive stance towards other religions has been criticised as a gesture of political correctness, perhaps owing more to the modern obsession with diversity than to an authentically Christian worldview. Upon first listen, his comments about “the festivals of the great religions” and “the home we all share” may seem like platitudes lacking in philosophical substance. Anyone familiar with the King’s intellectual life, however, will know that he had a far more profound vision in mind—more than could possibly have been conveyed in a seven minute speech. 

Listening carefully to how the King spoke about the environment, we can hear faint resonances of a philosophy that has long influenced his thought—namely, the Christian and Neoplatonic idea of harmony. Elsewhere, the King has spoken of harmony as the divine interconnectedness of creation; a metaphysical order to which human beings must be attuned. In the Christmas speech, he alluded to this when describing the shepherds who first heard the news of Christ’s birth as “people who lived simply amongst others of God’s creatures,” commenting that “those close to nature were privileged that night.” This notion of being attuned to nature also featured in the speech he delivered at COP28 earlier in the month, where he explicitly spoke about nature’s “unique economy based on harmony and balance” that “must be maintained” through improving sustainability and biodiversity. A clearer insight into precisely what he means by this “harmony,” however, can be gleaned from a relatively little-known book of his, published in 2010 with co-authors Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly, entitled Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World.

In this book, His Majesty essentially defines harmony as the concord of many distinct parts into one, composite whole—in other words, the realisation of unity through diversity. Biodiversity, he explains, is vital not only because it ensures the survival of different species, but because God’s creation exhibits “a tendency towards variety and away from uniformity” with which we must accord. Failing to do so by imposing agricultural homogeneity, he suggests, is a violation of this divine law. As such, His Majesty’s environmentalism is ultimately concerned with glorifying creation; a creation, he says, that “is rooted in wholeness.” 

As well as being an environmental principle, His Majesty explains that harmony is also an artistic and philosophical principle, describing it as a “grammar” that underscores the art, architecture and spirituality of all great civilisations. It is not, he reassures us, 

"Some wishy-washy, New Age invention of the late twentieth century. Far from it. It is a very precise principle indeed, acknowledged as central by some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen. From Pythagoras and Plato to Shakespeare and Ficino, from Giorgione, Bach and Handel to Wordsworth, Poussin and Blake, all of these great artists were very clear that there is a harmony to the world that must be maintained."

Evidently, when the King articulates his views on the environment, he does so not in the utilitarian language of the World Economic Forum, nor the radical rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion, but in this more sacred grammar of harmony which he likens to a “golden thread of wisdom” beginning in Ancient Greece. His own language about nature is especially reminiscent of Plato who, in the Timaeus, described the cosmos as an ensemble of elements arranged in musical ratios; a cosmos whose internal harmony ensures the survival of the whole (indeed, as the Prince of Wales, the King sponsored the study of Platonism in the form of The Temenos Academy).

This notion is also deeply Christian, appearing in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Ambrose, in his Hexaemeron, spoke of the very creation of the world in the Genesis narrative as an orchestration of harmony. God’s creation of the sea on the third day, he said, was a means of tempering dryness with moisture and, as such, creating a harmonic balance between the elements. Ambrose too spoke of the need for harmony between humanity and nature, describing how in communal worship “we hear the voice of the people singing in harmony the praises of God”—an allusion to the idea that we in the microcosm ought to mirror the greater harmony of the macrocosm. As the King himself affirms in his book, then, harmony is not a “wishy-washy” invention of the New Age, but a cosmological principle that has its origins in Ancient Greek and Christian thought. 

His Majesty’s generous approach to other religions is also a reflection of this philosophy of harmony. Just as he sees ecological diversity as necessary for the flourishing of nature as a whole, he recognises the potential for different religions to co-operate when it comes to the higher pursuit of honouring creation and the divine. His belief in the ultimate unity of faith can be discerned from the Christmas address, where he spoke of the “universal values” that “draw together” those of different traditions—a belief which he also articulates in his book. 

“Each culture and tradition,” he says, “characterises the spiritual dimension of our existence in a slightly different way … but, as the Sufis say, although there are many lamps, it is all the same light.” Although he cites the Sufis here, this idea is also present within Christian theology; perhaps most significantly, in the thought of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. Cusa was a devout Catholic, but believed that other religions should be appreciated on the basis that they are partial manifestations of the same truth. For him, it was a corollary of the Platonic belief in a singular truth outside of the mind that all human wisdom must necessarily strive towards the same object. It follows, he explained in his treatise De Pace Fidei, that “all the diverse religions will be led unto one orthodox faith.” Cusa too spoke of harmony as a unity comprising diversity, believing it possible to find a “single, readily-available harmony” between these religions. Once again, we find that His Majesty’s pluralism is not a secular innovation, but an established theological position held by Christian and Muslim mystics alike. 

This variant of pluralism, it should be emphasised, is not relativism—rather, it is closer to the school of thought known as perennialism, according to which truth is absolute, but manifests in different forms. As such, different religions can be thought to emanate from one divine source. Indeed, the King has himself expressed the perennialist idea of a “primordial tradition,” or prisca theologia, remarking in a 2006 speech that “in the pre-modern world, all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred.” Though some are sceptical of the 20th Century school of perennialism (with which the King has sympathised, citing its founder René Guénon in the same speech), it should be emphasised that its essential premise has precedence within the Christian tradition, with Cusa being just one example. 

As the King himself assures us in his book, neither his approaches to the environment nor religious pluralism are novel. Rather, they proceed from a Neoplatonic, Christian vision of the cosmos as a singular “world soul” composed of multiplicity, in which different forms of life—be it different species, cultures or traditions—can coexist in pursuit of a greater unity. Such a vision has as its ultimate aspiration the harmony of believers who sing, like Ambrose’s choir, in unison in their reverence for God. In an age where such an aspiration has been largely abandoned by our leaders, this should surely be commended. 

It is true, however, that such views—being by nature esoteric—are easily misunderstood and co-opted by those with a different agenda in mind. Sceptics may be right to observe that the philosophy of harmony, when taken out of context, can ostensibly merge with the more secular (and indeed, often anti-Christian) sentiments of diversity and inclusion, casting doubt over the extent to which they really succeed in defending tradition at all. While such concerns are justified, this should not preclude us from appreciating the King’s own personal reasoning behind his ideas—a reasoning that is often neglected by both his progressive co-opters and conservative critics alike. 

The reality is, the King could be the last monarch in Britain to have such a philosophical vision at all. For a Head of State to exhibit the intellectual curiosity that he does is rare in the modern world, where most are incredulous towards the very notion of a metaphysical order or universal “grammar” altogether. Thus, while we may have our concerns about the monarchy and its future, this quality of the King should not go unappreciated. If anything, his eclectic approach could be just what the West needs for a spiritual revival—and what better time to inspire one than at Christmas?


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