As Britain celebrates the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne, it can also honor her ability over the past six decades to subtly navigate a troublesome problem for any country: Finding the right balance between religion and state.
Nearly forgotten amid the celebrity and pomp of British royalty is the fact that the queen is not just the unelected head of state and a symbol of national unity and tradition. She is also the “supreme governor” of the Church of England.
And not only that, at her coronation, she was also designated as “Defender of the Faith.” (The title was first given to Henry VIII after he broke England away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 as part of the Protestant Reformation – and to allow for his divorce.)
During her long reign, the queen has witnessed a marked shift in Britain from a country of largely one faith to that of many faiths – and no faith. Half of Britons today claim no religious affiliation. And Africa now has more Anglicans than England does.
Many in Britain criticize their country’s particular mix of church and state, or the spiritual and the temporal. Secularists are becoming a powerful voice. They point to the prime minister appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury or the fact that members of Parliament pledge allegiance to the queen. This mix prevents Britain from being a republic despite its being a historic and vibrant democracy.
A court recently agreed with one secularist that city council meetings should not be opened with a Christian prayer. No wonder then that the “defender of the faith” used the first event of her jubilee to hold a multi-faith reception at Lambeth Palace and to speak directly of her church’s role in Britain – despite the queen’s wise tendency to keep her opinions to herself.
She need not worry too much. One poll finds nearly three-quarters of people in England believe she should keep her position as titular head of the church. Another poll shows the royal family is more popular than ever. Only 1 in 5 people says Britain would be better off without a monarchy.
Still, the queen’s speech at Lambeth was almost defensive. “The concept of our established church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated,” she said.
But she noted the works that many religious groups do to help others and raise people’s hopes. And in a novel justification of her church’s role, she said it “has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
Many Muslims and other non-Christians in Britain agree, having found a freedom to worship they may not enjoy elsewhere. In one poll, half of Britons say the next monarch, likely to be Prince Charles, should wear the title of “Defender of Faiths” not just “the faith.”
If anything, a British monarch must stand for common values, allowing the people to project themselves onto an idealized leader, even if the person on the throne is there by reason of heredity alone.
Which value has been most diligently expressed by this queen? Probably it is to be of service to others, such as in her quiet guidance to many prime ministers or even in the endless ribbon cuttings expected of royalty.
That model comes from the Old Testament story of Solomon who, when a new king, humbly asked God: “Give therefore Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this Thy so great a people?” Jesus himself refused to be called king, asking his followers to be servants to all people.
Britain, like many countries, still struggles with how much to separate faith and government. The queen’s jubilee can be a time for Britons to assess the legacy of this monarch – as guardian of the established church – in helping to ease that struggle for the sake of the country’s future.