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Diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II

As Britain celebrates the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth's 1952 ascension to the throne, it can also assess her legacy in balancing the monarch's duty as 'supreme governor' of the Church of England with being head of state.

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, left, shows Britain's Queen Elizabeth II the Ampulla and Coronation Spoon used at her coronation as her husband Prince Philip, third from left, and other Christian guests watch. They were attending a Feb. 15 multi-faith reception at Lambeth Palace in London to mark the diamond jubilee of the queen's ascension.

Matt Dunham/AP Photo

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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.

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