After a whirlwind weekend of horse races, pageants, boat rides and concerts, the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth's 60 years as monarch will culminate tomorrow with a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral in London for a Thanksgiving Service.
It won't be the first invocation of religion by the Queen in this year of jubilee. The 86-year-old leader is as busy as ever making appearances around the country, including one at Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, where she delivered a short but moving speech to a group of religious leaders of various faiths.
Said the Queen: "Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions. Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible."
She continued with a remarkable statement in defense of religious pluralism, claiming that the role of the established church in Britain is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other faiths, but instead to protect the free practice of all faiths in the country.
A similar point has been made by the first female Muslim British cabinet member, Sayeeda Warsi, who has called for Europe to feel stronger and more confident in its religious heritage. A firm Christian foundation, she says, can create space for religious minorities to practice their faith and participate in the community better than a society in which there are no religious symbols and no religious presence in public life.
These are welcome words in Western countries, where some people use the ideal of religious pluralism to argue for banishing religion from public discourse. Indeed, scrubbing religion out of the public square altogether would eliminate minority faiths right along with the targeted majority faiths. Rather, as the Queen rightly intuited, a multiplicity of religious faiths can flourish together even if one predominates.
"This occasion," continued Queen Elizabeth, "is thus an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith in creating and sustaining communities all over the United Kingdom. Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves."
One can hardly point to a better articulation of the role of faith communities in society. Long before the rise of the modern welfare state, religious groups worked to alleviate poverty, to teach moral principles and to build community. Churches and other religious organizations are irreplaceable institutions to which people turn not only for assistance, but also for community, empowerment and meaning. Religion is concerned with the whole of life — from birth to death, from personal choices to social and economic realities.
It is fitting that in the UK, the Queen's title includes "Defender of the Faith." Along with the world in this jubilee year, we honor Queen Elizabeth's life of service and her faith in the ability of members of different creeds, races and ethnicities to live together and build meaningful communities and nations.