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Honours: Much More Than Angelina!

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The Pulpit Rock

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Excel Centre in London. Photo by Andrew Parsons / i-Images / Crown Copyright.

Angelina Jolie has been made an honorary Dame (the female equivalent of a Knight) of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours this month. A lot of Americans may not know what that entails, so I thought I'd try and explain.

Her Majesty is one of the few people in the world with two birthdays. She was actually born on 21 April -- a day she typically spends privately with her family. Last Saturday, 14 June, was her Official Birthday. It's always a Saturday in June, because the notorious British weather is more likely to behave itself at that time of the year. The pageantry includes a parade called the Trooping of the Colour: this year's festivities came off in typically spectacular fashion.

It's also traditional for the Queen to announce a list of people to receive awards that we call honours. She does this twice a year: once in June and once at New Year. Some aspects of the honours system may seem a bit archaic -- for example, the largest group of honours is called the Order of the British Empire. There is also the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of St. Michael and St. George, amongst others.

Whatever the title, it's still a great way of honouring those who have served their fellow men and women, or the country, whether in their chosen field or in another walk of life. For example, Angelina Jolie's DCMG comes for her tireless humanitarian work on behalf of rape victims around the world, which was the inspiration for the recent London Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Reflecting the wide diversity of talent Britain has to offer, other names on the list included Olympic medallists, novelists and fashion designers. But not all honorees are household names. This year's list includes many people who are not well-known or wealthy, but have nevertheless done extraordinary things -- like raising millions for charity, turning around failing schools, pushing back the frontiers of science or helping people rebuild their lives after natural disasters.

As Angelina Jolie's award shows, you do not need to be a Brit to be honoured. In fact, if you know somebody in your community who has done great things for the UK-US relationship, you can nominate them yourself. Find out more here.

Occasionally, I have the privilege of conferring awards on Her Majesty's behalf. Looking at this year's Birthday Honours I found myself reflecting on some of the distinguished Americans to whom I have presented awards in my time as Ambassador here. They have included Mark Piggot of Seattle, whose business interests span the Atlantic and whose philanthropy has enriched British institutions from the House of Lords to the Royal Shakespeare Company; Judy O'Rourke, who has been the driving force behind efforts to remember the victims of Pan Am 103 which was blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988; and Captain Brian Jordan, a US Marine whose story of battlefield heroism is simply incredible.

Each of these honorees serves in a very different field, but each deserves the gratitude of the British people. Honours are a perfect way of expressing that appreciation. The institution may be venerable, but it is also vital.