From the archives: St George’s place in 21st-century England

by
23 April 2020

The patron saint should inspire an inclusive national identity, not narrow sectarianism, argues Michael Collins

This article was first published in the Comment section of the Church Times on 20 April 2018.

THE story and symbolism of St George have played many different parts in the colourful long cavalcade of English history. From AD 670, when news of his cult was first brought to Britain by a shipwrecked bishop, to the heroic days of 1940, when George VI instituted the George Cross and George Medal to recognise extraordinary bravery among those who protected Britain and Christian civilisation from Nazism with distinguished acts of courage, the example of St George has inspired some of the best and most enduring actions and attributes of English people.

Yet while St George has stood for patriotism and proper behaviour, conscience and courage, for some today he is but a quaint artefact of history associated “with a beast that never was”. For many others, he is an unknown figure and simply irrelevant. For a few, he is strongly linked to British imperial power and the subjugation of colonial peoples, part of a past that they would rather forget. Does anyone care about St George at the start of the 21st century?

The flag of St George has carried several meanings down the centuries, from a signal of recognition among crusaders to the flag of England sports supporters. Yet what makes the cross of St George more significant symbolically than the three lions that are the official symbol of the England football and cricket teams, for example, is what it stands for in itself, which is some of the basic assertions of Christianity.

The cross symbolises the truth that there is no feast without fast, no celebration without sacrifice — that life in all its profligate abundance is given at a cost and lived at a price. The martyrdom of St George exemplifies the spiritual reality that fighting under the banner of the cross means, if need be, giving up much we may have loved and cared for, including outdated conceptions of the English national identity — even the concept of English national identity itself — and gaining, in exchange, union between what is best in our national tradition with what is most valuable and most lovable about England today.

The tradition of St George, including his fight with the dragon, and the festival of St George and Shakespeare, offer avenues through which we may trace the way we have come as a nation, and develop, in fresh ways, our common story. Unless we work together to create the shared narrative that does justice to our rich and varied inheritance, then, as the former Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, has warned, we shall face a sectarian future.

 

ENGLISH people are now living in the febrile atmosphere surrounding the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, and the challenges to social cohesion pre­sented by the entry into the country of significant numbers of people who have a different culture from the settled population.

Thus, we are in urgent need of a new mobilising narrative to recapture basic values and beliefs, and the excitement of the ancient universal interest in St George.

To recollect St George, however, is not to call on him to ride to the rescue — despite serious problems, England is not facing social collapse — but to recognise him to be, as it were, part of the family furniture, to be dusted off and polished up, to be reframed and sited in a new perspective; a work of imagining a social vision to be shared rather than shown off, by all English fellow citizens, old and new, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and those of no faith.

What is needed — as advocated by such writers as Thomas Rausch and Joan Chittister, and networks of groups such as The Fellowship, based in California — is the organisation of radical inclusive communities. What such communities do is provide safe havens in which social entrepreneurs can be incubated and people can be affirmed and safeguarded as they jointly seek wisdom, understanding, and motivation to address needs in their own lives and communities, and care for vulnerable neighbours.

This is the tradition of St George in action. From within creative radical inclusive communities, where worthwhile work and “holy leisure” are practised, can come credible witness, valid role-models, and the telling of stories of lives changed as if by miracle that can be woven into a mobilising narrative.

The “communities of St George” just outlined sound like church parishes, and, indeed, there are such parish growth points. Mainstream churches, with their rich spiritual and cultural resources and well-established networks, have an essential art to play in the renewal of culture and community proposed in the name of St George.

 

THROUGH the robust common sense of the English people, which is, at its root, a spiritual attitude, St George can quietly take his place good-humouredly as patron of a feast of family fun, community cultural celebration, and patriotic rededication, with the occasional more solemn moment as we recall the glories and the tragedies of our history and the values that can unite us.

St George can become patron of a civic nationalism, in the sense of national consciousness rather than arrogant or aggressive self-assertion, by which people in England may hold different, sometimes plural, identities that they mutually respect.

Meanwhile, the adventurous spirit of the knightly saint can inspire new generations to set out on new quests in the service of good, and, with their national symbol as their guide, can know that their aspirations to practical compassion and renewed communities are right.

This is an edited extract of St George and the Dragons: The making of English identity, by Michael Collins, published by Fonthill Media.

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