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Tomorrow, the 23rd of April, is of course St George’s Day. Given the patriotic sentiments which are naturally abroad in the nation at the present time, I thought it would be interesting to explore this theme. Let’s start by asking what we know about St George himself. The answer is ‘precious little’! In fact, in the year 494, Pope Gelasius I stated that George was among those saints (and I quote) “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God”.
Further research tells me that for every story or legend
about St George, there are two or three others which tell a different
story. But here’s a reasonable summary
of what we may know about him:
George was probably a Syrian, and a Roman soldier living in
Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. He was martyred at the town
of Lod, south-east of Tel Aviv in about the year 304. This was the time of the persecutions of
Diocletian (the same persecutions which ended the life of St Faith of Aquitaine). George became known throughout the East as
‘The Great Martyr’. There were churches in England dedicated to him before the
Norman conquest, from as far back as 704 in Dorset, for example.
The story of his slaying the dragon may be due to his being
mistaken in religious paintings (icons) for St Michael, himself usually depicted wearing
armour; or it may be a mistaken identification with Perseus’s slaying of the
sea monster, a myth also associated with Lod.
George is, of course, not only England’s Patron Saint. He is also the Patron of Ethiopia – a fact of which I love to remind white supremacists, when they try to appropriate
George to their warped cause. He is also the
Patron Saint of Portugal, and of the Mediterranean Islands of Malta and Gozo.
George is the Patron Saint of the Orthodox Church, whose depictions of him in icons
are legendary. The famous flag of St
George – the red cross on a white background – was first conceived by the
city-state of Genoa, in Italy.
It is for me, an encouraging idea that England has chosen,
as its Patron saint, such a multi-cultural figure as St George. The other major countries of the British
Isles are rather more parochial in their outlook. Andrew was chosen for Scotland quite probably
because Scotland was claimed to be the final resting place of that great
Apostle. Patrick was a Briton, but he did a fantastic job of converting the Irish to Christianity. David was a Welshman, indeed a Bishop of
Wales. But England? Well we used
to have a Patron Saint who was a a native of Britain – namely Edward the Confessor,
the last King of Wessex, who died in 1066.
St Thomas of Canterbury was another prime candidate for a while. But they were all replaced by George, the
warrior saint, who was venerated around the world, and a truly international symbol. It was, in fact, only during the reign of
Edward VI, in 1552, that George ascended fully to the status of England’s only
and official Patron Saint.
Another irony of St George is the extent to which he is
venerated by Muslims. George features
quite large in ancient Islamic texts, and he is still the subject of many
prayers among Muslim people. There’s a
lovely story of when William Dalrymple visited the Shrine of St George in Beit
Jala, in the West Bank, in 1995. He asked
the priest at the shrine "Do you get many Muslims coming here?" The
priest replied, "We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian
pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the
aisles, up and down!”.
So, let’s review what we know. George was a Syrian, and Roman soldier, who
died in Israel. He is venerated by both Christians
and Muslims, by the Orthodox Church, by an African nation, across the Middle
East and by other major European powers.
So when people wonder why I proudly fly the Cross of St George from the
tower of this church building, I tell them this: to appropriate George as some kind of narrow English
nationalist is a remarkably ignorant thing to do. It’s a laughable example of an own-goal! George represents one of the most multicultural
saints that I can think of! He is loved
and venerated across the world, from Russian to Africa, all across Europe and
the Middle East, and (thanks to the Portuguese) across much of South America
too. He is a symbol of universal
brotherhood, and the battle against the dragons of our weaker human natures
which seek to corral us into tribes, locked in hatred and mistrust against each
And let's remember something important about all saints, to whose example we look: no-one ever
became a Saint by looking out for ‘Number One’.
No-one ever became a Saint by putting up borders and failing to offer
aid. No-one ever became a Saint by
hoarding personal wealth, or failing to feed the hungry. St George stands as an exemplar of saint-hood…someone
whose story embraces all humanity, and whose life was poured out in
sacrifice. May we all have the courage
to follow such an example as St George!