Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Will the REAL St George please stand up?

                 Tuesday, the 23rd of April, was 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 the Archangel Michael, who was usually depicted wearing armour, like St George, and who was often depicted with the great dragon, representing Satan, at his feet.  In fact – you can see the very same image in our West window.

Alternatively, there is a legend about Perseus slaying a sea monster; a myth also associated with Lod, with which George become conflated.

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.  He is 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 native of Britain – namely Edward the Confessor, the last King of Wessex, who died in 1066.  St Thomas of Canterbury – patron saint of our own Cathedral - 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 other.

May we all have the courage to follow such an example as St George!  Amen.

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