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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

On Saint George's Day

This great church*, one of John Loughborough Pearson’s masterpieces, was no doubt dedicated to St George in honour of the fifth Duke of Northumberland, in whose memory his son had it built. This sixth Duke, who also had George as a middle name, left his mark on Alnwick Parish Church where I was once vicar. He liked gothic to be gothic, “noble, honest, earnest” says Pevsner’s Buildings of England. Pearson said of his own churches that the effect on people coming through the door should be “to bring them to their knees”. As this one does. It’s one of the best Victorian churches in England.

Let’s not dwell on all that we don’t know about St George. What we can be confident about is that he lived in Palestine seventeen hundred years ago, that he was a soldier, and that he was martyred under the Romans for his Christian faith. And what we know for certain is that he became patron of England as a result of the crusades. In Sheffield Cathedral where I was once dean (and where the Bishop was David Lunn, once vicar of this parish), there is a military chapel dedicated to St George. It was railed round with a remarkable, rather fierce, screen of swords and bayonets. The bayonets were pointed upwards because in peacetime they were at rest (though I believe that their exceedingly sharp points are now seen as a health and safety hazard and the bayonets have been turned round).

So what does it mean for us to celebrate St George as both patron of this church and patron of England? 

First, this church. We can see George as an emblem of so much that Christianity represents: destroying the dragons of tyranny and falsehood, standing for the truth against the lie, pursuing justice, cultivating virtue and nobility of character. And doing these things to the death, laying down his life for his friends out of the greater love that Jesus speaks about in St John’s Gospel. This was St George the martyr, who looked persecution in the face because, as we heard in today’s gospel, “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you”. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” A martyr is literally a witness. For us, the legend of St George will always stir us up as God’s witnesses to fight against evil and follow Christ, as we pledged to in baptism as his soldiers and servants all our lives long. It’s two days since we renewed our solemn promise to do this in the power of the resurrection. St George and Easter go together. If we are risen with Christ, these are the things we seek that are from above, where he is now as our risen Lord. And that transforms the whole of life.

What about England? First, let’s not forget St George’s cosmopolitan background – born to a Greek family in the Roman Empire in what we now call Turkey, and dying in Palestine. And remember that he is not the unique possession of England, for he is also patron saint of Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Palestine and Georgia among other places. So if George is our patron, then his name impels us to pursue those same God-given values of truth, justice and self-giving love. Righteousness exalts a nation, says the Hebrew Bible, and on St George’s Day that should be our aspiration as English people whose patron saint bids us live according to the virtues of generosity and service. If we are going to “cry God for England and Saint George”, this is what we are raising his flag for. And that much all people of good will can sign up for, whatever their faith: to want to be a good nation that embodies all that God looks for in a human society.

But this vision of goodness has been severely tested in recent times. The way in which the cross of St George has been harnessed to the world-view of far-right extremists has profoundly unsettled those of us who love England for its fairness, its tolerance, its reasonableness, its kindness and its welcome to peoples from every part of the world and of every culture and faith. My Jewish mother came to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and made a home here. Not long afterwards her parents were hidden underground in the Netherlands for the rest of the war. But England’s hospitality to an asylum-seeker, I wouldn’t be here now. How could it be that “Englishness” should be associated with a fear of refugees, pulling up the drawbridge against migrant workers, with a narrower vision of nationhood St George, because of his own background, would never have countenanced. That our politics should be haunted by these toxic ideas is a worrying commentary on our times.

I believe we need to return to the roots of our identity and recover a better vision of our vocation as citizens of England. Patriotism means doing what is right and good out of love for our country, the soil that gave us birth, made us aware, shaped our values, and bestowed on us so many precious gifts. It asks in return that we give our best selves to playing our part as a people among the family of nations, and lead by living out an example of all that ennobles human character. I’m sure we all endorse that vision here today. It’s entirely different from the nationalism that cries “England first!” and collapses into the self-serving accumulation of power and resources at the expense of others. Christianity is incompatible with that idea of nation; for the church of the risen Christ is a worldwide catholic community that transcends all human identities. In the gospel, what matters most is playing our part in serving God’s purposes of love and truth and justice, how we serve well and live together before the one to whom we must all render account.

Which was the pattern of St George our martyr-saint, according to the stories told of him about how he laid down his life for his friends. It can be very costly indeed. We’ve seen the hatred of Christians acted out yet again in the shocking massacre of Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka’s churches. We mustn’t be under any illusions. Persecution of Christians is a fact of life in many parts of the world, something the British government is now recognising. When religious freedom is compromised, we are all victims, as Jews and Muslims will tell us from their own bitter experience of antisemitism and islamophobia. These are threatening times for many people of faith and conscience.

Jesus prayed that the cup might pass from him – who wouldn’t? But in the end he drank it to its bitter dregs. “They will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” says Jesus. As the Master is, so must the disciple be. St George laid down his life as a witness to that everlasting love without reservation and without compromise. It’s a tough vocation: tough for our church, tough for our nation, tough for any of us. But nothing less than this is the cost of good nationhood, good discipleship and good citizenship. It asks everything of us. But it gives everything too. In every time of trial we sing “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” That’s how to slay dragons: by worshipping our most glorious Lord of Life, and living as his Easter people.

It was the way of St George because it was the way of his crucified and risen Lord. On this day of celebration for church and nation, we give our thanks and praise.

*St George’s, Cullercoats, 23 April 2019
John 15.18-21

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