Travelling with St George beyond Cameron and imperial Christianity

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
23 Apr 2014

Seven years ago this week, Ekklesia first published a report entitled 'When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/rebrandingstgeorge). It was reissued in 2010 as 'St George's Day in a changing, global era: a positive proposal'.

We pointed out that beyond the beneath the mythic 'dragon slayer' figure often mis-associated with crusades and nationalism lay the much more subversive story of a dissident against imperial abuse – a man who opposed Roman persecution, laid down his sword, and faced execution for upholding human dignity.

Moreover, we added, St George is not primarily an English figure or creation at all, but one with strong Turkish roots and multicultural identifications in Catalonia, Portugal, Beirut, Moscow, Istanbul, Germany, Greece and a range of other principalities.

It would be fitting to this St George, we suggested in 2007 and the following year, for 23 April to become a Day of Dissent against the abuse of power.

Richard Littlejohn, writing in the Daily Mail in 2008, was considerably less than enamoured by the idea (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2008/04/26/england-and-st-george/), preferring a version of myth and history that left his and his newspaper's prejudices undisturbed.

So what has happened in the intervening period?

Not a re-branding, perhaps, but a growing awareness that national symbolism can cover (and uncover) a multitude of sins… and that re-understanding the "stories we live by" as culturally formed people is a not insignificant part of changing society for the better – making it more equal, peaceful, hospitable and hopeful.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was among those who were quick to see a different, promising side to the St George legend when we pointed it out.

In 2008 a new painting of St George by Scott Norwood Witts, which depicts the saint as a man of compassion rather than a crusader, was unveiled at the Catholic Cathedral of St George, Southwark, to mark the saint’s day. We helped publicise this more widely.

Then in 2009 Anglican Archbishop of York John Sentamu picked up our idea of a different kind of patron saint, while not entirely abandoning the top-down Christendom ideas behind the old story.

Billy Bragg has, of course, been taking up the theme in his own way for some time to, and it came up in conversation with him at the 2010 'Convention on Modern Liberty', which Ekklesia participated in and supported, along with many other democracy-orented NGOs.

Others have followed in this direction. Last year, in April 2013, a survey by British Futures showed that the old myths are losing their hold, leaving room for something different to emerge.

This year, 2014, the news website Christian Today has run an article entitled 'Who was St George? Rescuer, martyr, spectral leader' (http://www.christiantoday.com/article/who.was.st.george.rescuer.martyr.s...) which substantially draws on the picture and account mapped out by Ekklesia seven years before.

With the Scottish independence referendum scheduled for September, the Westminster system still under pressure, Wales continuing to exercise its muscles and Northern Ireland still seeking to discover new possibilities in the aftermath of 'the troubles', "the English question" remains. What kind of identity, self-understanding and role can England have in a post-colonial era it has arguably still not fully embraced?

Moreover, in the light of issues about Christianity and 'Christendom order' raised by Prime Minister David Cameron's comments in Holy Week 2014 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20445), the question of how to reconsider and re-appropriate figures and symbols from the Christian past in a mixed-belief present and future is an ever more potent one.

The "Christianity rules" version of myth and history is one that needs challenging from a specifically Christian viewpoint as well as from the perspective of cultural and religious pluralism. The dragons of political and religious imperialism are ones which need slaying – but in a nonviolent manner.

The St George who defied a persecuting emperor was a soldier who went to his death unarmed, trusting in the God who vindicates through the gift of life (resurrection) not the threat of death.

Equally, the St George who has been absorbed into many cultures and traditions is not Christian on account of being representative of one country over against the others (the "Christian country" idea is inherently imperial and unChristian); he is Christian on account of standing up for those who are persecuted, excluded and downtrodden, whatever name or label they wear.

It is this solidarity with the vulnerable that marks out the new community created by the past, present and future of Jesus Christ, not some romanticised and reactionary image of a religiously-defined tribe claiming privilege over others.

* 'When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era' (Ekklesia report, 2007/2009): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/rebrandingstgeorge. Reissued in 2010 as 'St George's Day in a changing, global era: a positive proposal': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11944

* More on St George from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/stgeorge

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and joint author with Jonathan Bartley of 'When the Saints Go Marching Out'.

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