St George is patron saint of dissenters, says think-tank

By staff writers
April 19, 2007
St George. Pic: 100 Black Britons

The patron saint of England should be rebranded and St George's Day should become a national day to celebrate the traition of dissent. The ideas come in a report published ahead of St George's Day (23 April) - and in an article published in this week's Church of England Newspaper.

In a report entitled When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era, Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow, co-directors of the think-tank Ekklesia, propose that George once again take his place as the 'people's saint'.

The report points out that the original story which dates from the 4th century CE told of St George offering hospitality to a refugee, defending the marginalised, and challenging the persecution policy of the Emperor. This image has been distorted, and replaced by one of a dragon slayer who backs the crusades (religious wars).

'Re-branding' is about reconsidering what is important about the story and telling it afresh. The report suggests that the values of the older story could form the basis of a national holiday for England which is inclusive, hospitable, and avoids the dangers of proud nationalism - offering instead a hopeful vision of 'Englishness' as global and outward looking.

Such a day would celebrate:

· The role of the English as global citizens, not narrow nationalists
· The need for dissenters to call power to account
· Black Britons as vital contributors to our culture
· Shared values of social justice arising from the past
· Welcoming migrants in an interdependent world
· Exemplars of faith, hope and love, not thin celebrity

One of the report's authors, Simon Barrow, said: "It is time that St George was reclaimed from the dragon, from past associations with racism and the far right, and from images of arrogant flag-waving.

"When we look at his hidden story we see instead a figure, an 'icon', who can perhaps help the English - a people in search of a post-imperial identity - to discover a positive role in a world they no longer control."

One important task, says the report, is to take the sin out of saints like George. Just as he was co-opted for the crusades, so his misappropriation has continued in recent history. To consider him a symbol of 'England alone, above, better' is extremely damaging to the English as people with a delightfully mixed heritage and a global future.

"Our identity is formed by what enables us to relate positively, not what makes us 'different'," says the report.

Under the proposals St Georges's Day would become a 'Day of Dissent' celebrating the noble, alternative English tradition of rebellion against the abuse of power. This might include: the pro-democracy Putney Debates, the equality-seeking Levellers, the anti- slavery abolitionists, the women's suffrage movement, conscientious objectors and peacemakers, anti-racism campaigners, human rights activists and those struggling against debt and poverty.

Writing in the Church of England Newspaper this week, Jonathan Bartley says: "It is time for the church to lead the way in restoring the image of an exemplary dissenter. In our own days of Empire it was said that Britannia ruled the waves and waived the rules. St George points us in a quite different direction. He should once more be recognised as the saint of the downtrodden and his Day should be one where those who wield power are called to account."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.