When the Saints go marching out

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
20 Apr 2007

Over the main doorways from Parliament’s Central Lobby are representations of the four patron saints of Britain and Ireland: David, Patrick, George and Andrew. Tour guides mischievously suggest that the Irish saint is positioned over the exit, whilst Scotland’s is over the way to the bar.

With St George’s Day upon us once again, there will no doubt be the familiar debates about what it means to be English. We may even get another discussion about whether St Alban would be a more appropriate patron.

St George has long been co-opted by those with power and patronage. In Parliament, he sits over the entrance to the House of Lords, lending presidential authority to a top-down social order. But his origins lie in opposition to imperial order, and it is time we rescued him from that dragon.

Though there can be no firm historical handle on St George, the hagiography says he was a high ranking army officer at a time when many Christians still took Christ’s words about love of enemies seriously. Should they leave a profession which appeared incompatible with Jesus’ example? Should they remain soldiers but refuse to kill or make sacrifice to the Emperor? Some apparently tried to deal with the dilemma by leaving their sword arms above the water line when they entered the baptismal waters.

For George, things came to a head, quite literally, when the Emperor unleashed his terrible persecution of Christians in 303 AD. Legend says he divested himself of his military rank and worldly possessions and journeyed to Nicomedia to plead with Diocletian. He didn’t raise an army, but confessed his faith in Christ by challenging the Emperor’s authority non-violently. It was an action he paid for by decapitation

This story is one few who invoke St George today have ever heard. A Christianity incorporated into the Empire had little use for a saint who championed those oppressed by imperial violence. So by the 11th century George had miraculously become patron saint of the crusaders. The story was turned on its head. The resister of empire had been converted into its martial benefactor.

Now that political leaders are again tempted to invoke the Almighty to legitimate their international crusades, 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.

Dissent is a vital part of English history. St George, who turned his back on the established order to follow the Prince of Peace, symbolises that well. But he also subverts our nationalism. In different ways we share his patronage with Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Portugal, Aragon, Catalonia and Lithuania. St George is a global icon, not a local hero.

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[This article also appears in the Church of England Newspaper]

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