The periodic debates about England's patron saint St George often serve only to heighten the element of confusion about him and some of the myths that surround him. Here I am not speaking so much about killing dragons, as about St George’s crusader image, and whether he is offensive to Muslims and other faith communities.
Having recently been made a Canon of the Cathedral of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem, I think it is incumbent on me to speak up in St George’s defence.
There is often a confusion as to exactly who is our patron saint. The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir Ali, pointed out in a letter to The Guardian last year: "there is often a perpetuating of Edward Gibbon’s error of identifying the patron saint of England with the "grasping or violent" "George of Cappadocia" ...
"The patron saint of England, is, rather, George of Lydda in Palestine. This Palestinian is known in the Eastern Church as the Great Martyr and is also the patron saint of Christians in Syria, India and other places in the East. It seems appropriate, somehow, that such an international figure should be the patron saint of England.’"
In my searching for St George in the Holy Land, I have come to the same conclusion. Starting in Lydda (now known as Lod, not far from Tel Aviv) I went on a journey of discovery. I found three points of great significance:
1. The myth of the dragon. This has a common meaning for the people of the Holy land, particularly those from the Orthodox tradition. The Greek Melkite Archbishop of Galilee, the Most Rev Elias Chacour, said to me: "St George was an officer in the Roman army, originally from Lydda. He saw 40 Christians being killed and when they died, he saw 40 crowns coming from heaven, being put on their heads. It made such an impression on him that he said: 'If these people die for their own faith, their faith must be right', and he confessed Christ and went right away to the same torture — that’s why they present St George as the protector of the Church.
"There is a young lady behind him, representing the Church, which he is protecting. The dragon is the pagan power, the Roman Empire — you find it in the Apocalypse, in Revelation."
Susan Barhoum, an Arab Palestinian and Israeli citizen, told me: "My father was born in Lydda ... My father’s family can be traced back to the fourth century, when the church in Lydda was built; the church is St George’s, and it was built by St Helena, who was the mother of Constantine. That was when records started, and they started recording births, priests and so on; my father’s family were some of the first few priests in the church in the fourth century.
"The tomb of St George is there . . . he’s the patron saint of most Orthodox churches in the country . . . he is very revered." She also talked of the myth of the dragon — how the empire of evil (the dragon) is being killed. Her husband, the Revd Samuel Barhoum, who is the Vicar of Holy Family Church in Reineh, Galilee, said that St George was a saint, not only for Christians in the Holy Land but also for Muslims and Jews as well.
2. A figure of unity. That he is not only a saint for Christians is very crucial — if you go to Al-Khader (near Bethlehem), you will find a church and monastery of St George, which is predominantly visited by Muslims. Also in Lod it is not only the church that is dedicated to St George but also the Mosque next door, Jamia al-Omar, one of the oldest mosques in the region. To Muslims he is very holy and Al-Khader, or the "green one", is the name they use for St George.
In the indigenous community of Palestine, through the years whether they were Christian, Muslim or Jew, they all respected St George, partly because there seems to be a close identification or even merging of three figures: St George, Al-Khader, and Elias or Elijah. Somehow people saw them as linked and consequently St George is a figure of unity for people of different faiths.
3. The Green one. The third important point is that Al-Khader, or "the green one", reminds us that St George has a particular ecological commitment. He was known as "the protector of the trees" as well as "the healer". He is seen as protector of the environment — so the green link gives St George a particular relevance in our time as we face the challenge of global warming.
So with St George we can address the issues of the "dragon" or "empire" within our own time, he is the protector of the environment and the "green one", he has an interfaith relevance, he is healer of the community and a very prophetic and hopeful patron saint.
St George’s day is also an important time to remember the church in Palestine and Israel and to focus on learning more about this church, to forge stronger links, and to pray for peace and justice in the Holy Land.
We now have an amazing amount of material for our services on 23 April, and we can be thoroughly proud of our patron saint.
(c) Garth Hewitt. Garth is a writer, singer and campaigner on poverty and justice issues. He is an Honourary Canon of St George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, and has long been associated with the work of the Amos Trust.
This article is adapted, with grateful acknowledgement, from one appearing in Church Times.