Archbishop of York joins calls for greater recognition of St George

By staff writers
April 6, 2009

The Archbishop of York has floated the idea that St George’s Day should become a national holiday, echoing calls made by the religious think-tank Ekklesia, amongst others.

The Archbishop of York called for a new sense of English national identity - with the help of flags, football and patriotic songs.

Dr John Sentamu said the England football team and the cross of St George could play a crucial part in solving the nation's identity crisis. He also floated the possibility that St George's Day should become a bank holiday.

Last year a paper by the thin-ktank Ekklesia proposed that the figure of St George should be reclaimed according to his true, hidden story – as a dissenter against the abuse of power, a contrast to religious crusades, a global figure we share with other nations, someone who offered hospitality to the vulnerable and a champion of right rather than might.

It proposed that St George’s Day should be re-branded as a national day to celebrate an English contribution to the history of dissent – the witness of people such as abolitionists, suffragettes and those who have sought to combat racism, nationalism, debt, poverty, colonialism and war with the vision of a nation and world open to all.

The Archbishop of York's told the Oxford Literary Festival: "Previously an icon of extreme nationalists, a sign of exclusion tinged with racism, the flag of St George instead became a unifying symbol for a country caught up in the hopes of 11 men kicking a ball around a field”.

"As is often the case with cultural revolutions, the change came not through a directive from the top, but from those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.

"In the city of Birmingham, where a good number of taxi cabs are operated by Asian, often Muslim, men, the flag of St George became an addition to every cab. The commercialisation of the flag and its linking with a national hope which sought inclusive celebration led to its adoption by those for whom it was previously used as an exclusionary symbol."

During the 2006 football World Cup the flag of St George flew from thousands of cars, pubs and houses, including 10 Downing Street. Sentamu also suggested that Three Lions, the record released for the Euro 96 championships by Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, inspired a rare sense of national unity. He asked whether it might be fitting to turn St George's Day, 23 April, when Shakespeare's birthday is also celebrated, into a national holiday.

"This song was on the lips of children and adults alike, black, white and Asian," he said. "Coupled with the reclamation of the flag, it represented an opportunity for common cause that was open to ownership by any who chose to adopt it. It represented a new form of Englishness that was multi-cultural and multi-faith but which presented, for a few brief weeks, a shared narrative. It is something that was again at work on the day it was announced that the Olympics would be coming to London, a moment of national pride cruelly robbed away by the news of the bombs [on 7 July 2005] hours later. Has the time come to make the feast of St George, the patron saint of England, a public holiday?"

Concluding his Oxford lecture, he said: "Englishness is back on the agenda. One of the consequences of attacks by so-called home grown terrorists has been to ask the question of what it means to be English? Can there be a narrative, an identity we can all share, flexible enough to recognise the new aspects of England whilst remaining authentic enough to proudly name and recognise its own history?

"Where there is no awareness of identity, there is a vacuum to be filled. Dissatisfaction with one's heritage creates an opening for extremist ideologies. Whether it be the terror of salafi jihadism or the insidious institutional racism of the British National Party, there are those who stand ready to fill the vacuum with a sanitised identity and twisted vision if the silent majority hold back from forging a new identity."

Ekklesia’s co-director Jonathan Bartley welcomed the Archbishop’s call for a greater recognition of St George’s Day, but warned that he had still to set out how the darker side of English nationalism would be avoided.

“It is welcome that the Archbishop has joined the discussion about whether St George’s Day should be a national holiday” he said, “but he has yet to explain how he would separate St George from ideas of conquest and empire which are unhelpful and ill suited to encouraging a healthy sense of identity."

In 2007 Ekklesia produced a report arguing that "when we re-read the story of his origins and literary interpretation, St George, it turns out, was a dissenter. Starting out as an establishment figure, a military leader, his Christian faith led him to forsake his weapons and wealth in order personally to confront the Emperor Diocletian (303 AD) with the wrong he was doing in persecuting minorities."

Ekklesia's 2007 suggestions for change were:

1. That St George’s Day could become a national public holiday in England.

2. That its theme could be to celebrate historic English traditions of creative dissent and non-conformity in the spirit of St George’s challenge to Diocletian’s persecution.

3. That is could also be an occasion to reinforce links with other inheritances (such as our ex-enemy Gandhi’s) which have enabled us to re-assess our own history, policy and self-understanding.

4. That civic events could be held to mark the contribution to national life of dissenters, martyrs, minorities and migrants – with particular attention to the plight of the excluded, the displaced and oppressed in history and today.

5. A focus on hospitality – street parties, concerts, exhibitions, multicultural events, and projects to encourage reconciliation within local communities.

6. An emphasis on those ‘hidden from history’ in school and education programmes.

7. An examination of non-violent techniques for tackling injustice and violence, given the failures of Iraq and the desire to relinquish war and terror as instruments of policy – recalling St George’s costly decision to seek moral persuasion rather than force of arms.

8. A renewed focus within the churches on the history of Christian non-conformity, which has increasing relevance as we transition into a post-Christendom era.

You can read the Archbishop’s speech here:

You can read Ekklesia’s 2007 paper on St George here:

More on St George's Day here:

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