Today we honour the patron of England – Saint George – of whom we know almost nothing factual. Legend and tradition tells us that George was a favourite of the Roman Emperor Diocletian who had him killed when he discovered George was a Christian.
Saint George’s story inspired other Christians who were suffering persecution and they were encouraged by his witness. Saint George’s popularity in England grew during the time of the Crusades and in 1222 he replaced the English King and Martyr Saint Edmund as patron of England.
I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Saint George as Patron of England. He was a great saint, worthy of imitation, but I would prefer to have an Englishman as Patron of the English. Why not the former patron Saint Edmund, King and Martyr. I’m sure if you asked even a handful of English men and women when their patron saint’s day was, they wouldn’t have a clue.
Compare this with St. Patrick, St. David, and St. Andrew. I think such universal ignorance would not be matched in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. We only have to think of the huge St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York, or the wearing of daffodils or leeks on St. David’s day, to realise that England’s patron saint is well, shall we say, a little less popular.
Which is a shame and, many would argue, one of the reasons the English are losing their identity as a nation. We don’t know much about St. George, he never set foot in England or, even met an Englishman, and his links to England date only from the period after the Crusades. St. George is greatly venerated by the Orthodox and Oriental churches, and though demoted by the Roman calendar of saints in 1963 to only an optional veneration, he was reinstated in 2000. St. George is the patron saint of – wait for it – Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, China, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Palestine, Portugal, Russia, and Serbia; so the English can scarcely lay exclusive claim to him. He is also patron saint of many cities as diverse as Moscow, Beirut and Genoa, and the patron saint of everything from soldiers and scouts to helping those suffering from leprosy and plague. Obviously St. George has universal appeal. But what can he say to us today?
Well, as far as being patron saint of England, in our increasingly diverse society, a Greek-speaking Christian Turk who lived in Palestine and joined the Roman army and was beheaded for refusing to persecute Christians, well, as patron saint of multi-cultural and multi-lingual England he seems peculiarly appropriate. St. George is not only representative of what it means to stand up for Christian beliefs, and pay the ultimate price, but also of the diversity and inclusiveness of the kind of Christianity which sees all Christians as brothers and sisters, no matter where they hail from.
This is also ironic considering the current neo-fascist connotation the flag of Saint George has gained through the British National Party, the English Party and the National Front. Still, irony often comes out of ignorance.
Just cast your mind back to that long list of countries of which St. George is patron. How many of those countries would we feel safe in being a Christian? China has only recently relaxed its stranglehold on Christianity and the promotion of the Gospel, as has Russia; Serbia we all know about; and times are still tough for Christians in Palestine. Persecution of Christians continues all round the world. What we in England take for granted, toleration, is not a given in many parts of the world today.
As we approach the Eucharist, it’s as well for us to remind ourselves, on St. George’s Day, of what it means to be able to participate so freely in this country in this most intimate and personal encounter with our risen Lord. Our English ancestors in the faith suffered for what we do today, openly and freely. And, however sketchy are the precise details of St. George’s life, what he stands for is, in a sense, far more important. Dragons and maidens and the rescuing of maidens from dragons has everything to do with myth and fable, but nothing at all to do with martyrdom. Catholics in England have known what it is like to be persecuted and martyred for their faith. St. George refused to persecute Christians, and for that he lost his life. He joined a long line of martyrs which stretched behind him, and which stretch forward to us today, and to whose number many will be added in the future. St. George wouldn’t compromise his beliefs and his values, and he did what was right. Which is why today, the English, myself included, are proud to call St. George, the Patron of England.
Saint George, pray for us.