It is striking that, over 1700 centuries after the martyrdom of St. George, whose feast coincides with the publication of this week’s issue of The Universe, this slightly obscure Palestinian Roman soldier saint (who might well be denied a visa by the Home Office if he tried to visit the UK) is still venerated as England’s patron saint. His cult was seemingly popularised by returning Crusaders. Their militaristic cross became his emblem. The medieval legend of him killing a dragon and rescuing of a damsel in distress further added to his allure.
St. George then became a symbol of nationhood, most famously on the lips of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Cry God for Harry, England and St. George.” But note the pecking order: King first, Country second, Saint third. It’s hard to stop religious symbols from being co-opted by those in power – even in our secularised culture. Around the world, politicians like to ‘wrap themselves in the flag’. And those rallying to their standard are unlikely to register its ambiguities. What we see as a symbol of the Gospel, that blood red cross, is for many Muslims a reminder of past Christian cruelties. The burden of history lies heavily on all of us – even across our best intentions.
Now we witness the danger of the Union Jack becoming unstitched, torn by the centrifugal forces unleashed by Brexit. Will St. George’s flag one day be left to fly alone? What does his cross say about the English nation – assuming England actually is a nation? (One interpretation of those angry Brexit debates says that the Remain campaign ultimately failed because it stressed a shared British identity, while those it needed to convince thought of themselves, first and foremost, as English.)
Whatever our personal take on British history, whatever our national or regional identities, we need to discover shared values and work together to build a common future, a unity that can embrace diversity. That’s less about where we place political borders than about what dragons we choose to slay: perhaps the dragon that dreams lazily of past imperial power, or the dragon of accepting chronic poverty alongside enormous wealth, or the dragon of environmental destruction that threatens the future of us all. Which ‘damsels’ – the defenceless and vulnerable of our age – need rescuing? We’ll need all the courage St. George showed both in his obscure history and in later legend.
Fr Rob Esdaile is parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton
National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) Conference 23-25 July at https://www.justice-and-peace.org.uk/conference/