St George's Day

A Sermon preached by Fr Jim Walters on 26 April 2015

I am delighted to join in this celebration of your patron saint and indeed the patron saint of our nation. But it raises the rather vexed question of how we, today, should celebrate St Georges Day.

When I was a child, on the Sunday after St George’s Day I used to put on my scout uniform for church parade. And after the service we would join other uniformed organisations for a march through the town with lots of pageantry and St George’s flags waving. I’m sure that doesn’t happen in the town where I grew up now and, to be honest, I don’t think I would feel very comfortable in taking part if it did.

English nationalism is a very contentious issue at the moment, primarily because it has been championed by those who seem to have an exclusive definition of Englishness, associated with (if not explicitly defined by) ethnic origins, religion and birth right. We are all aware that high levels of immigration have really challenged, over the last few decades, our sense of what Britishness, and certainly Englishness, means. The kind of parade I took part in as a child would seem imperialistic, even threatening to minority groups, in multicultural Britain. And we are reaching the culmination of an election campaign in which most political parties are promising to place some restrictions on immigration, both to protect our national resources but also perhaps to protect our troubled Englishness and the values we have come to associate with it.

This is a very complex issue, but it does seems to me that one of the great moral question of our age is why we should believe that people born in one part of the world are naturally entitled to a better quality of life than those born in another part, particularly when those people are fleeing conflicts with which this nation has been involved. As we continue to refuse refugees from the chaos that the Arab region is increasingly becoming, the irony has not been lost to many that St George was himself a Roman soldier of Syrian origin who was persecuted and martyred by the State. He was, like so many thousands of people in Syria, Libya and Iraq today, a Christian who was told that if he wanted to live then he should cease to be a Christian. He refused and, like today’s martyrs, he paid the ultimate price.

In this context of the moral injustices of governments including our own, many Christians are inclined to reject national pride altogether, seeing the exclusive nation state as the antithesis of the international communion that is the Church, the family of the baptized. In what is described as a “post-Christendom” situation, we must be mistrustful of national identity because of the violence it does to others. The Church must witness against the ways of the world. And that is a strong theme in St John’s Gospel from which we heard this morning. The systems of the world are shot through with hate and violence that will inevitably be directed at the followers of a man who was himself executed unjustly by the nation.

But I want to say, on this St George’s Day, that I don’t think Englishness should be lost to us as a Christian ideal. That’s partly because we need to remember that St George is not actually patron saint of the English, but patron saint of England. That is to say that he is not patron saint of a certain kind of person, but of a place where, down the centuries, different kinds of people have lived.

In his book Albion, Peter Ackroyd describes how England has been successively populated by waves of immigration, from France, from Scandinavia, from the different territories that England has ruled. And because of that the identity of England is found, not first of all, in the people, but in the land that forms the people. England is the White Cliffs of Dover, the Cheddar Gorge, our network of rivers and hedgerows, England is the very soil itself. And he argues how living together on these islands is what creates the English. Living together in a region of unpredictable climate, for example, has made us a people whose national conversation is the weather.

And what struck me on reading Ackroyd is how those who have wanted to claim a Christian identity to this nation have rarely argued that Christian faith is a constituent part of being English. For a long time England has appeared to be one of the least religious nations in the world. But rather they have seen the narrative of the Gospel in the very land itself.

They have seen England’s Nazareth in the village of Walsingham in the Norfolk countryside. They have seen the memory of the true cross in the Glastonbury oak, the legend that this miraculous tree was planted by Joseph of Arimathea. And famously, William Blake saw the feet of the Holy Lamb of God himself on England’s pleasant pastures. Blake – no fan of imperialism or authority generally – saw England as the land where the new Jerusalem could be built.

This may all seem rather sentimental, and removed from the arguments that are raging today about national identity and immigration. But Christianity holds that we live in a sacramental creation and that the Word of God speaks to us through the material world. So while seeing John’s Gospel as offering us one perspective on the darkness of the world, we can see the world around us more positively. To say that St George is the patron of this land is to say that it is a landscape which can be to us an icon of the Christian faith. That is not in such a way that all the people of this nation must submit to it, but rather that those of us who wish to see it may be strengthened in our Christian faith by belonging to England. We can pray at the shrine of the first English martyr on Verulamium Hill in St Albans. We can walk the pilgrim way from London to Canterbury. We can read the Lindesfarne Gospels on Holy Island. And all these things strengthen us in our faith, including in the central Christian duty of welcoming Jesus Christ in the refugee and the stranger.

So let’s reclaim our patron saint from those who see him as a symbol of opposition to other faiths and other races, a sign of meanness to those in need. And let’s reclaim him for England, that our nation may be a sacrament of the love of God expressed for all humanity in Jesus Christ.

Praise God for merry England, Our Lady and St George!
Holland Park Benefice