This is the time of year when we stop complaining for a moment about the dreadful spring weather and start complaining about the neglect of England’s patron saint, St George. Our grumbles go something like this: we don’t know what to do to mark his feast day (23 April), we have no traditions like the shamrock or daffodils to fall back on — and the nearest we can manage to a dragon seems to be a bout of football violence.
All that is true; and it reinforces my view that adopting St George as our patron saint was a terrible mistake. It was something we stumbled into and don’t know how to get out of. St George was a soldier who openly reproached Diocletian for his cruelty. He was beheaded in 304, one of many Roman soldiers who chose to be a martyr rather than deny the exclusive Lordship of Christ over this world. And there is nothing wrong with that as an exemplar. But there were problems in adopting him from the start. For one thing, he had no connections with England; for another, he is the patron saint of Christian soldiers, and came to us dressed up as a Crusading hero. The Crusaders’ shield was to become our national flag. As another George has so recently discovered, now is not the time to be looking back to the Crusades for national identity and inspiration.
Even our English genius for pageantry has failed to find a secure place for George in our national consciousness, except for that brief period of pride in the Empire when we still constructed pantomime dragons to be slain. By that time, of course, he had gone through a period of mediaeval transformation and become a dragon-slayer. With the dragon standing for Satan and all his works, that at least provided the nation with a spiritual legend. But there was a downside. The mediaeval legend also had George rescuing a damsel in distress, which sits uneasily with our developed understanding of the role of women.
But what do we do when a mistake has become enshrined in tradition? Put up with it, like the English rain, on the grounds that there is nothing we can do about it? Defend the choice because tradition is sacrosanct? Or face the fact that we have made a mistake, perhaps even committed a sin, and then repent and start again?
I hesitate between sin and mistake because I don’t for one minute think the ‘choice’ of St George was a conspiracy. I think it was a cock-up. As with so many human faults, it stemmed from an accumulation of human frailty, confusion and ignorance — all manipulated by the sins of greed, pride and chauvinism.
But England needs a patron saint. If George goes, who should replace him? We need only go back to the year of George’s martyrdom to find a suitable English saint. This man was Alban. In 304, he was scourged, then beheaded, for the crime of protecting a priest. He died for the faith. His feast is on 22 June — and June is a rather more clement month than April.
St Alban for England would take some getting used to, but I think it is time to leave George to those he belongs to, our persecuted brethren of the Middle East who certainly need a dragon-slaying champion.
This article is based on a sermon given by the Prebendary Graham Claydon at St Paul’s on St George’s Day.