X marks the spot for today’s England

Saint George IconOn one level, this post is a shout out to my teenaged son, Frye, whose patron saint is St. George.

So it is no surprise that he was a bit miffed when he heard the news — I believe the Daily Mail broke the story — that the modern Church of England is considering dropping St. George (the soldier lancing the dragon in all of those Eastern icons) as England’s patron saint. As reporter Steve Doughty wrote:

His dragon-slaying heroics have kept his legend alive through the centuries. But the Church of England is considering rejecting England’s patron saint St George on the grounds that his image is too warlike and may offend Muslims. Clergy have started a campaign to replace George with St Alban, a Christian martyr in Roman Britain.

The scheme, to be considered by the Church’s parliament, the General Synod, has met a cautious but sympathetic response from senior bishops. But it clashes with the increasing popularity of the saint and his flag in England.

I was in Oxford when this story broke in the British press and, of course, the tabloid’s timing was fantastic because the flag of St. George was flying everywhere during the World Cup.

I had a chance to talk with several friends of mine about the proposed swap, including a trained Anglican theologian or two. They all agreed, interestingly enough, that the change made sense and that St. Alban, as the nation’s first Christian martyr, would actually be a more appropriate choice. Several people said something like this: “I’ve never understood what the deal was with St. George in the first place.”

The link is a bit strange and there are, meanwhile, historians who claim that St. George never actually existed. Here is how the original Daily Mail story handled that background material, including a nod to the fact that the flag with the huge red cross has become identified with some nasty elements of English life.

The image of St George was used to foster patriotism in 1940, when King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for civilian acts of the greatest bravery. The medal bears a depiction of the saint slaying the dragon. However, George has become unfashionable among politicians and bureaucrats. His saint’s day, April 23, has no official celebration in England, and councils have banned the St George flag from their buildings and vehicles. …

The saint became an English hero during the crusades against the Muslim armies that captured Jerusalem in the 11th century. An apparition of George is said to have appeared to the crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. His dragon-slaying legend is thought to have begun as an allegory of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.

englandstgeorgeHowever, my friends from various locations in the old British empire made one other point that I have yet to see underlined in the tabloid press. Is it safe to say that this change is all about getting the blood-red symbol of the cross off the flag in an era — especially after the cartoon crisis and its flag-burning riots — in which people are a bit tense?

In the St. Alban’s flag, a diagonal yellow cross is placed on a blue background. In other words, it looks more like a large X than the symbol of the Christian faith. For many, this would be a step in the right direction. The Evening Telegraph in Coventry noted:

Motasem Ali, of the Bangladesh Islamic Society, said: “St George is a concern in our community, especially with the present crisis in the world and the UK.

“All religions should be the same, teaching us how to maintain peace and harmony. The Christian authorities should think about it. The image of St George can create more problems in our community. If he was dropped, that would be one step forward.”

But what will happen when someone tries to step forward and claim the credit, or take the blame, for this change?

My British friends — who all thought the change was logical — thought there was no way it would pass. St. Alban may get bumped up a few notches in the public eye, they said, but there was no way the flag of St. George was going to be lowered for good. That would simply create too much heat among the masses.

What kind of heat? Here is a sample, a rather tongue-in-cheek blast from our friend Rod Dreher over at the Crunchy Con blog:

Lord have mercy. These people. … Look, why don’t these sherry-sniffing buttercups just surrender now and spare their enemies the indignity and tedium of having to beat up a bunch of sniveling jellyfish? I swear, you could arm the choirs of the ten Bible churches closest to where I sit deep in the heart of Texas with pool noodles and bullhorns, and they could run half the marmalade-spined clerics of the Church of England over the White Cliffs of Dover like a herd of shrieking Gadarene schoolgirls.

I am sure that stronger language would be used in pews and pubs.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Corban

    What a stupid idea. St Alban wasn’t English (England didn’t exist then), and St George is actually revered by Palestinian Muslim as al-Khadr.

  • Thuloid

    Well, George wasn’t English, either–never even got near the place. Not the real one, who hung out in , nor the dragon-slaying one, who belongs to the St. Christopher Society for Fanciful Saints.

  • Thuloid

    The “hung out in” above should be followed by “Asia Minor”.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Wasn’t St. Alban a Roman soldier?

  • Miles Oliver

    This story is absolute and complete nonsense.

    I have just come back from the General Synod meeting in York and I asked some questions to officials about this.

    They don’t know where the Sunday Times (which first reported this) got their information from – but NOBODY has tabled a motion – official, diocesan, private members or otherwise – about this.

    Don’t blame the Church of England for poor quality reporting in a so-called tabloid newspaper.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    In the complex of the Church of St George in Lydda/Lod, Israel, is also included a mosque. Were the Holy Martyr George so offensive to Muslims, that mosque would not be there, nor would the church have remained standing.

  • Christina

    I have heard that the Muslim crescent originated as a symbol of conquest against the Christians. On the night that they took Constantinople, the moon was crescent-shaped. I have two questions? 1.) Is that true? and 2.) If so, wouldn’t THAT be offensive to Christians? The crescent doesn’t sound like a symbol teaching “peace and harmony”.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Hm. Y’know, over the past few years I’ve learned to be a lot more skeptical when reading the news. I see two news stories linked here, the Daily Mail(July 2nd) and the Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 5th).

    The Daily Mail story quotes two sources: Rev Philip Chester, who’s the guy pushing for the St George ouster, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who says not a single word about St George in the quoted material. All the rest is unsourced assertion.

    The Evening Telegraph story claims that “some senior clergy have started a campaign to replace St George with St Alban,” but also provides no source for this claim. The quotes are all reactions, and there’s nothing at all in there from anybody in authority in the Anglican Church.

  • Charles

    Arrrgggh.

    You might call the cult of any saint “fanciful” – But you say it with a sneer. Just as ridiculous fools like sociobiologists and Nazis do when they would deny love, compassion and altruism. Others would say truth, beauty and beauty are “fanciful” too. With that same mocking unctiousness.

    Disgusting. Murderous. Pathetic. As Auschwitz is.

    “God is dead.” All together, now: “Indeed, He is dead.”

    Is that the end of all possiblity of thought, or a paraphrase of the Nicean Creed?

    Sterile positivism has annihilated our mind and heart. We are now men without cheasts or heads. Nor have we eyes or ears. Aesthetics, compassion and faith are all inextricably intertwined. The negative proof of that is all about us.

    One of the most arrogant, idiotic & condescending conceits of the modern “mind” (or “post modern” blah blah blah) is the fixating assumption that if something is called legendary or mythic, it is untrue.

    “Oh, that’s just a myth” or, “I saw Bill Moyers on PBS and he said that Jung said that all religion is myth.” Just like Moby Dick.

    The myths of SS. George, Christopher – not to mention that of Our Lord Jesus Christ (we call it “the Gospel”) – contain more truth than every scientific treatise ever penned.

    Don’t forget: Metaphysics subsumes physics and is its master.

    And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His mortal remains may lie entombed in Bari, but he now mysteriously intercedes for you eternally in heaven. Now go say your prayers.

    Merry Christmas. Just fancy that.

  • Richard Barrett

    Charles: bravo. See also: GK Chesteron, The Everlasting Man, Joseph Pearce’s examination of Tolkien’s belief in and application of the matter in Tolkien: Man and Myth, and to some extent The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis.

  • http://mcj.bloghorn.com/ Christopher Johnson

    Odd religion, Islam, that claims to be offended by a saint who supposedly never existed. It’s not about George at all. It’s about that flag.

  • Thuloid

    Charles–

    You might call the cult of any saint “fanciful”

    Nope. Just ones that never existed or who are purported to have slain mythical beasts. I call the cult of any saint “theologically unsound,” if by it you mean anything more than the ordinary connection between one Christian and another. But that’s a separate issue.

    Disgusting. Murderous. Pathetic. As Auschwitz is.

    Apparently, not believing in dragons makes me a Nazi. Try harder to be a vicious little twit next time you post–I bet you can’t do much better.

    One of the most arrogant, idiotic & condescending conceits of the modern “mind” (or “post modern” blah blah blah) is the fixating assumption that if something is called legendary or mythic, it is untrue.

    And one of the most arrogant, idiotic and laughable conceits of pious blowhards is that Christianity entails a commitment to fairie creatures. It’s untrue that George killed a dragon or that St. Christopher ever existed. Thank God the Father and my Lord Jesus Christ that I have enough of a brain left to say that.

    The myths of SS. George, Christopher – not to mention that of Our Lord Jesus Christ (we call it “the Gospel”) – contain more truth than every scientific treatise ever penned

    Now hold up there, Sparky. Christ is the Truth–I have no commitment to “truth” hidden within some story, but to Him alone. He was and is our real, living historical Lord, and in Him we are nailed to history. Christopher, by comparison, is a nice story somebody told. My faith commits me no more to it than to the “truth” in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film. Stories are nice things, but they aren’t the Gospel. Your hostility to God’s created order (and its study in the sciences) doesn’t serve you well.

    Don’t forget: Metaphysics subsumes physics and is its master.

    Metaphysics subsumes nothing that we don’t insist on laying upon it (and what a shaky, arbitrary foundation it offers). The Gospel is no metaphysic, nor relies on any; salvation comes by faith in Christ Jesus, not by theories about substances or speculations on the problem of universals.

  • Thuloid

    Christina–

    As I understand it, that crescent moon was a flag flown over Constantinople, an ancient symbol of the city. When the Ottomans took the city, they kept the flag (along with the star on it, which is in honor of Mary). Other Muslims borrowed it from the Ottomans.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Are you saying that the Daily Mail is NOT a tabloid, and assertions to that effect should be corrected? Or are you just barbarously using “so-called” as an expletive?

  • Sean Gallagher

    So are going to have to change the battle cry at the end of the great St. Crispian’s Day speech from Henry V to “For England, Harry, and Saint … Alban“?

    Honestly, as was mentioned before, St. George actually has a following among Muslims. A lapsed-Presbyterian, lapsed-Muslim uncle of mine who lived many decades in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar had quite a hobby of collecting images of St. George from many cultural and religious traditions.

    Maybe, then, his place in the Church of England could be defended on interreligious grounds…

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  • saint

    I emailed Rev Chester for comment given he seems to be cited as the initiator. Thanks too for the info Miles – how does one get “official” confirmation?

  • Charles

    Thuloid:

    I didn’t call you a nazi. And I didn’t mean to insult you. Just shootin’ the breeze among friends, no harm meant.

    You say:

    “It’s untrue that George killed a dragon or that St. Christopher ever existed.”

    Oh really?? Are you sure?

    No dragons at all? No reprobate devil worshiping Canaanite ogres, converted to Faith thru the apparition of a Child?

    Just because you can’t imagine it? Just because it seems implausible to you? Or to a bunch of silly Jesuits at the Louvain? Or the Right Reverend Dr. John Shelby Spong and his crew?

    Please. Stop. Just euthanize me. I can’t take it.

    This is what the Deformation has wrought: an obsessive fascination with “literal” meaning to the exclusion of imagination, tradition and mystery. What is supra rational or paradoxical is now suddenly ipso fact absurd. And so life itself is now absurd. Or haven’t you read your Sartre and all that?

    You say “Christ is the Truth” — Ecco. Motlto bella mi amico.

    But that is a purely metaphysical assertion – all truth and meaning is metaphysical, you do understand that, don’t you? And I’m sorry, but the Gospel is a story. “A nice story someone told.”

    It goes like this:

    “In the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God..”

    Being human is all about narrative, my freind. Stories are all we’ve got to understand.

    Without inhabiting them we are simply just animals. Animals in deed.

    We ought to treat them and all other mere symbols with a lot more respect than we do.

    BTW, you sitting at a keyboard to type is a metaphysical exercise. Any good symbologist can tell you that. Sheesh.

  • tk

    St Alban’s? Based on my looks at Eng-a-land lately, I thought St Wayne was going to ascend to that level:

    http://www.footy-boots.com/rooney-nike-poster/Rooney%20Nike%20Large.jpg

    Did they talk to the Footy fans about this? I see riots in the streets….

  • Maureen

    Dragons are, among other things, a symbol of the Devil or of opponents of the Church. So there’s nothing particularly fanciful about showing a saint slaying a dragon, stomping on one, stuffing the Bible into its mouth, or calling one to heel (St. Martha and the Tarasque).

    Also, the look of dragons, griffins, etc. has been shown to be heavily influenced by real fossils, with which the ancients and medievals were familiar. It’s even possible that back in the day, some awfully odd survivals and big lizards might have been found in odd corners of the world, not just the Komodo Islands.

    However, as to actual dragons, I can only say, like St. Albert the Great in De Animalia, that this ancient source said this and that one said that about dragons, but that I myself have never seen one on any of my journeys. Though I have seen some awfully big dinosaur bones. :)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    The people of Brno, Czech Republic, kept the dragon they killed hundreds of years ago. They had never seen such a fanciful creature — who terrorized their crops and people.

    Of course, it looked like a crocodile to me.

    Still interesting how a croc gets to the middle of Czechlands.

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  • http://www.southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    I believe the ancient depiction was of St George slaying the terrorist Diocletian (a terrible dragon, without a doubt).

    Can someone clarify?

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Dragons and strange beasts have a long and colorful history in Europe and it’s a legitimate symbol, if Britons choose to keep it.

    In my travels in Europe, I visited Klagenfurt, Austria, where they have a huge statue of a “dragon” in the town square. Called the Lindwurm, this legend began when the cranium of an ice-age rhinocerous was dug up by natives in 1335.

    Naturally, they thought it was a dragon, or a swamp-stalking creature of some sort.

    A legend grew up around the lindwurm that it was killed by knights who used a large bull as bait.

    It is still the symbol of the town, and I’ve seen the bones in their museum.

    See: http://members.tripod.com/~gfriebe/lind.htm

  • James Davis

    If St. George is to be banned as offensive, how about the Islamic figures of Saladin and Abd al-Wahhab? I’d feel more charitable about deserting an iconic figure if there were some quid pro quo from the other side.

    To put it another way: I’m a touch tired of selective weighting of history and sensibilities of Christian and Islamic communities. Give and take should be just that.

  • Thuloid

    Charles–

    Off topic, yeah, I’m pretty sure that St. George never killed a dragon. I don’t think I really need to go into why. Probably similar to the reasons you don’t think Odin really sacrificed his eye for permission to drink from Mimir’s well.

    Yeah, I’ve read some Sartre, among others in similar traditions (phenomenology, existentialism, and the later responses to these movements). Much more partial to Wittgenstein, but whatever floats your boat. Anyhow, I don’t think the failure of our philosophy to overcome certain problems (well, in my view the problem is more that we’ve philosophized our way into these problems in the first place) justifies believing whatever you please.

    No, I don’t understand that truth and meaning are metaphysical. Generally, they’re not in the least, unless we’re talking metaphysics. I understand what you mean by your words–there’s nothing metaphysical about this. Likewise, I perceive some of what you say as truthful, maybe other parts not so much. Again, no metaphysics involved. If it were otherwise, then all of human experience would in fact be “metaphysical”, and real, ordinary human life would be insignificant. The important part would be the secret life, secret meaning under the surface.

    Keyboarding isn’t metaphysical–right now, it’s recreational, though you could call it lots of other things as well. I doubt there’s such a thing as a “good symbologist”, if such a person would tell me that sitting at a keyboard is a metaphysical exercise.

    Likewise, Christ as the Truth isn’t, in my view, a metaphysical assertion. It’s a theological one. We’re not talking theory here, not philosophy, but revelation.

    Yes, we tell stories. We do much more than that, though–we build cars and shout orders and spell words and make babies and say prayers and tell dirty jokes and fight wars… Calling all this “narrative” misses the point. It reduces humanity to a single function, if a broadly conceived one.

    You have a stronger point regarding the Gospel in particular. Yes, in some sense it’s a told story–the etymology says as much. But the point of the Gospel is to take this one story differently from all the rest, from any other possible story. The tale about St. George may even give a bit of wisdom, but it doesn’t save anybody. We proclaim the Word through whom worlds are made and corpses jump up and dance.

    On topic, I see no particular reason for a change in saints, though Alban isn’t at all objectionable. George is a good enough symbol for England.

  • Charles

    Maybe I’m really confused- but I don’t think I’ve ever touched a thought, a word, a story, love, meaning, truth, or God. Nor would I hazard, have you Thuloid.

    “Meta” means beyond, doesn’t it? Physics pertains to matter, right? So what is meta physical would be that which is beyond the physical – to include everything which is spiritual or symbolic. See list above.

    A cross, such St. George’s, is merely pigment and line, until the human eye and mind precieve and interpret it, and associate it it with all that it signifies.

    I’m not Wittgenstein, but I think that pretty well sums it up.

    As for legends and history, neither you or I know precisely what happened in the past. We take it all on faith in often scant textual and archeological evidence – details of WWI & George Washington as much as Ceasar or Jesus Christ. You think it absurd to believe it possible that George slew a “dragon” – I think it asinine & arrogant for you to deny the possibility that he in fact did.

    Most enlightened people in the 18th & 19th centuries thought Troy a “myth” (as in a pure fiction) until Heinrich Schliemann went on the “fool’s mission” of actually digging for it.

    Much of the history in the Bible was regarded with similar skepticism until archeology confirmed many of the places and quite a few others details therein actually are correct.

    The miracles, including the Ressurection, are beyond our crude epistomology, and so many refuse to beleive…

    I believe that there is both a “rational” & “supra-rational” truth to many things that the “adult modern mind” rejects as absurd.

    Such as the reality of divine Providence. Or the possibility that someone we call George could have in actual fact slain what the sources refer to as a dragon.

    Be it a dinosaur, Diocletian , or a demon. Or true, fire breathing dragon. I’m agnostic on that point, and enjoy the ambiguity because I find it poetic.

    Go count your leaves, Thuloid. I prefer the to enjoy the trees and forest.

  • http://www.watersblogged.com Bob Waters

    If St. George is no longer England’s patron saint, and St. Alban’s cross joins that of St. Patrick and St. Andrew on the flag of the UK, it would certainly make for an interesting flag- one which would remind me of none of those saints so much as of Fox Mulder.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    More on the St. George brouhaha: http://tinyurl.com/ooqfc

    Also, Bob Waters’ comment got me thinking what a St.Albans UK flag would look like. Answer? Pretty interesting, to say the least:
    http://nhreligion.com/UnionJacknoStGeorge.PNG (of course, this is just one interpretation.)

    A bonus: English flagmaker ruins the Scottish flag by printing the the St. Andrews’ saltire colors wrong way ’round:
    http://tinyurl.com/ppt2k


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