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St George

St. George's Hanover Square

22 April 2007 11:00 | Fr. Simon Hobbs

It is very nice to be here again not least on your feast of title. At the Chapel we of course do not have a patron saint, so we have adopted St George as he is the patron of the par-ish and at every mass we ask for his prayers not once but twice, which I gather from my spies is approximately twice more than you do here. But then we are very high church; and we also have a beautiful icon of St George in our Lady Chapel. This morning I have left the Chapel to its own devices and the sermon to my American colleague Father Dewey who this last Wednesday did the sensible thing and became a British subject. He can now preach about St George without having his leg pulled too much!

Well, a rebranding of St George has recently been suggested by a religious think-tank called ekklesia. This is ekklesia with two k's, not to be confused with ecclesia with two c's which was a bunch of Anglo-Catholics who had their HQ in St Stephen's Church West Hull, round the corner from my old school as it happens, who spent their time taking garish statues round the very ungarish streets of West Hull kitted out in gear last seen in 14th century Spain. The leader of this group, looking for all the world like a religious widow twanky declared himself against the ordination of women on the grounds that it would make women into transvestites. A sort of religious think-tank without the think. Anyway ekklesia, two k's, who last came to notoriety by suggesting that poppies should be white not red, has suggested that St George should be rebranded to represent the underdog and the tradition of dissent. This has about as much chance as capturing the popular imagination as Hull has of becoming European City of Culture sometime before the sun blows up. ekklesia needs to pop out of its ivory tower occasionally I think.

However I am grateful to them for albeit rather hamfistedly pointing out that St George in Christian symbolism has a rather different emphasis from the populist and nationalist one. The latter has its history in the crusades when King Richard the Lionheart brought St George back as the patron of England. This is the St George depicted in our icon in the Chapel, resplendent in shining armour on his white steed with the dragon defeated under the horse's feet and with St George's lance at its throat. Alas no damsel in distress is being rescued in our icon, but this may have something to do with the fact that it was painted by a Greek monk who might not have known what one was. In the days of the crusades it was considered a moral good to be a soldier and fight for the church and kill as many infi-dels as you could. There are probably some who still think so. Indeed you could be mis-taken for thinking this yourself every time you attend a baptism. As will happen here at St George's in but an hour's time or so, a baby will be christened and Father Leece will sign it on the forehead with the sign of the cross and in response the congregation will say: "Fight valiantly against sin the world and the devil and continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life." So we are all baptised as soldiers then and in the days of the cru-sades this was probably taken literally. All fine except nothing in Christianity is all that it seems.

This particular ritual goes back to the earliest days of the church. In those days the church was pacifist and it was regarded as being incompatible to be a soldier and a Christian at the same time. These days we have other obsessions; about twenty years ago the Gen-eral Synod debated whether you could be a Christian and a freemason, this despite the fact that probably at least half the bishops belonged to a lodge somewhere or other; these days the obsession is whether men can be christians if they show too great a penchant for furnishing fabrics. How times have changed. Well for the first three hundred years of the church's life you could not be a christian and a soldier. One of the principle reasons was that soldiers had to pay allegiance to the God-Emperor and they were marked with the sign of the God-Emperor on their foreheads. So what did the Church do? It marked all Christians with the sign of the God-man and declared them soldiers not of the Emperor but of Christ. But this imagery of the soldier was entirely ironic. As the church was pacifist it committed all the baptised to being not soldiers, to being the peacemakers of the Beati-tudes. The war, the struggle was an internal one only, a spiritual warfare against your own inner demons and the forces of injustice. I am reliably told that this is also the case in Is-lam where jihad has primarily the meaning of your own inner spiritual struggle. In the early church people took this seriously and put this into practice, the most famous examples be-ing the desert fathers who took themselves off to live in caves, or in one case on the top of a pillar for twenty years to face and defeat their inner demons.

This ironic use of the images of warfare is an intrinsic part of the Christian tradition and can be seen most famously today of course in the Salvation Army which uses these im-ages of war in an ironic way . In the Salvation Army apparently you do not die, you are "promoted to glory" that lovely phrase I have always liked. But the tradition goes back to Christ himself who on Palm Sunday used all the trappings of war and victory precisely to deny that he was the military messiah but that his kingdom was a spiritual one. The palm branches, the shouts of hosanna, the cloaks laid out before him were all the prophetic signs of the messiah come to retake his kingdom, but instead of riding into Jerusalem on a horse, as was expected, he did so on a donkey, an unmistakable ironic subversion of the prophetic military messiah. He then claimed his kingdom through resisting violence with a crown of thorns and a cross for a throne. This is our King, who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. His kingdom can only be built through peacefulness and self-sacrifice.

The image of St George therefore in Christian symbolism is not that of a warrior on a literal crusade, but represents to us the way of our King and the necessity of our own inner struggle against our demons and dragons. Freudians I am sure would have a field day with images of fire breathing dragons in caves, innocent maidens, and lance wielding war-riors. In other words we need to look at the symbolism depicted there. Let's go back to the icon a minute: these are never still-life representations, precisely the opposite. They point to inner spiritual truths, and are symbolic pictures. Our icon of St George is not a glorifica-tion of a theology of war which does not exist in the Christian faith at all, but of our own baptismal commission to see our lives in part as a struggle against evil, hatred, violence and to be bringers of love and peace as Christ himself showed us in his own death. This is what we as Christians it seems to me celebrate in the life and symbolism of St George. If we are truly committed to this way of the cross, we will discover it is a way of constant struggle, but it is our commission.

But what of our nation? Is this what we as a nation see in St George? There are doubtless many who see this day as a way of excluding all non Anglo-Saxons from our national iden-tity. This is shameful I think. There are doubtless those who are belligerent warmongers in England who see St George as the ultimate warrior legitimising war. I am not a historian nor a social commentator with a panoramic view of the English, and of course every gen-eralisation you make about a nation will be disproved by as many counter examples, but my feeling is that the English as a whole do not feel this sense of belligerence but share this ironic detachment to war. The English are very suspicious of ideology and fanaticism; indeed a couple of hundred years ago the very word "enthusiasm" was a derogatory one. The English may have gone to war a lot, and doubtless we have done many terrible things in the course of our history, but in the popular imagination at least many of our wars have been waged of necessity to stop dictators of one sort or another. I am not sure there is a fanatical belief in war which the image of St George might convey. If there is one thing the English are proud of it is their sense of irony and ability to see many layers of subtle mean-ing in things. And I think this applies to the subject of warfare. To me this idea is summed up best by a story printed in the Daily Express on 14th August 1940 and reported in Jer-emy Paxman's excellent book The English. A Messerschmitt had crashed in Southern England and the pilot survived and was lying on the ground. He was approached by Mrs Betty Tylee and Miss Jean Smithson. He said to them, 'Are you going to shoot me now?? 'No? said Mrs Tylee, 'we don't do that in England. Would you like some tea?'

I think the English understand well the ironies of St George. It is one of our finer qualities as a nation so we celebrate it today with the kind of enthusiasm only the English can mus-ter, suspicious as we are of fanaticism and ideology. At the same time we recall the Christian roots on which our nation was built, that of our baptism. For each of us is called to the lifelong struggle against evil and injustice begin-ning above all with those aspects of it in our own heart. This is what our baptism commit-ted us to. We bear the mark of Christ on our foreheads and are called to be his soldiers, but in the ironic sense. Only as we slay our own dragons can we build peace and justice in the world and reflect the gentle light of Christ. So today we ask for the prayers of St George for our Queen, our nation and our parish, and last but not least for ourselves that we may be victorious in our struggle against evil and injustice.
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