Saint George: the essence of Englishness?

Happy St George’s Day, National Day for England!  Saint George is one of the quadrumvirate of Saints for the British Isles.  He keeps company with St Patrick, St Andrew and St David for Ireland, Scotland and Wales respectively.  But compared to the celebrations of the other saints’ days, St George’s Day has often been underplayed.  It is not a public holiday.  It is not a day of partying and festivities.  It is not even particularly in the social, cultural consciousness of most English people. Certainly unlike some of my Welsh, Scottish or Irish friends, I could not have named the date of the Saints’ day for my country.

In our modern multi-faith, multi-cultural British society, many English people are cautious – some even go as far as to say ‘nervous’- about celebrating their National Saints’ Day or indeed their Englishness as a particular national identity.  In fact, St George’s day seems to have been largely hijacked by individuals and political or social movements with an aggressively anti-social agenda which many English people would shrink from.  Those championing racism or, at best, an unpleasant, insidious form of nationalistic hooliganism have seized the opportunity for misuse of the English emblems of the Saint George flag and Saint George’s day itself.

But there has been a growing recognition over the past few years that, actually, racism and nationalism (in its most negative and divisive form) are not the same thing as patriotism.  Pride in being English.  Pride in being part of England; its culture, its society, its history, its values.  Major events such as the London Olympics 2012 have undoubtedly had a major positive impact, as has the more youthful, engaging public face of the monarchy.  Now politicians are actively joining the debate.

Wouldn’t it be something if the English, as a nation, could find a way to reclaim the celebration of St George’s Day as a day of recognition for England and Englishness?  It seems almost wonderfully, bizarrely contradictory that Saint George, adopted by English organisations with racist and socially divisive agendas at their core, is actually the patron saint for many countries across the world.  St George’s day is celebrated in countries and cities as far apart as Bosnia Herzegovina, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Greece and Romania.

As a Christian figure, it is probably to be expected that Saint George is venerated by different branches of Christianity.  But perhaps more surprising to many would be the respect and recognition afforded to him by many Muslims across the world, as well as those Christians spread widely throughout Asia and the Middle East.  In Palestine there are even St Georges’ Day celebrations, albeit under the alternate nomenclature of the Feast of Saint George.

England is not a ‘Christian country’, despite what some politicians might have you believe.  The last census in 2011 showed that 59% of the UK population thought of themselves as Christian.  A further 25% were recorded as having no religion.  The next biggest group comprised Muslims at just under 5% of the total UK population.  Christianity may dominate the pie chart, but size isn’t everything.  Continuity and vigour are important too.  And this is the Achilles heel for UK Christianity.  Of the main religious groups recorded by the census, Christianity showed the oldest population, and the greatest fall off in numbers for younger age groups.  The ‘no religion’ group is the one with the highest proportion of economically active members.  Essentially, the UK is becoming rapidly less Christian, and the influential public voice is, in the main, a non-religious one.

However, statistics aside, it may well take England some time to come to terms with a sense of pride in its Englishness, and a way of celebrating St George’s Day, which is representative of the religious, cultural and social diversity of modern day England.  In the meanwhile, you don’t get much more traditionally Christian than the Ringing for England campaign.  The aim of the campaign is to mark St George’s Day by synchronising celebratory bell ringing in the 12,000 churches across the length and breadth of England.  A celebration through music.  Not a final fix, but certainly one small step forward for a Saints’ Day which has been too long anathema in British culture.

Bath Abbey

The outline of the St George Flag in the detailing on Bath Abbey’s vaulted ceilings.

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