Canon Precentor - The Revd Gilly Myers
The medieval quarter in Manchester used to get quite ugly on St George’s Day – especially on nice warm sunny days such as we have been enjoying this week.
After the Manchester bombing in 1996 a large and beautiful medieval house was moved, beam by beam, onto a site adjacent to the 15th century Cathedral, and this became an exceedingly popular pub and restaurant, with a large amount of seating outside. Just along the road was another pub – and it was here where the English Defence League would begin to gather on 23 April each year. They turned up in smart suits with red roses in their lapels, and looked every bit like the quintessential English Gentlemen (I honestly don’t remember seeing any women – but they might have been there, too).
Several pints later, however, and spreading by now along the road to the other pubs, including the one adjacent to the cathedral, the racist chanting became raucous and intimidating. Fights broke out; the shouting grew lounder, furniture was thrown around. It was shocking and it was nasty.
It was an irony that the flag of St George was always flying from the top of the cathedral tower. St George is one of Manchester Cathedral’s patron saints, and we were very happy with this. Perhaps the EDL liked the fact that they could hold their annual riotous gathering in the shadow of the red cross on white background. Perhaps they thought that we were of a similar mind when it came to this patron saint of England whom they were celebrating in this dreadful way.
If they were to have come inside Manchester Cathedral, though, I think that they would have been very taken aback. In the Fraser Chapel, there is a reredos painting by Mark Cazalet in which St George appears as young black man in an England football shirt.
A young black man in an England football shirt – if they had known that this was how we were proudly depicting our saint, then surely they would have thrown the furniture through our own very colourful stained glass windows!
Nobody really knows where George originated. It seems likely, given the origins of his veneration, however, that he came from somewhere in the middle east. It is unlikely, therefore, that he would have had pale skin, blue eyes and golden locks. Mark Cazalet’s interpretation could be much nearer the mark.
Over the years there have been occasional bursts of discussion around the suitability of St George to be England’s patron saint. How about Edward the Confessor, whom George superseded;
Thomas a Becket, martyred in Canterbury;
or Alban, martyred in Verulamium, now known as St Alban’s;
or Cuthbert, that holy missionary monk, and bishop of Lindisfarne?
I have heard it suggested that St George was chosen expressly because he was not connected with any particular location in this country, as those I have mentioned are. It meant that pilgrimage destinations and the dedication of churches could more easily be sited in many places.
I think that there are better reasons today for George to be our country’s patron saint.
George is honoured not only by churches of the east and the west, but he is venerated by Jews and Muslims as well - again, in the east as well as the west.
What is more, we share his patronage with quite a number of other nations (24).
So rather than being a divisive character, such as the EDL would have him be, somehow representative of those who are ‘in’ and not those who are ‘out’, George has the potential to be common ground to people of different races and faiths. He could be a symbol of the coming together of peoples and nations, a figure that crosses the boundaries that so often divide us.
May that be so.