Just when it seems the Church of England can go no further in offensive fatuousness, it manages, faithfully, to excel itself yet again, to the continuing despair of those would-be satirists whose most absurd and savage inventions cannot hope to compete with the reality.
The latest exercise in grotesquerie is a call to "rebrand" Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, in the interests of culture-war, political correctness and leftism. The proposals are contained in a paper, "When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining Saint George For A New Era," created by what is described as an "Anglican think-tank" Ekklesia, and published in the Church of England Newspaper.
Simon Barrow, one of the paper's authors, declares: "It is time that Saint George was reclaimed from the dragon, from past associations with racism and the far right, and from images of arrogant flag-waving." The fact that Saint George is associated in popular mythology with slaying a dragon to rescue a maiden seems a particular cause of offense, possibly because dragons are an endangered species and a persecuted minority group.
It was apparently Richard the Lionheart who officially claimed Saint George as England's Patron Saint in the 12th Century. During the Crusades an apparition of Saint George is said to have appeared on the walls of Jerusalem, waving his sword and encouraging the English on to re-take the holy city for Christendom.
Saint George's Day was a great celebration for some time after the victory of Agincourt, but over a long period it gradually fell out of fashion until a major revival of interest and enthusiasm in very recent times.
This new interest in Saint George, like all other notions of patriotism, has increasingly been attracting the ire of the politically-correct in the great British culture-war. In Norwich three years ago a magistrate refused to allow the Otter pub to open on Saint George's Day, April 23, on the grounds that "St. George's Day is not a special day." The same court did, however, grant a special license for Chinese New Year, and exemptions are given for Saint Patrick's Day around the country as a matter of course. Politically-correct councils have banned flying Saint George's flag on the grounds that it would "send the wrong message."
In Bath, in 2003, a St. George's Cross flag, measuring 12 inches by nine inches, was ordered removed from within an office at a police station because it could be seen through a window from the upper deck of double-decker tourist busses. A senior police officer ordered its removal after a local councilor complained that the national flag might cause offence to ethnic minorities (no evidence that it actually did cause such offence was forthcoming). Chief Inspector Mike Creedy of Bath Police confirmed: "The flag was removed as a result of a request to staff in view of sensitivity surrounding the diversity issue." In response Falklands veteran Major Martin Tracey hoisted a 4-foot by 3-foot St George's flag over the front of his shop in the city centre and scores of other residents followed suit. There have been countless other incidents of politically-correct attacks on the flag and its patriotic associations.
Now Mr. Barrow claims that: "The patron Saint of England should be rebranded, and Saint George's Day should become a national day to celebrate the tradition of dissent." He believes Saint George should be re-branded as a "People's Saint," rather, perhaps, as the ineffable Diana was rebranded a "people's princess" when being a real princess proved too much for her. Saint George, he fears, has been hijacked not only by the dragon, but also by "associations with racism and the far right." He must be reclaimed from "images of arrogant flag-waving."
It was under the flag of Saint George -- the red cross on a white ground of the White Ensign -- that the British Navy kept the Atlantic sea-lanes open in World War II, and made eventual victory against Nazism in Europe possible. It was under the flag of Saint George that the converted merchant ship HMS Jervis Bay, armed with old 6-inch guns, steamed into the 11-inch guns of the pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer, going to certain death to buy half an hour for the convoy she was escorting to scatter and escape. When one of the Scheer's salvos hit the Jervis Bay's bridge, destroying the ensign and blowing off the Captain's arm and shoulder, his next order, according to one of the few survivors rescued later, was to hoist another ensign.
Among the "dissents" Mr. Barrow believes should be celebrated on Saint George's Day are: "the pro-democracy Putney Debates, the equality-seeking Levellers, the anti-slavery abolitionists, the women's suffrage movement, conscientious objectors and peacemakers, anti-racism campaigners, human rights activists and those struggling against debt and poverty." An incorrigible, politically-incorrect, voice whispers that Captain Fogarty Fegen of HMS Jervis Bay might be a more fitting individual to connect with St. George.
The pro-Democracy Putney debates? What might they be? In fact they were held in 1647 between Oliver Cromwell and some other officers then in the process of establishing a military dictatorship in England and sects of extremist Puritans, who apparently thought Cromwell was not going far enough.
Of course, there have been others in the British tradition of "dissent." Oswald Mosley, for example, was a dissenter who started the British Union of Fascists. Or how about the London Tube bombers? If they were not dissidents, who can claim the title?
Some people, looking at the unfortunate performance of the British sailors and marines taken prisoner by Iran, Britain's strange passivity over the growth of Islamist extremism in London and over huge increases in crime rates, might say it is actually more not less of the traditions of both patriotism and dragon-slaying that Britain needs at present.
C. S. Lewis once wrote of writing for children: "Let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage." Of these, Saint George is one of the most primal symbols.
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