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St George – do we like him, or not?

I was almost thirty before I knew when my nation’s patron saint’s day was. I discovered it by accident by visiting a cathedral on this date = 23rd April.


George – who took over from St Edmund as England’s mascot – is less well known and celebrated here than our Celtic neighbours’ saints. Pubs in England will promote St David, St Andrew, and St Patrick’s days, but in school I was never asked to make a St George’s day thing; never attended a party for him as child nor adult. I’ve not seen the St George flag – a white background with a red cross – hanging out on this day, any year.


In Britain, we don’t use our national flag that much, unless there’s a royal occasion. They appeared at the most recent royal weddings, for which we all got a holiday; for the Queen’s landmark milestones, and on her palaces.


The just-for-us English Georgian one is seen in one of three contexts: six nations rugby, the football world cup; or by nationalists such as the English Defence League who march occasionally, proclaiming messages that most of us consider dangerous, for they are unwelcoming of other nationalities which live among us. Hence, there is concern and derision for this use of the flag and perhaps why, when it’s not an international sporting fixture, that we don’t display them. Note that whereas it’s considered a sign of national pride for our Celtic neighbours to get their flags out, it’s been noted that in England, we must have the pan-island Union Jack (which has the Georgian cross in it, combining England and Scotland’s flags but not Wales). Perhaps this point is why people like EDL do attract a following.


There is a fourth place that we might encounter St George – in churches. He’s not that common as a dedication for parish churches, unlike Mary, Paul, Peter, Andrew, Trinity.

He’s not found by fishing ports, like Nicholas, nor town gates like Botolph and Giles; not popular in a region in which he lived like Cuthbert or Edmund (in Northumbria and East Anglia respectively).


In English cities of multiple medieval parish churches, only Norwich has any Georges (2 out of 31); none of London’s 39, York’s 19, Bristol’s 14, Cambridge’s 15, Ipswich’s 12 (I’m allowing ruins and chapels as well here)… not in any of our other cathedral cities or county towns… save Canterbury, whose George in the high street (1 of 12) was obliterated in the last war.


Even checking the lost churches of these cities, which sometimes doubles the amount of dedications, I found only one George, ever, in London (in Botolph Lane) out of c100 parish churches in the old city; and nor could I swiftly think of any just outside it. None other of Norwich’s total 63 medieval dedications, nor any of its monasteries, were to St George. There’s one at Stamford (Lincs)… but not many in England, and I can only think of them in towns, not rurally.

The most famous English church dedicated to George is the chapel at Windsor castle. This vast perpendicular space is at the heart of the country’s largest castle and one of the places we most associate with our monarch, now and historically. It is from here that knighthoods are dispensed, in the order of this patron saint, which involves garters – yes those sort!


George lived in the 3-4th centuries, thus before English parish churches were conceived; rededication is possible. So it is significant that someone who became and stayed our patron and who died 1700 years ago, whose Order is 700 years old, has few churches to his name.


I noted that from Georgian times, George does appear in new churches, and not just Anglican ones. A Unitarian in Exeter, a German Lutheran church in the city of London, bear the name George, when saints and people’s names are unusual as part of these denominations’ titles.


In Bristol, England’s then second city, there’s a regency St George near the centre (and an area to the east); there’s a contemporary one in Brighton’s Kemptown (a town created by a George); a late 19th C monster in Jesmond, Newcastle – home of the Geordies; and there are three in Edinburgh’s new town (18th and 19th C), a building venture dedicated to King George. Glasgow has a 19th C George in the Fields and its original sibling, a more central late Georgian George, which like in Edinburgh, has its own square – a royalist, unionist statement. There’s an 18th C George at Great Yarmouth, home of Nelson’s naval hospital and column.

Georgian churches – from the era – are traditionally English; solemn, quiet, not given to fuss; upright pews for stiff sitting, lips and values; orderly; places for mayor’s swords to rest in public ceremonies celebrating status; cerebral, but not given to displays of public affection, or the indulgent colourings in of our Victorian or Catholic, ahem, neighbours…

There’s a couple more Catholic churches dedicated to St George – such as Southwark’s RC cathedral and again in Norwich – not centrally. These are later 19th C dedications.


I note that George is not a British monarch’s name until the German house of Hanover takes over the throne; and that four kings are named George in a row; and then George returned last century to make an Edward sandwich (our first king, who built the palace that became ‘mother of all parliaments’) when we were being very imperial and class and might driven. And it’s a George who instigated a cross for military bravery in the last war. Hmm…



I was feeling uncomfortable about George the dragon slayer and this sort of Englishness.


I wasn’t sure about the dragon, who is the symbol of our neighbour, Wales. Note that name means ‘foreigner’ (a name given by the English to those whose self moniker means ‘fellow countrymen’) and this dragon seems to be about squashing threats of those that are different or other. I note too that dragons are important symbols to China and elsewhere.


I was further appalled to check the official St George website, royally appointed, who is trying to promote this under proclaimed saint, and their version of the dragon myth:


Pagans placate a sleeping dragon (well, let it sleep then!) with an unwitting sheep in order to get their essential supplies; and when sheep run out, they turn to the women. If the princess hadn’t drawn the lot to be dragon fodder – no doubt a good looking one – would St George have turned up to rescue her? On a white horse!! And killed the blessed thing (NOT on his horse) so that the villagers could get the water that the dragon nested by. (Was there no other water source? No reasoning and negotiation? No befriending the dragon?) Oh, and this feat naturally got the wayward barbarian Pagans turning to Jesus (well, the religion named after him) since the dragon slayer was of course already a convert…


So blonde, tall (Aryan) George, in his pennant shield with traditional armour on the horse (supposedly female fantasies), is usually depicted killing some poor alien beastie below him (not even what the story says), looking ugly and in agony. Supposedly too the picture of chivalry, and symbol of crusaders (more attacking foreigners and ‘dragons’ in the name of Christianity)…


Then I read a little more about Georgie not Porgie and felt a little more comforted.


One – EDL fascists – he’s not even English! (He’s from Turkey and lived in Persia, a part of the world you’re often harsh about). Ironic for crusaders then…

I bet we don’t even say his name right here.


But – I began to like his story and feel he is especially appropriate. Converted to Christianity, swift riser in the Roman army… still bored and cynical (when’s the dragon coming?). Well, the real dragon of George’s life was his emperor, Diocletian, who persecuted Christians in times of unrest and who were standing up to his harsh regime.

Then there was a supposed plot against Diocletian’s #2 by Christians – note there had to be reasonable reason – and so churches were shut (ringing any bells?) and scriptures burned; citizenship, if not life, would be forfeited for those found foul of the Emperor’s decree.

George wouldn’t do the worst that he was asked to by his paymaster, and in fact, he took down some Roman posters. But his paymaster was in the city, and George knew he was about to be cooked goose… Indeed, despite his brave and reasoned arguments, and his former favour, Diocletian put him to death for refusing to renounce his faith.

I’m now suspicious about that as a reason for martyrdom… rival Edmund claimed that too.

But… regardless of whether my facetious retelling (based still on the royal St George website) is true, it’s interesting that this is what the official fans purport and this is what the Catholic church canonised him for.

Not only courage, but compassion. Not for mass conversion, military might or beastie brutality, but for refusal to comply with unjust orders, to order his 1,000 men to bully citizens, and to renounce his faith and principles. George was willing to also disobey the scriptural mandate (did it yet say this, or was that later king’s scribes?) to obey earthly authority, but George must have felt that as this clashed with what he felt God was asking of him and what he lived by, that he must follow his God and his conscience. And he even told the Emperor off for his unjust rule.

Now I’m impressed.

Maybe this George is worth giving attention to afterall.

I hear that he has long been revered, not just here, but in many parts of the world.

May we and would-be Diocletians continue to remember him.

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Why the C of E is wrong – I

Following my previous post, I am running a series on why I left the Anglican communion.

For me, there is no Church with a capital C. It’s why I write ‘the church of England’. Yes, I am aware of grammatical rules. But the Church is God’s people, and I’ve come to realise that some of those are not Christians. But at its narrowest, the Church is those who follow the teachings of and have a personal relationship with Jesus. Still pretty broad.

The Church is not Anglicans/Episcopalians, Catholics, the Orthodox or the Reformed churches.  Note how many churches call themselves the singular Church! But the Church is never the official church of a country, the one entwined with state. These are flavours of Christianity; they are not able to claim to be The Church, implying that they alone are God’s people and others are not, or that they get to speak for God and represent other Christians on any level.

There are other groups who think of themselves as only God’s truly chosen (also wrong), but they are not that sort of Church – not the sort of whom the Queen is the head and the Prime Minister picks its bishops; not the sort whose leaders sit in the upper house of parliament; who have their own legal system, as outdated and unjust as the secular one. To formally complain, you must ask permission from the local bishop!

The Anglican church does not represent the Christian faith, and certainly not those of faith.

Reading more about the history of the Anglican church, I become ever angrier.

Until recently, I didn’t realise that there were two prongs to the Reformation: we generally only hear of one, the Magisterial branch. This is the tine who made a pretty-similar-to-the- church-you-protested-about chain which still remains. In England, it put church and state together; it retained the hierarchy of its predecessor; it enforced a set service which is still used. It continued to be landowning, state steering, elitist and controlling, with long histories of single families or institutions having the right to offer parish jobs to those it wished, without reference to their spirituality and suitability. It turfed the Catholics out of their buildings and commandeered them, and then began persecuting everyone who was not of their ilk. It barred all but its own from study and offices for over two centuries and it still has succeeded in keeping other faiths out of the house of lords and off the throne of Britain. (Capitals deliberately avoided).

The other prong was the Radical reformation: those who wanted to go further than the magisterial in altering the church, who disapproved of the hierarchy, riches and rituals, who believed they should be like the early church of the Bible before it became an international chain. They too suffered persecution. Dissenters of the radical tine whom we recognise today are Baptists, Quakers, and those who became Congregationalists and Unitarians. I am proudly from the latter, although my nonconformity goes further.

The Anglican church speaks of ‘tradition’ in support of itself, but like all establishment faiths, its past is coloured by control and exclusion. It was Anglicans who killed those who wouldn’t accept Henry VIII as its head, who punished those who didn’t attend their church, who burst in on other believers’ services to arrest and beat them, who ejected 2000 men from office at once for not accepting its tenets, who imprisoned and tortured and debarred, who extracted tithes of income and produce from everyone for centuries, regardless of where (or if) they worshipped.

Not all these are in the past. There is still elitism and nepotism. Whereas tithing for the whole neighbourhood has thankfully stopped, there is great pressure on congregants under the parish share system whereby a centrally determined quota has to be paid. The local parish church is the one eternally fundraising – even though nonconformist buildings are also often large and old now, and other faith groups have sometimes huge edifices. I’ve been invited to snowdrop walks, fetes, concerts, talks, seasonal services – all to raise money for the parish church. Often the parish church is more concerned about a practical need – a cracked window, falling tower, new heating, kitchen, even just moving the furniture around… and not something which the wider community benefits from… It’s all accoutrements.

I’ve even heard of parish churches having the cheek to ask that local traders donate to their fundraising efforts. Yet the church may not engage with or assist local residents and traders. I will have a separate section on pastoral care, but suffice to say that it’s often not resourced or well executed. The nearest to providing for the community is the church clock.

The church’s teachings have crept into wider culture for centuries.They were part of bringing in and perpetuating capitalism and slavery, and traded in fear.

Of course it is also fair to say that established churches (like others) were part of abolishing slavery. Most churches now are concerned for the environment – they recycle, and some even show sympathy for Extinction Rebellion. They’ll serve Fair Trade products and support causes from leprosy to water aid to poverty and homelessness.

Yet I’ve found that Anglican churches can be conformists in other aspects of social justice.

They can be policy driven and of a fix-it mentality. They don’t ask if providing clean water is part of literally tapping a community into the system and making this essential resource into a commodity controlled by someone else. I’m not sure if they ask enough questions about why people are on the streets, on drugs and drink, and how coming off all these isn’t again about resocialising these ‘unfortunates’ into the system. Just as water companies profit from pipelines, drugs companies profit from the prescribed drugs – in both senses – that those taking illegal drugs must use to come off the other sort. And being rehoused leads to taxes and rent being paid. Note that “3rd world” waterless communities and those living on the streets and imbibing illicit substances – and no I don’t imply those last two go together – are outside the mainstream capitalist system. So is well meant assistance really doing something more sinister?

I don’t know of any non Anglican churches in this country which install CCTV. I’ve seen snotty parking notices in a range of church car parks, included camera controlled fines extorted by parking firms – see my views on that here. But I’ve only seen wheelclamping threats in a parish church. Wht not just say – “parking for church users only please”?

Following another terror threat, Canterbury cathedral’s precinct was patrolled by armed guards. I told a minister who said, “Wow, they must have felt that was necessary”. I didn’t, as I shared here – and with the dean of the cathedral. After the Manchester arena bombing in 2017, its cathedral did bag searches on those attending services the next day. I was appalled.

Anglicans can be traditional about health. The evangelical end supports faith healing more, although it is wary of some alternative healthcare because of its new age or Eastern roots, and so can reject it – when actually faith and energy healing are similar. I’ve found that the higher end of the church focusses more on allopathic medicine and are great NHS supporters. Of course, many people have received good care from it and are understandably grateful. But Anglicans often uphold fellow institutions rather than critique them.

Coronavirus procedures swiftly appeared on Anglican websites. I’ve written my thoughts and concerns about that disease and our handling of it here and will again in my next post. But I will say that I’m glad that they kept meeting, when so much else was cancelled. (I was furious when I heard C of E policies, especially around Easter, where ministers were threatened for even entering a church alone!). And I saw a great poster today outside a church which made me smile – Mother Julian’s All Shall Be Well.

They don’t do everything wrong. And some of the individuals in them – including its ministers – comprise some lovely, genuine people who do good in the world, and whose faith and searchings are sincere. It’s the chain that I mind, although also the people who uphold the chain… and during this viral period, I continue to be shocked by clergy behaviours. I waited before saying that, hoping that the first sentence of this paragraph would be proven true for all I know.

I hope one day soon it’ll be possible to delete the latter half of the paragraph above.

Next, I will argue against the chain from the Good Book.

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Anne Boleyn – champion of free thinking

Although Anne is the mother of Elizabeth, for me – Elizabeth begat Anne.

When Elizabeth (1998) became my favourite film, I wondered who “your mother the whore” was, and gradually took a step back in time to the previous generation – and there found an equally, if not even more remarkable woman. 

The first time I read about Anne Boleyn was in 2002 and I came to her almost in ignorance. I dismissed people in my lunch hour, saying I was in 1533 and not available. As I read Philippa Gregory’s novel about Anne’s sister, I suddenly remembered the rhyme about Henry’s wives and what was going to happen. 

By the time Gregory’s venomous pen had done depicting this conniving, hard, brutal woman, I was willing Anne to be executed; but by the time I picked up Vercor’s book, I wanted to put flowers on her grave. 

Vercors  is a photographer’s pen name, whose novelised biography says that the evil, grasping concubine did not make sense; and that underneath the deliberately etched layers was a heroine – for women, for  England – but most of all, free thinking believers. And strangely, it took a Frenchman trying to make sense of our independence from Hitler in the second world war to see it. 

Just as Joan of Arc was resurrected at a time of resurgent nationalism in France, it seems Anne Boleyn is ripe for a similar rediscovery on many levels – yet she has not really been used. 

The harsh view of Anne prevailed over four centuries, but there seemed to be a concurrent re-imagining in the 1980s. Professor Eric Ives, historic fiction writer Jean Plaidy, and Vercors all published in around the same year. Theirs was a different Anne to what had gone before – a maligned woman of sympathy, talent – though complex and potentially with a hard streak. And except for Philippa Gregory, books all have followed this portrayal since – whether they be fiction or academic – but not yet on the screen. Howard Brenton’s recent play is all about the debt that King James  and his Bible owed to the supposed strumpet a hundred years earlier.                    

Joanna Denny’s focus is summed up by her idea that Anne was a neo-Esther, something Anne herself propagated by having her chaplain preach on this in front of the royal court. Likening Anne to Esther recalls not wicked grasping Jezebel but another Old Testament queen, chosen by the king, which gave her an opportunity to save her minority group of endangered religious people. Denny emphasises Anne’s controversial new beliefs and her daring work to use her position to promote them when such beliefs were persecuted. Denny sees Anne as wooed against her wishes and morals, and argues that the portrait (quite literally) was deliberately obscured by her enemies. The dark features, mole and sixth finger are traits attributed in the 16th C to diabolism which were invented to destroy the memory of this powerful woman. 

Professor Ives and Joanna Denny write about her faith extensively, the latter making it Anne’s principle driving force.  

I’ve read in fiction and academic sources of Anne’s forbidden religious book (The Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale) being stolen by Wolsey and given to Henry. Anne uses this opportunity to discuss the book’s radical ‘New Learning’ contents with Henry, and so influence him with protestant beliefs. 

Henry was not interested in reforming the church. After Luther pinned his 99 points on that church door, Henry wrote an impassioned, I think quite immature letter to defend the catholic church. It was his advisor Thomas Cromwell who is understood to have used Henry’s marriage and pope dilemma to allow divergence of belief to come openly and safely into England, and I believe that Anne and Cromwell initially worked together on this. 

What Anne’s beliefs were and how to term them might need some clarification. She has been called evangelical. The term ‘evangelical’ – not quite as we understand it –  was less radical than the Lollards, and not really heretical. It was not the same as being Protestant. The key features of evangelicalism, as today, were reading the bible for oneself; accessing God direct and not through a priest; being against superstition; and on one’s personal relationship with God – which are not unlike Unitarian principles. Anne is said to have exposed the fake miracle at Hailes abbey of Christ’s flowing blood (actually provided thought a duck’s blood dispensing machine). Anne has been spoken of as Lutheran .Yet Karen Lindsey and Ives claim that Anne’s faith was not wholly opposed to the established church, and that she had a confessor and took mass, and did not denounce transubstantiation – only its trappings. 

It might occur to some that if Anne had a reformed faith, that scheming involving adultery, wealth and power are incompatible with it. Ives says that 16th C didn’t see God’s and personal glory as incompatible; as some people today feel wealth is part of their spirituality.

Something which is not readily emphasised about Anne is her moral household –  and her generosity to the poor which went beyond the usual royal favour.  She expected her ladies to sew for the poor, and was likely to be behind a poor reform bill of 1536. She was also a patron of schools and universalise, and rallied for her patronees. Being a reluctant focus of passion and harassment is very different to pursuing Henry purposely – and she did refuse to be his mistress. 

Belief is a choice, and is ultimately, I believe what appeals rather than on argument and proof alone (that subject is another article). So I choose to see Anne as an Esther, a renaissance woman of power, taste and intellect, and I take particular interest in her reformed faith. Anne’s faith was of intellect and heart with practical outworking. And it allowed divergence into non conformism.

I therefore with others think that it was not Henry, and not really William Tyndale that caused the English reformation – but Queen Anne Boleyn of England, the Moost Happy [sic], who was crowned (depending on which calendar you use) this week, 480 years ago.


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