I am parish priest of the church of St John on Bethnal Green about 2 and a half miles to the east of here in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Historically right on the edge of the capital and close to the ports Tower Hamlets has been a home to refugees and immigrants for over five hundred years: French Huguenots, Jews from all over Europe, Irish, Bangladeshis – wave after wave of people fleeing poverty, war, persecution have begun their new life in this part of London. Presently it is the first Muslim majority borough in this country and I love its diversity, its vibrancy and the overwhelming commitment of its residents and workers to get on well together, celebrating, not fearing our differences.
Unfortunately there have always been those who have sought to sow fear and hatred in the face of such diversity. Three Huguenot weavers were hung outside the pub opposite my church in the eighteenth century because “they are taking away our jobs” and the Member of Parliament for the area in the early twentieth century criticised the large Jewish community because, he wrote, they refused to integrate or learn the language thereby turning the East End into a foreign country where Englishmen and Christianity were no longer welcome [W.E.Evans-Gordon, ‘The Alien Immigrant’, 1903]. Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists echoed Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews and tried to march through the area in 1936 to ‘take back our streets’. They were prevented from doing so by the whole community standing together in solidarity and refusing to allow the march to take place.
Such solidarity is still required today. The hatred and fear are now primarily directed at Muslims and since the Jewish immigrants of Tower Hamlets have been followed by Muslims predominantly from Bangladesh and Somalia, the borough remains as much a target for the far-right extremists of today as it was for the Blackshirts in the Thirties. The latest group, Britain First, have turned up outside our largest mosque three times in the last couple of months waving flags and large white crosses, claiming that they want to take back Tower Hamlets for England and for Christianity, closing all the mosques and banning the practice of Islam. The Christian churches in the borough have made it very clear that they do not speak for us, that we stand together with our Muslim neighbours in the defence of our diversity, and that we are greatly offended by their use of the Christian cross as a symbol of hatred rather than of sacrificial love.
St George, the patron saint of England we are celebrating today, has become very much associated with these far-right groups, who use his name and his flag as symbols of the mythic England they wish to preserve in the the face of the foreign hordes who threaten to destroy us and, partly for that reason, there have been a number of calls to replace him with a more suitable saint. He became popular in this country after stories about his killing of a dragon and his heavenly protection were brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders in the 12th century but, his critics say, we are now stuck with a saint we know very little about except a fantastic story involving dragons, who had nothing to do with England, and whose flag has often become the symbol of the racists and fascists of the far right. How much better to adopt the first Christian martyr in Britain, St Alban, as an upstanding model to us all, or even St Theodore of Sykeon whose feast was celebrated yesterday, the patron saint of those who endure damp, rainy weather.
I disagree – I think George is the perfect saint to represent the values both of Tower Hamlets and of our country. Here’s what we know about him: he was born in the third century AD in Cappadocia – modern day Turkey – to Christian parents, his father a Roman soldier and his mother from Lydda – now Lod in Palestine. After his father’s death the family moved to Lydda where he grew up and became a soldier too. The Emperor, Diocletian, launched a severe persecution of Christianity, George refused to pay tribute to Roman gods, was tortured and executed. The dragon story takes many forms, as stories do, here’s one: the town of Selena was terrorised by a dragon. The townsfolk tried to keep it happy by giving it sheep, but the dragon’s appetite grew and it demanded people. The townsfolk chose the victims by casting lots and one day the king’s daughter was chosen. George was passing by just at the right time, killed the dragon and saved both the maiden and the town.
Where the history and the myth overlap is that the church, looking back on the terrible persecution of Diocletian, referred to him as The Dragon. He wanted a strong Roman Empire and fought against any – externally and internally – that he thought was a threat. This included minority faiths, such as Christianity, because they were different and refused to conform. So St George, a man of mixed race, a member of a minority religion, stands up against the dragon of oppression and violence even to the point of death. Death does not mean being consumed by the dragon, because in the light of Easter we know that to hold true to sacrificial love, laying down one’s life for others, is the victory of the Cross.
St George is a very poor role model for fascists and racists who believe in the purity of the English race. There is no such thing. The glory of England is its history of mixed races and cultures and our continued commitment to openness and compassion, welcoming and caring for immigrants and minorities as they have been made welcome in Tower Hamlets for five hundred years. The dragons of fear and hatred still seek to terrorise us but St George gives us the confidence to oppose and overcome them.