Church’s St George fear will let the dragon in

By backing away from celebrating our national saint, English bishops are opening the door for extremist ideologies


I’ve a question for you. When was the last time you were offended by someone celebrating St George’s Day?

No, me neither.

But apparently the Church of England thinks that we are unique amongst Jews. And Hindus. And Sikhs. And Muslims. And, presumably,

Zoroastrians, too. Because according to reports this week, “many in the Church of England have backed away from celebrating St George for fear of provoking a backlash from other religious and cultural groups in Britain”, as the Daily Mail put it on Monday.

(It’s that ‘and cultural groups’ that I like best. Yes, I can quite see why it would provoke outrage from viola players if the C of E celebrated St George’s Day.)

Backlash? From whom?

I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on here.

The C of E doesn’t for a moment think that any other religious and cultural groups are going to be offended by a St George’s Day celebration. Why would it? There’s no evidence; quite the contrary. It’s not just Jews, after all, who have ingrained deep in our psyche the idea of integration and pride in our birth land.

No. You know who’s really offended by the idea. It’s not other religions.

It’s the Church of England itself.

Take a watered down suggestion earlier this year, for church bells to be rung on St George’s Day. Of the 44 bishops, only five supported the idea. The Bishop of Chester expressed his worry about the danger of such “public displays” of confidence, while the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds could say only this: “I am not sure assertiveness is a Christian value.” The notion of cultural cringe might have been invented to deal with such men.

Not, however, Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who last weekend risked provoking all this wrath from the rest of us with his outlandish suggestion that a Christian country celebrate its patron saint with — heaven forfend! — a public holiday. As he put it: “Where there is no awareness of identity, there is a vacuum to be filled. Dissatisfaction with one’s heritage creates an opening for extremist ideologies.

“Whether it be the terror of Salafi-jihadism or the insidious institutional racism of the British National Party, there are those who stand ready to fill the vacuum with a sanitised identity and twisted vision if the silent majority are reticent in holding back from forging a new identity.”

Well, thank heavens for that — a bishop who is not cowed by fear of his own shadow. And for those of his colleagues who don’t seem to understand that celebrating national identity is not racism or petty nationalism, he went on: “Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric; rather, Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all-embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate.”

If only he could have a word with his fellow Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, who infamously argued last year that the adoption of sharia law in the UK seems “unavoidable”, even desirable, since Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”. So although “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states”, Muslims should be able to choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a sharia court. Such courts should therefore be “incorporated into the British legal system” as a “constructive accommodation” with Islam.

Show me a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu — or, perhaps especially, a Christian — who is outraged by the celebration of St George’s Day and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t deserve to have a British passport. Because if we can’t celebrate our togetherness, we can’t have any togetherness.

    Last updated: 11:33am, April 7 2009