Saint George is the patron saint of England - but actually he wasn't English at all. His story is so steeped in myth and legend that it is virtually impossible to separate fact and fiction. The followers would write up fabulous accounts of his life, and so improving St George's reputation, but that did nothing to enlighten us about his real life. Apparently he was born in an area which is now in Turkey. Legend tells us that his parents were Christian. He became a Roman soldier but protested against Rome's persecution of Christians. As a result St George was imprisoned and tortured, but he stayed true to his faith and was beheaded.
He is not only the patron saint of England but also of many other countries and places in the world. He looks after a wide ranging array of professions too. The flag of Saint George - a red cross on a white background - is part of the Union Jack.
How did this saint’s sign become so prominent? Neither the Germans nor the Catalans, who name him as their patron too, adopted his sign for their flag after all. St George's reputation in England grew with the returning crusaders, and in the twelfth century the Council of Oxford named 23rd April Saint George's Day. Many believed they saw St George fighting on the English side at the Battle of Agincourt. So from the 14th century onwards Saint George was regarded as a special protector of the English. English soldiers wore the sign of Saint George on chest and back. He became, in the popular imagination, English.
Of course the Union Jack does not consist of the St George’s Cross alone, and when I started looking at Saint George – his story and the use of his sign – I became aware again of what a composite creation the British Flag is. So I have traced its development and am amazed at the parallels this has brought out for me.
Here is the sequence of events in pictorial form. In the beginning there was England (including Wales). This was followed by Scotland in the white St Andrew’s Cross on blue background. Later St Patrick’s Cross joined the picture and made complete what we now know as the Union Flag (or Jack – a nautical expression from the place where the flag was flown).
The Welsh dragon image did not become part of the Union Flag because Wales had already been united to England when the first version of the Union Flag was designed.
George, the Saint, became a personality by the amalgamation of different stories. The kingdom we call United could only become great because it is like a community of nations who, voluntarily or not quite so, came together. In their character and essence these countries are quite diverse, but they have now successfully worked together for centuries to literally conquer the world and put a united mark on it.
When I grew up in Germany there appeared something which approximately translates ‘European Trading Community’. It began with a few countries making trade between them easier and more profitable for its members. And look what we have now! They have their own flag, share a currency and many more countries want to be a part of it. What does that say about the power and attraction of companionship and cooperation? It is also a lot about putting together the diversities of many different cultures and traditions. What have the traditions around the mediterranean sea in common with the way of life in the northern countries of Europe?
They are certainly all inhabited by people who want to live a good life and bring up children in peace. This ‘experiment’ has been fairly successful, since there never was such a long period without war in the whole history of central Europe – no armed conflict for 58 years. This was made possible because countries in Europe began to focus on common interests instead of concentrating on their differences too often.
These movements and trends remind me very much of the way the Church formed and developed in its earliest times. From a small band of twelve people it developed into the immense body that it is today. Like the great country of Britain with her flags the Catholic Anglican Church has a mission. Great Britain used to contain large parts of the world and created Common-Wealth. So it is the task of the Catholic part within the Anglican Church to help us to return to the well-founded principles of 19th century renewal. You may ask: what this has to do with St George and the British flag?
Here is my proposal: We begin by talking more clearly and deeply about who God is, and how we can understand him/her in a world that has lost the language to do it appropriately for today’s eclectic culture. Then we spread the word that we are not left alone, but by Jesus’ death and resurrection we can now always be close to God. This is the point where we begin to communicate with God. This is traditionally called prayer. When we do it together, sing in between and try not to do it all at the same time liturgy is created. For this to work, we need leaders which are mostly called priests, but there are other ways to work for God. Since even Anglican Catholics do not exist on an island (except the piece of earth we live on) it is certainly a good idea to talk to and listen to the other parts that make up the Church of England. When we extend the last actions to the whole of our neighbourhoods, whichever kind they may be, and take action where the need is, we tell the very complex story of who Catholics are, who Christ is and who every disciple can become.