TODAY we have a second collection for our Metropolitan cathedral (that is, a cathedral which is the seat of an archbishop) in Southwark, dedicated to St George, the centre of Christian life in south London and Kent. The modern stained glass east window is shown here. We have it on this Sunday because it is the Sunday after 23 April, St George’s day. Our cathedral, one of the oldest Catholic churches in London (though as the church was almost completely destroyed by a bomb during the war, in April 1941, little remains of the original building) is a symbol of the life of the diocese, centered on the ministry of our archbishop whom we see as the local successor of the apostles. As a church and a London landmark it is rather neglected, but today is a day not only to give generously for its upkeep but to reflect on what the place means. It is an important symbolic link with the whole history of the Church in South London – it is significant that our cathedral is not set in an idyllic Trollopian ‘close’ but in what has always been one of the poorest parts of London. The original building dates from 1793, when the penal times were only gradually coming to an end; our mother church is an important link with Catholic history in south London.
A cathedral is a physical expression of the unity of the Church around the bishop, its local pastor. So in our cathedral behind the main altar is the archbishop’s chair: not simply something he sits on, but a sign of his teaching ministry, decorated with his coat of arms. The Church teaches that the pope and the bishops in union with him, including our own archbishop, teach us with authority about God and how we should live in the world. For Catholics, cathedrals are particularly important because they help us look beyond ourselves and our own parish to the wider community of the diocese, centered on the bishop and his cathedral. Please give generously in the second collection today.
The cathedral collection also prompts us to reflect on the saint to whom the church is dedicated, St George. So often patron saints are abused – instead of real devotion to them based on Christian teaching, they often become rather tawdry symbols of insecure identity (the same would be true, if we’re honest, about St Patrick). The Church asks us to reflect on the real Christian meaning of patron saints whom she chooses for lands or groups: St George’s day is utterly meaningless except in the context of Christian faith, especially since we know (one of the few things we do know) that he was martyred for being a Christian. He lived and was martyred in the early Church, in Palestine, and it is there that devotion to him is still strongest; and it was there that the medieval crusaders encountered devotion to him and appropriated him. He remains a very important saint in the calendar of the Eastern churches – Greece, Russia and so on – and the country of Georgia in the Caucasus is named after him. Incidentally the country in the world where his feast day is a public holiday is the Vatican City State: this is because it is the custom for the baptismal name day of the pope to be a holiday, and the pope’s baptismal name is Jorge, the Spanish form of the name George.
The fact that St George lived and died in Palestine and had no real connection in his lifetime with England should make us particularly resistant to ways in which his feast day is often hijacked by popular nationalism and xenophobia. The history of devotion to St George actually helps us realise that we are part of the Church of all nations, breaking down the sinful barriers which so often pit peoples against peoples. In many ways we have to reclaim him. The feast is actually also a sign of distinctively Catholic identity, even though many non-Catholic churches (such as St George’s Anglican Church here in Beckenham) are dedicated to him. This is because at the Reformation the feast day was more or less abolished in England: Archbishop Cranmer, responsible for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the mid-16th century) excised from the calendar of important feast days (that is, days which had their own prayers and readings) those of any saints who were not to be found in the Bible. So St George’s day ceased to be observed as a liturgical feast for most people in England. Not however for the persecuted Catholic minority, for whom St George’s day was for many years a holy day of obligation, a defiant expression of genuine Englishness among those who were seen by most people to be rather foreign. It is essential that we ‘get St George right’ if we’re to venerate him properly as England’s patron and protector.