Yakub Qureshi, Manchester Evening News, December 20, 2010
Church leaders want to reclaim St George’s Day from the far right–with a street parade led by a black puppet of England’s patron saint.
Clergy at Manchester Cathedral believe the BNP and English Defence League have ‘hijacked’ the religious festival.
And they plan to fight back with a festival of puppets and poets on Sunday, May 8.
A Catalan-style procession will snake through the city, with jazz music and giant versions of George and the dragon, led by a puppet inspired by a painting in the cathedral by contemporary artist Mark Cazalet.
The altarpiece, created in 2001, depicts the saint as a young black man cutting free the restraints of a pitiful dragon.
The puppets are being built by homeless people who use the Booth Centre charity, linked to the cathedral.
The day will include a reading by Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, of a specially-commissioned work.
The carnival is also inspired by epic Elizabethan poem The Faerie Queene, which re-tells St George’s legend.
Church leaders said the idea was to show English nationalism should be about ‘tolerance and opening up to people’–and not stirring up racial division.
Canon Andrew Shanks, from the cathedral, said he and other churchmen wanted to help ‘rebrand’ St George’s Day.
He said: “I remember the BNP had a big rally in one of the squares in Manchester a couple of years ago.
“It felt very ugly. There were all these St George’s flags–and the same flag was on our tower.
“There is a war going on about the flag and the meaning of it and we are doing our damnedest to interpret it our way.”
Canon Shanks said the church’s ‘challenging’ painting of St George in a housing estate is about ‘unlocking passion for urban renewal’. He said: “We have taken that as inspiration.”
Anglican vicars face an unusual problem next year as St George’s Day–traditionally April 23–will clash with Easter Saturday.
Many parishes are opting to mark St George’s Day in May instead.
An English hero with true global appeal
Despite being England’s patron saint, St George was actually born in Turkey and lived in Palestine.
Little is known for sure about his life, but according to myth he became a Roman soldier and was beheaded for his Christian beliefs in 303 AD.
Revered throughout the Christian church, he is also patron saint of Georgia, Malta and Portugal, as well as soldiers, farm workers, lepers and the modern Scout movement.
Although far-right English groups have attempted to adopt him as a symbol, it is thought he was black and of Middle Eastern descent.
The most famous myth about him–that he killed a dragon while riding a white horse–probably developed in the 14th Century.