Paul Thomas encourages us to follow the example of our Patron Saint
Friends, it is always a pleasure to preach in this Parish Church. Your life in Christ here is possessed of such vigour, inventiveness, and magnetism that it stands as an ensign to the rest of the diocese – and the Church of England nationally – as the very best example of what a Parish Church can be. This is the Church of England I believe in, one where Priest and People are faithful, true, and bold in the religion of Christ, a place where all peoples, nations, races and tongues find a warm, wide, embracing welcome in Christ’s name, where all-comers find a common home and a happy fellowship, where the hungry are fed and the fearful find peace, and where the Catholic Faith as the Church of England has received it is proclaimed whole-heartedly and full-throatedly. Oh, how St John’s Kensal Green confounds the hand-wringing, the breast-beating, self-excoriating ruling classes of both Church and State. For that alone, thanks be to God.
This St George’s-tide evensong is an occasion to celebrate the ministry of this Parish Church, and to thank publicly its devoted Priest, Fr David, who has borne the heat and burden of the day, who has laboured hard in this acre of God’s vineyard. He knows full well that the vocation of a priest is found not in self-fulfilment but in self-forgetfulness, in sacrifice. A priest is called by God not to fill himself up but to empty himself out, to give himself away, to become the sacrifice that he offers upon the altar, and in so doing be more perfectly conformed to the Crucified Lord. I have seen over the last year the wounds of love that Fr David has endured for his people, and how he has spent himself in your service. As we honour our Patron Saint this evening, let us publicly thank Fr David for his heroic and Christ-like ministry in this place.
St George’s-tide should stir us deeply to a fresh sense of patriotic feeling. And here we must push back firmly against those who wrong-headedly cast patriotic feeling as something wicked and woeful, something to be sneered at and disparaged. The cynical theories which have so quickly overthrown our institutions would have us believe that the kind of honest patriotic feeling properly associated with St George is a sinister means of reinforcing injustice and propagating monstrous prejudice. These cynical theories fail to appreciate that patriotism (as we have traditionally understood it in these isles) is not an expression of extremism, but rather the very thing that stirs us to service, to work for the betterment of others, to strive for a common good. Being jealous ‘for England, Harry and St George’ is the necessary condition for our commitment to the cause of mercy, justice, and goodness. If we wish to see a land where all walk in the freedom of the truth and in the dignity proper to our unique God-madeness, we must first love our land, not loathe it; we must find in its long resonant story a reason for us to give of ourselves in its service. True patriotism is never selfish nor chauvinistic; true patriotism animates each and every citizen in service to her neighbourhood and nation. Let us then wake-up to what is happening and speak-out, let us give an account of our love of country to those who work to re-write our national story in order to diminish it, and let us cherish anew the ancient customs, traditions, and freedoms of this land.
And as we do so, let us look upon St George, looking beyond and beneath the armour and imagery of our Patron Saint – beneath his stirring chivalric associations of valour, honour, martial might – for beneath the imagery of the serpent slayer soldier stands a martyr in chains. It is thanks to the crusaders returning from the Holy Land that the cult of St George the warrior and dragon-slayer reached these shores. But the reality is quite different. St George, a Palestinian Christian, shone brightly with the light of Christ not because of his deeds of worldly strength but in his weakness, in his foolishness. St George was killed in the year 303 for his confession ‘Christ is Lord!’ when the Emperor Diocletian believed himself to be. The Church honours St George, then, for this, for his death, for the fact that Christ’s self-emptying death became a power in George’s life. The saint’s death bore in it Christ’s own death and resurrection and revealed it anew to the world. George’s death shewed forth love’s supreme manifestation, the self-surrendering of the incarnate Son of God. This is the vocation of the martyr – ‘martyr’ means ‘a witness’. This is why the martyrs have, ever since the very first days of the Church, been most highly honoured among all the saints.
Do not think for a moment that martyrdom belongs to the early and ancient centuries of the Church – even if our Patron Saint gave his life for Christ some seventeen hundred years ago. You should know that never have there been more Christian martyrs than now. This is the age and era of Christian martyrdom. Only last week the Bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo drew the world’s attention (as much as the world listens and cares) to the deaths of thousands of people, mainly children, who have died a martyr’s death at the hands of Islamists in that country. Thousands. This Festival of St George is timely, then. The Church of Christ has entered a new age of martyrdom, not just overseas, but here also, in a way, where the environing culture increasingly and aggressively conflicts with Christian belief more-and-more day-by-day. The state is becoming a place where secular dogmas increasingly demand the loyalty and assent of those who, because of their confession ‘Christ is Lord’, cannot and will not give it. Experience has taught the Christian Church that this is a road leads eventually to martyrdom.
Friends, a very great deal will be demanded of us – a kind of martyrdom, a suffering witness – as we in our own time and place seek to be faithful to our paschal confession. The Lord Jesus says just that in this evening’s second lesson where he anticipates the affliction that shall come upon those who believe and abide in him: If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Never more than now, therefore, do we need a lively sense of our fellowship with St George and the noble army of martyrs within whose heavenly ranks he is enrolled. Never more than now must we call upon their holy intercession to strengthen us, to stiffen our sinews, and steel us for the fight. Never more than now must we, like they, be fearless in keeping and confessing the Faith. And never more than now must we draw inspiration and hope from the knowledge that it was precisely by the blood of martyrs spilt that the Early Church was watered and grew, and sent out her tendrils even to the ends of the earth. The era of our suffering and exile is also the era of our renewal, the Church’s re-awakening.
On this St George’s triumph-day,
Let every voice his tribute pay
To him who counted all things loss
For love of him who bore the Cross.
Fr Paul Thomas is the Rector of St James, Sussex Gardens. This sermon was preached at St John’s Kensal Rise during Evensong for the Feast of St George in the presence of The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Paddington, and Andrew Rosindell MP.