Reclaiming St George

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Project Director, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Professor Ewan Fernie
Recorded: 23/05/2011
Broadcast: 28/03/2011

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Today we’re with Professor Ewan Fernie, who’s Chair of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. And the Shakespeare Institute is part of Birmingham University. Welcome, Ewan.

Ewan: Thank you, Lucy.

Lucy: We’re not doing Shakespeare today though. 

Ewan: No. 

Lucy: We’re actually going to be talking about Redcrosse, which is “Redcrosse” with an ‘e’ on the end.

Ewan: That’s right, yes. Well, it’s an eccentric thing; it’s a new sort of thing. It’s a new poetic liturgy which we hope will be adopted as an alternative service for St Georges Day. And we’ve commissioned new poems from some major poets. The ex-Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote one for us. The whole liturgy has been written by Jo Shapcott, who just won the Costa Prize; Michael Symmons Roberts, another award-winning poet; [and] myself and Andrew Shanks, who’s the Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral. We also commissioned some rather extraordinary new music from Tim Garland. And he wrote some new music for us for Trio and Church Choir.

Lucy: So how would you define a liturgy as opposed to ‘it’s a poem’ or ‘it’s a poem and some music’? What makes it a liturgy?

Danielle: It’s a liturgy because…I mean, it takes the religious service as a basis and it works to refresh, and to some degree, reinvent that. It has a very specific purpose, which is to offer a new exploration and investigation of St George and Englishness, so it’s a civic liturgy. But it is participatory, it addresses a congregation – an inclusive and open congregation – and there are responses, and we wrote responses for that congregation. As well as poems, we wrote confessional passages. And there are absolutions and so forth, so it really does take the resources of religion and hope to combine them with the adventurousness and creativity of poetry and of new music.      

Lucy: So as an academic, historically, you might have been critiquing these kinds of things. But this is a bold attempt to create something that’s going to have an effect.

Ewan: Yes. Absolutely, yeah. And that’s been one of the very exciting things about the project. And it’s been a steep learning curve to move from writing critical essays – I’ve done some creative stuff before – but to producing what is a civic ritual, which is ultimately meant to be affirmative. I mean, it’s also meant to be confessional. So we don’t deny the problems and the guilt that’s been involved in English history, for instance, but rather seek to produce a liturgy that’s both private and public, where people come together and both define themselves and to search for a new sense of nationhood. But that does involve acknowledging that the history of our country is both glorious and inglorious. And we want to achieve a newly celebratory sense of England and St George, but through owning and regretting and repenting for the sins of the past as well.

Lucy: This is something that’s been mentioned by quite a few politicians. So people like Boris Johnson or Gordon Brown…David Cameron…they’re all very keen on creating some kind of English National Day or to create some kind of new Englishness.

Ewan: Yes, yes. Well, I think, you know, as many people have acknowledged, Englishness…partly because of…after Empire…has been an embarrassed [sic] thing to many people. Whereas Scottishness and Irishness, and so forth, flourish and are owned passionately and proudly, and that’s true on the [English] football terraces – and nothing wrong with that – but we were seeking, like some of the political figures across the spectrum that you’ve mentioned, we were seeking a way of re-minting and reinvigorating Englishness in a way that was sort of ethically, politically, spiritually ambitious. But also recognising that we didn’t quite know what Englishness was.    

Lucy: But isn’t there something about Englishness which means, by its very nature, we’re a bit embarrassed to do those kind of things?

Ewan: Well, yes, that’s interesting. No, that is partly true. But at the same time I think there is a real grassroots sense in which people love the country. They love its landscapes. They love its traditions. There are lots of things to honour and love about English history and English literature and English music, and so forth. And we wanted to produce an arts event, which was also a religious service, which attempted to find those things, to look for them, and to some extent, reconstitute them in the moment; in the moment of its experiencing, as a way of producing new energy, new creativity, and a kind of…why not?...a positivity about who we are and where we live.

Lucy: I’m quite interested in the choice of St George as a figure for this…or as a focus for this. First of all, he wasn’t English. He was probably from Turkey, I think, as far as we know. We’re not the only country to claim him as our patron saint. I think there are about another eight countries who claim him. And also the symbol of the cross of St George being something that’s obviously linked to the Crusades maybe makes him a person – a symbol – that not everyone in multicultural Britain could really get behind.    

Ewan:  I mean there are several things there. One: St George is the patron saint of England. There’s a kind of givenness there. But I absolutely accept what you’re saying, and indeed, those problems were part of the stimulus to the project. But it’s also the case - as you yourself say - that St George is not English, St George is from elsewhere, is claimed by all sorts of others, and in fact is venerated by a different name in Muslim countries as al-Khidr. So what we wanted to do really was confront precisely what you say, that our traditions might be divisive, might not be fit for purpose, and seek to find new life in them, seek to re-mint, to reforge, a figure of St George that could stand for British Muslims; that could stand for women; that could stand for people temperamentally or ideologically ill-disposed to the muscle-bound dragon slayer. And that was what we sought to do, to create a St George for today and for everybody. 

Lucy: It’s quite a grand aim, isn’t it, to try and create from scratch something that’s supposed to evoke religious feeling or some kind of religious experience in people that are attending this. How on earth do you go about that? And where do you start?

Ewan:  You involve lots of people! [laughter] I think that’s one way of doing it. And we did try to do that, so it wasn’t just the work of one artist. Or it could, you know, hope to be a more truly representative thing. We worked with the traditional service and liturgy, and respected its proven strength to address people and to create that kind of religious experience. At the same time we’ve harnessed poetry as a way of getting into people, hopefully, of addressing them in their private inwardness. And I really want to stress that what we wanted to do here was produce a celebration, but not a kind of tub-thumping patriotism, but a sort of Englishness which involves bringing people together in there vulnerable desire for something else, for something better. What we’re looking for was a solidarity of spiritual seekers and that, above all, is what this new liturgy – Redcrosse – attempts to be. 

Lucy: There’s already been one…I don’t know whether to say ‘performance’ or ‘celebration’…a performance of the [liturgy] in Windsor, and there’s another one coming up. Obviously, we’ve got St George’s Day coming up and then the next performance is at Manchester Cathedral on the 8th of May [2010]. But there’s nothing happening on St George’s Day with the liturgy?

Ewan: No. Well, that’s for a very particular reason. St George’s Day and Easter coincide this year so we couldn’t do it.

Lucy: So there’s nothing on on St George’s Day.

Ewan: No. But we do hope that in the future our new civic inclusive liturgy might be adopted by other churches as an alternative liturgy for St George’s Day.

Lucy: So in the future we might be seeing this performed on an annual basis and in different places?

Ewan: Yes. Here and there at least.  

Lucy: But for now, if you want to go and participate in the liturgy you can go along to Manchester Cathedral on Sunday the 8th of May [2010].

Ewan: Yes, at 5:30pm.

Lucy: How do we find out more about that?

Ewan: It’s all on the Manchester Cathedral website. Everybody is welcome. There’s new music. There’s a special feature to the Manchester celebration, which is these processional Catalan-style giants that have been created. There’s a big St George and a big dragon as well. And those have been made by the homeless of the Booth Centre under the direction of an artist appointed in Manchester. So there’s lots to enjoy in Manchester, do please come. 

Lucy: So good luck with the Manchester performance/celebration!

Ewan: Thank you. 

Lucy: And I guess we’ll wait and see what happens in future years, if this takes off as a…

Ewan: Yes, indeed. We hope it will. 

Lucy: Professor Ewan Fernie, thank you very much.

Ewan: Thank you, Lucy. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall, and the producer was Andy Tootell.