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Saint Alban and Saint George

A thought for the day

James Wimberley

August 2001

I would like to say a few words about our patron saint1, Alban. Do I hear your hearts sinking? Is the unknown life and summary death of a Roman-British martyr seventeen centuries ago a subject of immediate interest to us? I confess that when the Chaplaincy adopted Alban as its patron saint some years back, I shared this feeling. What, I thought is wrong with good old St George that we should drop him for this pallid character?

Actually quite a lot is wrong with good old St George, or rather the story about him that attracts us. See, a beautiful maiden – I think of Michelle Pfeiffer, in a clinging white shift – chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a horrible, scaly, fire-breathing dragon rising from the sea; but look, down the white sands of the deserted beach, here comes a knight, the morning sun glittering off his polished armour, the hooves of his charger thundering through the surf: it’s St George to the rescue, played let’s say by a younger Robert Redford. Great stuff, but the problem is it isn’t true. There are no dragons, and if there were they would kill most heroes, as in the more realistic Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The story in this form is lifted straight from the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda; any historical content that story may possibly have had, perhaps some Bronze Age invader suppressing a cult of human sacrifice in the name of different gods, is overlaid by at least a thousand years of legendary accretions. I am not joking when I link myths and legends to Hollywood: by the long trial and error of tribal bards, or by art and market research, both factories tune their products to appeal to our deep-seated desires and needs for a satisfying story.

Legends and Hollywood films both tell as more about ourselves than about the world. We humans are not all bad, and the values these stories encapsulate are a job lot. Women are often victims in reality, but our legend stereotypes them as weak and passive. Courage is a virtue, especially against the odds; but it is not the only manly virtue. If you are held hostage by real terrorists, you can only pray that the people who show up to release you are serious professional fighting men, not amateur James Bonds. Violence – so most Christians have held - may be justified as a last resort in a good cause; but we cut corners and find it justified far too readily. Consult any collection of folk tales, or visit your neighbourhood video store, if you are in any doubt about the universal male preference for stories of outnumbered heroes wielding justified violence and winning against the odds. We even refashion true stories of bravery in war to fit this improbable pattern, like the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain.

As creations of the human mind, such stories tell us nothing about God. Their stereotypes are especially dangerous when we give the narrative a sacred character. The cult of St George was a part of the larger ideology of chivalry, promoted by the mediaeval Church to soften the casual brutality of feudal life. It had some success in this; but it was also a key part of the Crusades, where it tipped over into the outright blasphemy of the idea of holy war.

In complete contrast, the story of Alban is firmly rooted in history. It comes to us through the Venerable Bede, a pretty reliable later source. Cutting out the obviously legendary elements – magic fountains and so on - the whole thing only takes 133 words on the St Alban’s cathedral website, so I’ll read it out:

Alban lived (at some time during the 3rd century) in the Roman city of Verulamium. Although he was then a worshipper of Roman gods including the emperor, he gave shelter to a Christian priest fleeing from persecution. Influenced by the priest's prayer and teaching he became a Christian. When the authorities discovered the priest's hiding place Alban exchanged clothes with him. The priest escaped and Alban was taken before the judge. The judge ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest, if he had indeed become a Christian. Alban declared his Christian faith, saying in words still used here as a prayer "I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things." Despite flogging he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and was sentenced to death.

This, we can be pretty sure, is what things were actually like. One thing that makes sense is the extreme compression of time. There’s a knock on the door after midnight. The haggard face of a stranger asks: “Please let me in – the secret police are after me!” How long have you got to think? Five seconds or so, in which two lives hang in the balance. When the Roman judge offers Alban a loophole – “I was sorry for the guy, and didn’t think” - Alban gets another five seconds or so. It is often like this, but not always. Some martyrs got far too long to decide. Thomas Cranmer and Joan of Arc faced clever inquisitors for weeks on end – how can you be so sure? Isn’t it sinful pride to set your own fallible judgement against the wisdom of Holy Church? And of course the fire, the fire is waiting for you. After some long night both gave in and recanted. But after some other even longer night they both changed their minds again. “You understand what this means”, the clever inquisitors said: “there’s no going back”. And they signed, and went to their atrocious deaths. St Gregory the Illuminator, the Apostle of Armenia in the third century, was thrown into a dungeon by the king, Tiridates. Legend says that he stayed there ten years – anyway a long stretch. He was released eventually by Tiridates, and Gregory baptised him. Can you imagine praying day after day in prison for the slimeball who put you there, and forgiving him when he at last lets you out to save his own skin? Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightful elected leader of Burma, has been under house arrest ever since July 1989, and not wavered from her non-violent resistance to the ruling junta, even when the price was not visiting her husband in England before he died of cancer.

The story of Alban makes us uncomfortable, for a number of reasons. First, there is no happy ending, in worldly terms: take on the Roman Empire, the SS, the Interahamwe, by yourself and you lose. God is not on the side of the big battalions, but He does not intervene to rescue those who love Him, even His own Son. Martyrdom is not fun: it involves real sacrifice, great suffering, and untimely death. We do not really want to be reminded of such things.

Second, we may think the story irrelevant: it was all so long ago, the people concerned were very unlike us, and we had better concentrate our thinking on the problems we ourselves actually face today: our personal difficulties, our families, jobs, and the communities around us. But we live in an untypical enclave of peace and order, and millions of our contemporaries face far more extreme challenges. There is religious persecution in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, and China. Some members of this congregation come from Nigeria and Rwanda, where the lives of millions have been destroyed or blighted by ethnic and political violence. Only sixty years ago, Christians came to pray and worship in this very church for deliverance from a régime of soulless cruelty, Nazism. Simple solidarity with our fellow men and women requires us to feel for their sufferings and pray for their deliverance now, and to give thanks for the example of the courage of those of them who are prepared, like Alban, to go the whole way in their resistance.

We are also uncomfortable because we suspect we are not ourselves the stuff of martyrs. If this be shameful, we share it with the great majority at all times. The early Church celebrated its martyrs, but never expected the mass of believers to follow them, and frowned on unnecessary provocation. If we look at the history of resistance movements, a few collaborate enthusiastically or out of careerism, the great majority go along with the strongest, and a few “follow the path less trodden” as Robert Frost put it. Who are these few? How can they do the right thing at great cost when most of us do not? If you have seen the fine film Schindler’s List, about one such man, you will remember it closes with a very moving documentary sequence of those he rescued, and their children, processing in a long line to his memorial in the garden of the righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. That garden contains a strange and very wide selection of people: uneducated Polish Catholic peasants, uneducated French Calvinist peasants, shady businessmen like Schindler himself, clergymen like Maximilian Kolbe and André Trocmé, a Japanese consul in Lithuania, the Orthodox Patriarch of Bulgaria, and Raoul Wallenberg, pampered scion of the richest business dynasty in Sweden. If any group is under-represented, it is perhaps conventional, respectable middle-class churchgoers like ourselves.

I say it is probable that faced with such terrible challenges we would not have the courage to take a stand. But we cannot be certain of this. The bottle may be nine-tenths empty, but it is also perhaps one-tenth full. Perhaps grace would strike even the unlikeliest of heroes, ourselves, and we would totter out to death or glory. I am nor being a sentimental romantic in saying this. One of the Christian doctrines we think about least is the “communion of saints”. At the very least, this teaching reminds us that as Christians we are members of a body which stretches wide around us in space, behind and before us in time, and above us in heaven: and our membership binds us to a marvellous company. There’s a story about a general inspecting a battalion of paratroopers. One squaddie looks a bit different, and the general asks him “Why are you a paratrooper? Do you like jumping out of aeroplanes?”. “No sir”, replies the young soldier. “But I like being with men who do”. Martyrs like Alban and saints like Florence Nightingale are the Church’s version of men and women who do.

And by the way, there was a real St George underneath the romance. He was a Roman soldier, in what is now southern Turkey, and his real story I think you already know.

1This was written with the Anglican chaplaincy in Strasbourg in mind, though it was never delivered there..