January 24, 2011
Andrew Motion is among a leading group of poets who have written a new liturgy exploring "Englishness" in a much-changed England, and are attempting to reclaim the patron saint, St George, from far-right groups such as the BNP.
The introduction to their liturgy for the 21st century states:
In an ambitious collaboration, Motion, the former poet laureate, along with award-winning poets Jo Shapcott and Michael Symmons Roberts, have written new works to redefine St George within a "questing agnostic liturgy".
Together, they offer a vision for "spiritual solidarity" confronting questions about Englishness that they say politicians dare not explore.
Two liturgical events are planned, for St George's Chapel, Windsor, on 17 March and Manchester Cathedral on 8 May.
There are also talks with the Royal Shakespeare Company about a project for the Olympics, and hopes that this civic liturgy will be widely adopted for St George's Day.
It was in the middle ages that St George came to epitomise ideals of selflessness and valour in
slaying a dragon. Said to have been born in the third century in an area that is now Turkey, he was executed in Palestine, and is an early Christian martyr.
The new liturgy presents him as a "troubled soul, in search of truth" and, within a multicultural land, will include a black figure of St George in a procession.
The liturgy begins:
Motion's poem presents St George as an enigmatic figure, who might be a man or a woman, who ushers us into the quest which the liturgy undertakes:
Motion said yesterday: "I found the idea of writing a new kind of religious text in a largely secular age to be a very interesting challenge – and opportunity (I'm a church-goer). Especially because there was also a possibility to combine it with some thoughts about Englishness – and about what one might call the politics of conscience."
Shapcott writes of being lost in a wood:
The project, which has involved scholars and theologians, is headed by Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, and Andrew Shanks, canon theologian of Manchester Cathedral.
Fernie spoke of tackling questions within an England that had undergone much change, "not to say a bewilderingly plural, global culture".
He said: "What are we to make of the intense religiosity of so much great English literature, in our own more diverse and secular society? What scope is left for social and spiritual solidarity in an England that has, in many ways, outgrown the Church of England? And could a questing and imaginative, poetic engagement with the ultimate questions of religion create new and viable forms of religious practice for today?"
He added: "Englishness is an embarrassed thing in all sorts of ways. But a bold, imaginative reclamation is necessary, particularly in the face of the far right appropriation of symbols of Englishness."
Titled Redcrosse, the project is inspired by the Redcrosse knight in Edmund Spenser's updating of the myth of St George in The Faerie Queene, a neglected poem yet one of the great epics of English literature.
Fernie said: "Spenser intended his poem to fashion a new man, a new society and a new faith, but we are typically less ambitious for poetry in our time."The Church has long relied on the 17th-century poetry of George Herbert and John Donne. Today's poets need to be liturgists and need the seriousness of liturgy in a mutually-stimulating exchange. Fernie said. "What we're doing is very new."
The challenge, he added, has been to make a liturgy powerful enough to uplift yet liberal enough for anyone to join in.
When it was time for the field full of folk to go dark,
and the folk themselves to be splintered in clans
then wander away to their homes and their trades,
one particular fellow, a pilgrim, swerved off alone.
He holds our attention. He might even be reckoned
to beckon us over his shoulder to follow his story.
We cannot resist. Why would we? The way we exist
depends on him. But that reminds me. Is he a man
or a woman? And is this a sudden decision or some-
thing he kept up his sleeve? There is no way of telling,
except that I see he has taken to losing himself in the forest
one minute, and making his living there robbing the rich,
and the next has abandoned all this for a spell in the city
where hammers have beaten his kindness into new shapes.
These he accepts, although you might call them the duty
of state. Which reminds me. What is he called? Forget that.
The greatest mystery facing us now is how to keep faith
as we follow him over the latest threshold, into the world
where everything flashes its label, and we expect to be
getting the dirt, or at least the drift. Let me say it again.
How to keep faith. Here in the field where the grass
has recovered but we have forgotten its names,
and clouds that are carved in the shape of a cave
pour forth in torrents of melting silver the rain.