Thought for the Day - Lord Harries of Pentregarth - 01/03/2013

Good morning. When the new member of parliament for Eastleigh, Mike Thornton, comes to Westminster and first stands in the lobby waiting for constituents to come and talk to him/her, his/her eyes are likely to be caught by the four large mosaics high up on the walls. These are the patron saints of our four nations, St George, St Andrew, St Patrick and St David. Those saints clearly meant something to the Victorians who put them there, but what they might mean to us is much more problematic. Today is St David’s Day, for example, associated with leeks and daffodils, St Peter’s leeks as they were called. It is an association that goes back a long time. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King wears a leek and explains “For I am Welsh, good countryman”. And according to legend it all began when a Welsh king fighting the Saxons ordered his men to identify themselves by wearing a leek in their headdress. So is the idea of a patron saint just another quaint custom like wearing leeks or daffodils, a bit of fun but not to be taken too seriously? Or are we to believe, as our medieval forebears did, that each has a special care for his own nation?

For me this raises the whole question of nations and their place, if any, within the overall scheme of things. Long gone, we hope are the days when the Welsh and the English would fight one another, but to many people it is still a very fundamental part of their identity that they are English or Welsh or whatever-as will certainly be shown at the Millennium Stadium on March 16th when they play one another again. Yet, from the standpoint of history, let alone eternity, we know that empires rise and fall, nations emerge and fade away, cultures sparkle for a bit and then die away. And the Christian faith in particular says that what matters to God are not nations as such but human persons. Yet there is a verse in the Book of Revelation which offers another way of looking at the issue. It describes the people of God who are singing a new song as coming from “every tribe and language, nation and race” (Revelation 5,9). In short, though nations as such have no place, the national culture which has helped to shape us, whether we are Welsh or English, Scottish or Irish does, in a transfigured form have a future. It has a place because it is an essential part of us. So perhaps we should think of St David and the other patron saints as signs that national cultures are not things indifferent to God. They help to make us what we are, and it therefore it matters whether a particular culture is shallow and tawdry or deep and rich and worthy of being taken up into that new song.

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