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  • FREE ENTRY

Good Patriotism

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

The flags are dead! Well at least they are in the process of dying. They are suspended, resting and decaying, high above our heads as we pray. Though there are those who would prefer it to be different; the pedant conservationists who would prefer them wrapped up and sanitised, boxed and pickled, like history should be, opened only on memorable occasions by clean hands in dust free zones. They forget that these are working flags covered in battlefield mud, human sweat and blood and drenched in lost futures and slaughtered hope. They have earned their rest just like the men and women who carried them or trampled to battle behind them. Let them decompose gracefully, I say, but don’t let their honour die – or be pickled for that matter. It must live on, for pity’s sake.

The north aisle of the Cathedral is a military aisle. Ensigns and plaques galore give testimony to campaigns and wars, to lives cut tragically (and heroically) short, to hopes and dreams of better futures sacrificed. Lists of names recall the families who bore the brunt, the more the wealth the larger the font or the bigger, more prominent the memorial – ‘twas ever thus I guess. Yet the pain of the poor was at least as deep, the sorrow as harrowing and the impact as devastating. Who knows what our world, or our lives, would be like without their mother’s loss. Like book ends to this tragic memory the Ypres cartoon of St. George and the dead dragon stands to the east just before the organ and in the west the mighty Collingwood (a son of the City, baptised and married here) looks aloft in dignified silence. He keeps his counsel. Wise man!

Collingwood memorial

To be honest, as a typical baby boomer whose experience of war is somewhat limited, (thank God!) there have been times when I have struggled with this ‘patriotic aisle’. Times I would have liked to clear it all and speak only of peace and freedom, forgetting its painful cost. As I scan the news for a moment I acknowledge that too many others do not have the luxury of speaking just of peace and freedom.

Yet again this building will not leave me be, yet again it demands I reconsider, reconnect become a little bit more honest and real. This long north corridor challenges any naïve ‘pacifist’ leanings I might harbour, though I still find war and violence repulsive. I want to learn to pay my respect to my forebears, poor and rich, heroic and the not so brave (the latter probably more like me!). I want to recover a patriotic spirit but I refuse to stoop to jingoism, I refuse to believe that the ‘Great’ placed before Britain demands (and needs) the subjection, inferiority and oppression of others. No, for me ‘good patriotism’ must mean holding on to (in spite of the zeitgeist and the popularism that consumes us) the yearning for a nation that prides itself in the care it offers the poorest among us, the nourishing of our children, the honour we give to our seniors, the respect we show for those who make this community work – good jobs, good homes, good health. ‘Good Patriotism’ will welcome (and celebrate) diversity, the other, the stranger and above all it will build itself not on closed minds, gated neighbourhoods or impenetrable borders but in a desire of good community for all our sisters and brothers in our country but also in every nation across this troubled globe. High ideals, maybe naïve ones too, but only high ideals can lead us on. And baby boomer I may be but I will not give up my addiction to hope.

Scerrett memorial

Just in the corner, near the organ pipes there is a partly obscured memorial to JOHN BYNE SCERRETT

killed (aged 36) in the Assault on Bergen in 1814. I confess that I have never noticed it before. The words are hard to read but this morning I can just make out the following:

‘From the age of 15 Years
to the day of his lamented Death
his life was spent
in the service of his King and Country
in every Quarter of the Globe.
During the long and successful struggle of
generous Freedom
against tyrannical Oppression….’

One may doubt the ‘success’ but the struggle continues.

Lord give me a burning courage to struggle for ‘generous Freedom’ for all your people.