Saint George, the canon and a flood of right-wing hate

When Manchester Cathedral asked poets and artists to create a celebration, it attracted unexpected attention

A St George's Day celebration portraying the English saint as a young black man wearing an England football shirt has provoked a vicious hate campaign against a senior clergyman at Manchester Cathedral.

Canon Andrew Shanks has been inundated with obscene letters and abusive phone calls since it emerged that the church would play host to a pioneering new service to mark the feast of the third-century dragon-slayer. Greater Manchester Police have been called in to investigate ahead of next month's performance of "Redcrosse: A New Celebration of England and St George".

The poets Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott, Michael Symmons Roberts and the composer Tim Garland have produced new work to form part of what is billed as a multicultural liturgy for the service based around one of the great epics of English literature, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

But it is the inclusion of two processional giants created by a team of homeless people based on an altar painting by Mark Cazalet in the cathedral's Fraser Chapel that has provoked what Canon Shanks describes as an "orchestrated campaign" against him. "It has been a disconcerting and rather depressing experience," he said.

"With just one exception, I'm glad to say, it has come from people who don't know me. But that hasn't hindered them from saying how 'ashamed' they are of me, and indeed of Manchester Cathedral in general, or how 'disgusted' they are. There have been calls for me to resign; or to be locked up 'for my own good'; or, in one case, to be banished to the middle of the Sahara desert, preferably in an area heavily infested with scorpions. I've been called 'ridiculous', a 'scab' and 'evil'."

The campaign began after details of the planned service were reported in the Daily Star in February and picked up on the website of the North-west MEP Nick Griffin. The BNP leader claimed to have received a letter from an unnamed female correspondent saying: "What has it come to when our own church tells us to be ashamed of our Englishness and instead to celebrate the occupation of our country by people who have arrived here from the other side of the world within my lifetime."

Since then, Canon Shanks has been receiving letters at the rate of up to six a day with a similar number of phone calls. Nearly 100 letters have now been passed to police. He has also been the subject of abusive postings on far-right websites. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised him to write back when he could. In one letter he has pointed out that the largest ethnic group in the Anglican Communion world-wide is African and that non-white worshippers form a significant proportion of congregations across British cities. "It seems to me quite legitimate to picture George as belonging to any of the various ethnic groups constituting our community. Why not?" he said.

Professor Ewan Fernie, of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, who led the project, said: "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."

A spokesman for the BNP said: "It's political correctness gone mad. I'd like to see the organisers go to an African country and vilify one of their saints. The Church of England should be done under the Trades Descriptions Act."

Last month the Tourism minister John Penrose suggested that the current May Day bank holiday could be scrapped and replaced by a national holiday on St George's Day on 23 April. English nationalists, tourism chiefs and the food-and-drink industry have long called for the rehabilitation of the day to rival more popular national celebrations in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Ethiopia, Greece, Georgia, Portugal, Genoa, Milan, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Lithuania and Palestine all share St George as one of their patrons. He was adopted for the English feast day in 1222.