IT IS both worrying and a source of potential inspiration that,
in some weeks, more people will attend football matches than go to
church. It raises an issue that religious leaders might be wise to
In some ways, it is facile to compare football to faith: the
former is 400 years old, limited to a rectangular pitch, and lasts
90 minutes a week, whereas the latter stretches across the
millennia, permeates all aspects of life, and is 24/7.
Despite this, some of the parallels are fascinating. Both
involve their supporters in ritual wear, be it scarf, badge, and
bobcap; or prayer-shawl, crucifix, or turban. You can pray without
them, or attend a match unadorned and be just as sincere, but
having them helps to get you in the mood and identifies you with
Then there is the parallel calendar. For some, it is Easter, Yom
Kippur, and Ramadan; for others it is the Football League, FA Cup,
and Capital One Cup - with just as much of a seasonal rhythm.
There are the same highs and lows, such as the build-up of
expectation as an important match looms, or as you get ready for a
festival, followed by the sense of occasion as you stream in to the
church or the stadium, recognise old friends, and head towards your
regular seat. There is a sense of camaraderie.
But your emotions can go dramatically either way: a win,
especially against the odds, leads to an almost indescribable
exuberance, as at a service when you have a really good experience,
and emerge with a bounce in your step.
THE opposite can also be the case: a desperately boring game, or
a dis-astrous loss, can send you home disgruntled - just like a
service that you feel does nothing for you, and you walk out a
Most striking of all at matches is the singing. People who are
totally unmusical - not to mention shy and monosyllabic - leap to
their feet and sing lustily in front of thousands of others.
Then there are the times when the match is so tense that
everyone is too absorbed to shout. There is a communal stillness in
which both sets of fans are united in apprecia-tion of the
So, too, with worship. When a shared silence is introduced,
deliberately or spontaneously, after a moving prayer or powerful
sermon, it is not empty, but allows space for personal reflection:
thinking alone together. The key question for clergy with empty
pews is how to transfer the passion and commitment of those
attending football matches to those at services.
I remember my history teacher at school, Neville Ireland,
relating his moment of inspiration. He was at a match after a
frustrating week of trying to drum dates of kings and queens into
children's heads. He was astounded to hear two pupils from his
class, sitting in the row behind him, flawlessly rattling off facts
about team performances, individual players, the dates they joined
the club, and the number of goals they had scored last season.
"Ah!" he thought. "So they are capable of remembering; all I
have to do is enthuse them enough so that they remember what I want
them to remember."
THE task of all who care about faith is similar: to make
religious life so vibrant that other people want to join in.
We can learn three things from those football fans. First, we
can greet others - even those we hardly know, but who are sitting
around us - not letting them go away unnoticed at the end, but
engaging with them, asking if they thought today was a victory or a
flop, or if the preacher was on form. It is the presence, or
absence, of human warmth that can determine whether they come back
Second, we can encourage - almost force - everyone to join in
the prayers and songs, even if they seem to be resisting, because
getting stuck in helps to create a surge of feeling, which then
engulfs others, too; so that you end up sensing that you are on the
inside, and not looking on from afar.
The phenomenon of the Mexican wave is a case in point: it is
started by a few, and those near by often grimace and ignore it,
but as it spreads around the stadium and returns for a second wave,
those who originally stayed seated leap up with everyone else, and
are glad that they did so.
Third, in between attendance at services, enthuse everyone to
read up on the facts, and master the customs and history, so that
next time they come, they feel thoroughly at home, part of the
supporters' club, and feel not only that they matter, but that
without them everyone else there is not fully complete.
I know this from personal experience as a season-ticket-holder
at my local football club, Reading. When I go there on Saturday
afternoons, after my morning service, I feel that I am moving from
one con-gregation to another.
Liverpool supporters know that you never walk alone. I would
hope that those entering a place of wor-ship can be made to feel
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is the minister of Maidenhead
Synagogue, and author ofThe Jews of England. An exhibition
on "Football, Fans, and Faith" opens at the Jewish Museum, 129-131
Albert Street, London NW1, on 10 October, and runs until 23