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Opinion >

Faith needs some of football’s goals

Club supporters feel a passion that could be duplicated in worship, says Jonathan Romain

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 ponder.

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 others.

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 stranger.

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 moment.

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 next week.

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 the same.

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 February 2014.

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