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Cricket reaches the parts that theology never can

14 September 2012

The victorious Southwark diocesan team discovered unexpected lessons about church unity as they played together, says Stephen Kuhrt

I AM reliably informed that, within many dioceses in the Church of England, vociferous conflict between the clergy is not necessarily the norm. A paternalistic model of episcopal leadership often combines with a measure of deference to create an expectation, which is largely successful, that those of different church traditions can and should minister alongside each other in relative harmony.

In the diocese of Southwark, the expectation is different. Having spent all my ordained ministry here, I, like many others, assume that its entrenched theological traditions will noisily express their disagreement with one another. Several of the most diverse theological groupings within the C of E possess strongholds within Southwark, and it shows.

All of this makes it more remarkable that, last week, a group of Southwark clerics, representing almost every theological tradition, worked together to achieve something that had previously eluded the diocese for 37 years: the winning of the Church Times Cricket Cup.

Often, the matches turn on whether sides manage to prevent the star batsman, who is present in most opposition teams, from scoring a century. In the case of the final, London's key player did score 100, but a great team effort from Southwark meant that London's total was still overhauled. As anyone who has played sport regularly will know, the unity of team spirit can often make an extraordinary difference.

THIS leads to the more startling achievement of a group of clergy, drawn from camps that are so often in bitter opposition, working together so well. Within the Southwark team this year were prominent members of Inclusive Church, Reform, Fulcrum, Forward in Faith, and Affirming Catholicism, plus the first woman player to take part in a final in the Cup's 62-year history.

There were jokes, of course. Some of us quipped that the team members from Reform and Forward in Faith might seek "alternative captaincy oversight", while, at some points, members of Inclusive Church were accused of failing "to play straight", or tampering with the ball, in an effort "to swing it both ways".

When I first played for the team, a member of Co-Mission wryly commented that it was nice for us finally to be on the same side, referring to the regular criticism that I have made of this network. There was also speculation about whether our team, and particularly its slip formation, could do with some New Wine Charismatic types, who would be used to stretching their hands in the air.

But, led by a gifted and thoughtful captain, a team comprising clerics who in numerous ways seemed poles apart were able to work together brilliantly, and to show consistently how a united body can be much greater than the sum of its parts.

THE experience of this has inevitably led a number of us to reflect on its potential lessons for church unity.

• The value of spending time together. One of the great values of cricket is the pace at which it is played, which allows people to spend a whole day in each other's company - and not only during the match, but on car journeys to and from the games as well.

In the earlier part of the season, most of us made a conscious effort to avoid much discussion of church politics or theology, but, as time went on, these areas were inevitably touched on. As a result of the friendship and trust that had been built up, however, such conversations were usually far less defensive than they might otherwise have been. They were marked by a quality of listening that led to far more understanding of each other's perspectives. Stereotypes start to drop away as you discover realities very different from those that you had assumed to be the case.

The demands of the cricket, or suddenly realising that you have taken a wrong turn on the way to the match, are usually enough to suspend such conversations at just the right moment, thus ensuring that "less is more," and that all participants are left with just enough to go away and reflect on.

• The impact of being involved in a common endeavour. Playing together forces reliance on one another, particularly within a team that has significant weaknesses. One of the most outstanding features of Southwark's season this year was the team's noisy encouragement of one another when good fielding occurred, but also at those points where players' innings or bowling spells were less successful. Having to give, but even more to receive, such encouragement requires a humility that then helps to accelerate the breaking down of barriers and suspicion more swiftly than almost anything else.

• The place of communication and celebration. Group emails before and after matches are crucial in maintaining the relationships that have been formed. Banter and encouragement then continued, combined with the constant celebration of achievements, however small, and the fostering of a strong sense of community, mutual care, and respect.

Some readers might be shocked at the admissions underlying all this, and the scandal of a game of cricket's being needed to foster such relationships between fellow Christians, let alone clerics. This is a fair point, although relationships that can appear good in, say, clergy chapter meetings can in reality be superficial.

The truth is that the experience of playing for Southwark diocese this year has taught all of its players, across our very different traditions, valuable lessons about genuine church unity. At the heart of the gospel is God's making one united people, marked out by faith in Jesus, and by love for one another, using their different gifts and insights to work for him together.

While the winning of a cricket cup is not necessarily God's most pressing concern, it has made all of us in the team ponder how we might use the unity that he has formed among us to work together for him more effectively in other ways as well. As one of our players commented at the end of a season that none of us will forget: "The diocese that plays together stays together."

The Revd Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden, and chair of Fulcrum, the Open Evangelical network. At the Church Times Cricket Cup Final, he was 12th man for Southwark.


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