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What the Olympics have taught us

17 August 2012

Peter Graystone has learnt much about the UK - none of it related to sport

BETWEEN the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games we have a moment to take stock. Here are three things the Games have allowed me to rediscover about this country.

First, no matter how vigorously its opponents object, the UK refuses to shake off Christian devotion. The first surprise of the Olympic opening ceremony was that it began with a hymn. As it happens, it was my favourite hymn, "Jerusalem". "I shall not cease from mental fight . . . 'til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land" describes everything I have tried to do since the day I put my faith in Jesus Christ.

We live in a society whose justice, welfare, and culture have been shaped over centuries by the principles of Jesus. These benefits of being nominally Christian are huge, because they have created a society in which, for instance, vulner-able people do not rot unaided, or face execu-tion without trial when they are a political inconvenience. The Christian heritage accounts for much of what makes life joyful - holidays, beauty in architecture and music, and contexts in which to welcome birth and face death.

The latter was underlined at the opening ceremony, in the choice of the hymn "Abide with me" as the way to remember those who died in 7/7, the day after London was announced as the host city for the Games, in 2005. Beautifully sung by Emeli Sandé, it seemed entirely appropriate that Akram Khan, a Muslim, should dance to accompany it.

The second delightful reminder is that British culture allows second chances. Thomas Heatherwick is the designer whose 56-metre- high sculpture B of the Bang, erected in Manchester after the 2002 Commonwealth Games, fell apart with catastrophic consequences. Heatherwick's studio paid £1.7 in damages after it was removed.

It is the very same designer, however, whose Olympic cauldron provoked such delight at the opening ceremony. Heatherwick's magnificent feat of engineering and sculpture, bringing 204 flames into one, provided a moment of true wonder, and redeems all previous failures.

Third, I have been reminded that the British have a complex relationship with strangers. I saw the best of it when the Olympic torch was paraded through my street. The coach ferrying the torch-carriers stopped just where I and a handful of neighbours were standing. The actor Sir Patrick Stewart dismounted, and said hello to an elderly lady. She evidently had no idea who he was. Nevertheless, she welcomed him to the street, made charming conversation, and offered him a sweet. She would have done the same to the greatest or least. I hope that 10,000 Christians welcoming strangers as they approach church doors on Sunday will do the same.

In contrast, during the opening ceremony, I used Twitter to publish this message: "Danny [Boyle, the director] did something remarkable. UK came across as a place of achievement, irreverence, justice, Christianity, dark and light. I recognise us." To my surprise, it was retweeted more than 100 times, which means that many thousands of people read it. I am shocked by the vitriol of people's responses when they know their invective will not be held to account. Guess which word they vigorously objected to.

And sport? I had almost forgotten that sport was part of the Olympics. But I have learnt that some of our team have done rather well.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for Church Army.

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