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First match between the Vatican and the C of E ends in a close finish

21 September 2014

Paul Handley reports from Kent Cricket Club on a historic game


Victory: The Archbishop of Canterbury with the CofE side

Victory: The Archbishop of Canterbury with the CofE side

"HE CAUGHT me out, but I forgive him." Perhaps the cricket match between the Vatican and the C of E was different, after all.

The T20 match at the Spitfire Ground in Canterbury, the first-class home of Kent County Cricket Club, took place in hot sunshine on Friday afternoon, shading to evening gloom, and finishing under brilliant floodlighting.

A crowd of almost 1000 spectators watched the culmination of the week-long visit to the UK by the St Peter's Club team, a Vatican side made up of seminarians, mostly from India. Their warm-ups had included games against the Army chaplains at Aldershot and the Royal Household at Windsor.

Friday's match, though, was the big one, the response to a challenge issued by the Vatican last December - the first ever such sporting encounter "since the Reformation" - and probably a little before that, too.

Their opponents, the Archbishop of Canterbury's XI, were a group of ordinands assembled in a trawl by the Church Times,  who had played together for the first time in a friendly in Gravesend two days previously.

The two teams first met each other on Thursday during evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. The service anticipated the game: the hymn was "Fight the good fight", and the closing prayers included: "When the last ball in bowled, the stumps are drawn. . ."

Straight after evensong, a colloquium in the Cathedral's new lecture hall involved players and guests in a discussion about the compatibility of faith and sport. Questioned by Trevor Barnes, who chaired the session, Fr Jery Paul Njaliath, spoke about how the church compound in Kerala, where he had grown up, was the place where all the young people in the town congregated to play sport.

It broke down barriers of faith and caste, he said; and it helped people to become better human beings, teaching virtues such as perseverance, patience, hard work, and the pursuit of excellence.

Rob Glenny, an ordinand in the C of E team, said that he had no difficulty imagining Jesus playing sport. He agreed with his teammate Will Foulger, that there was a middle way between indifference and fanaticism.

To the bemusement of some of the Indians, a number of the English players spoke about a clash with the drinking culture attached to sport, especially at university. Their solution was to gain respect by being the best they could be on the field, the earliest at the training ground, and the readiest to help.

The Roman Catholic seminarians were also a little excluded from a brief discussion about bringing up sports-mad children. What was to be avoided at all costs, said the Bishop of Shrewsbury, the Rt Revd Mark Rylands (the C of E's 13th man), was setting churchgoing and Christian adherence at odds with sport.

There was more consensus when the discussion turned to sporting ethics. A guest at the colloquium was Henry Olonga, the former Zimbabwean test cricketer who had been forced into exile after a public protest against President Mugabe. He spoke of the loneliness that he had observed among those who had played to win at all costs.

Had he prayed to win? "Yes, of course - though the prayers didn't often get answered.

In conclusion, speakers contrasted the joy and playfulness of amateur sport with the undesirable elements that had crept into the professional game.

After the debate, and a generous dinner laid on by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd Robert Willis, there was a final ecumenical encounter: the captain of the Vatican side, Fr Tony Currer, joined members of the C of E side at La Trappiste, a bar near the cathedral that sells beers from Roman Catholic monasteries on the Continent.

AS THE match came closer, the friendships forged on Thursday evening reinforced the feeling that each side wanted the other to do well. Perhaps because they were the hosts, this was articulated more by the C of E side. On the other hand, the players were only human, so this manifested itself in a desire to win . . . but not by very much.

There was no call for match-fixing, however, even of the most beneficent kind. The Vatican team won the toss, conducted in front of a large press cohort, including a crew from ESPN, the sports channel, who had followed the Vatican team from Rome, and a BBC crew filming a documentary about Canterbury Cathedral.

They chose to bat, but by dint of tight - if occasionally wayward - bowling and energetic fielding, the C of E pegged them to 106 runs in their 20 overs.

The Archbishop's XI thus started their innings in good spirits. These did not last long, however, as they, too, struggled to make runs. The first two overs ended with just two on the scoreboard, both from extras. The Vatican bowling was even less generous that the Anglican, and the fielders just as energetic.

Steve Gray, the C of E captain retired hurt. (He had himself replaced Jez Barnes, who missed the game through injury.) And a couple of fine catches helped make the C of E position look even more desperate, when, after 15 overs, they remained a long way adrift.

But a late partnership between Andy Watkins and Rob Oram changed the nature of the game. As the floodlights brightened the ground, so, too, did the batsmen's play. A closer finish could not have been wished for, as the C of E side squeezed past the Vatican total in the last over.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presented the cup and medals in the company of the Papal Nuncio, and presided at a celebratory dinner at the ground, attended by, among other dignitaries, the RC Archbishop of Southwark and the Australian and British ambassadors to the Holy See.

A collection at the ground was taken for the Global Freedom Network, the anti-slavery initiative set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis - to which the day's proceedings had added another example of the exciting cooperation possible between the two Churches.

Full match report and more pictures from the game in next week's Church Times.


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