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An important game

26 September 2014

AMONG those who love sport, it has to be admitted, reluctantly, that only a subset love and enjoy cricket. And if a Venn diagram were conceived to show the intersection between cricket and churchgoing, the degree of overlap would not be huge - although larger than it might otherwise be, perhaps, thanks to the efforts of the Church Times over the 64 years of its Cricket Cup competition. Thus it must be expected that a claim for the importance of the game last Friday between St Peter's Cricket Club and the Archbishop of Canterbury's XI might well be met with incomprehension. But the Church, even more than politics, has got it into its head that importance is synonymous with weighty deliberations and exhaustive documents. This newspaper is occasionally guilty, along with many others, of paying too much attention to formal talks between the Churches, forgetting that a vast amount of united action takes place in parishes, without remark and without reference to official documentation.

The public match last week, observed at the highest level, mediated between these two levels of engagement. It demonstrated to those responsible for supervising our Churches' official discussions, and, more importantly, to the outside world, how close Anglicans and Roman Catholics can be. This can, of course, be done in a church service, but liturgy and order disagreements simultaneously demonstrate the distance that remains between the Churches.

By contrast, Friday's encounter was ecumenism as a game. Games are not real: attitudes can be adopted, ploys attempted, forays tried with all seriousness; but the performers know that they are operating in a temporary mode, and that participants can choose which elements to carry back with them into real life. Games are playful, experimental. They can engage the emotions to a far greater extent than everyday events - in part, perhaps, because they allow the imagination to have free rein. But games are important, paradoxically, precisely because they don't matter. While play continues, the outcome is all consuming. Once it ceases, the result is seen to be far less significant than the spirit in which the game was played. (Professional sports leagues pervert this natural order by elevating the result above the manner in which it is achieved.)

As a result, differences of view, language, history, tradition, and style are all subsumed in a forum in which the rules and conventions are agreed and fixed long before play begins. This is how games change things. People need to be particularly hard of heart to shun political or religious opponents after they have played against them on the sports field. And this influence extends beyond the players: spectators are drawn into the emotions and the aspirations on the field. The end of the match brought pleasure to one team and disappointment to the other, but both had acquitted themselves well, and the result did not dent the relationships that had been forged. These young players were as much our representatives as are the theologians chosen for ecumenical commissions, and, as such, have given those theologians some work to do to catch up.

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