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Ecumenism given a sporting chance in Canterbury

26 September 2014


The two teams and umpires, with the Bishop of Dover and the RC Archbishop of Southwark, who led prayers before the game

The two teams and umpires, with the Bishop of Dover and the RC Archbishop of Southwark, who led prayers before the game

"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 Twenty20 match at the Spitfire Ground in Canterbury, the first-class home of Kent County Cricket Club, took place in hot sunshine last Friday afternoon, shading to evening gloom, and finishing under brilliant floodlighting.

A crowd of almost 1000 spectators - including the Papal Nuncio, the Most Revd Antonio Mennini, and Lord Nicholas Windsor - 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, a Roman Catholic parish in Brighton, also called St Peter's, the Authors XI, and the Royal Household at Windsor. They notched up two victories and two defeats.

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 last Thursday, during evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. The service anticipated the game: the hymn was "Fight the good fight", and the prayers included: "When the last ball is 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.

The Revd Rob Glenny, a deacon 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 which 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, witnessed by 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. First they, and then the Anglicans, struggled to make runs against tight fielding.

In the end, a closer finish could not have been wished for.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presented the cup and medals in the company of the Nuncio, and presided at a celebratory dinner at the ground, at which the guests of honour included the Nuncio, the RC Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Revd Peter Smith, and the British and Australian ambassadors to the Holy See.

A collection at the ground raised several thousand pounds 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.

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