WHY was there no revolution in 18th- and 19th-century England when almost everyone else was having one? The sports historian Tony Collins believes that the answer was: cricket.
On the pitch, rich and poor met on equal terms: the rural peasant would be bowling at the aristocrat; the parson would be batting with the farrier. How can you guillotine someone if, two days before, you were putting on 50 runs in a ninth-wicket partnership? Sport was the social leveller. It became a place to form relationships that crossed class boundaries, and so a place where social justice could be built.
What was true in the 18th century is the same today. We live in an age of incredible social stratification and inequality, where people too often live parallel lives. I can think of only a few places where rich and poor meet on equal terms, among them the church and the sports field. So, if we are serious about sharing in the work of Jesus, who came to proclaim good news to the poor, then sports ministry is vital.
It is an odd phenomenon that, from time to time, the Church seems to forget for a while her call to put the poor first. In his report, So Yesterday, of 2010, when he was on sabbatical from his post as Dean of Rochester, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, suggests that the triumph of the growth agenda is one reason why this is one of those times.
If we are passionate about making new disciples, there is a real danger that we prioritise the low-hanging fruit and leave to one side the areas where growth is hardest to achieve — especially areas of deprivation.
Yet, if we are serious about growth, we need to put the poor first, not last. Why? Because that is what Jesus did. He transformed the world from its edges, and in the company of the voiceless and forgotten.
And so, for us, we will renew the Church not from the places of wealth and power, but from the margins, the outer estates, the forgotten inner cities, from the poor and the addicted and the lonely, from the places where life is hardest. When you proclaim good news to the poor, that is when everyone wakes up and listens.
THE Church of England’s Estates Evangelism Task Group is developing a comprehensive Commitment to Action which seeks to renew Christian life on our outer estates, and in areas characterised by deprivation. Sport could have a key part to play in this. In particular, sports ministry can make three important contributions to the life of a Church that is fervent about proclaiming good news to the poor.
First, sport is a place where we can build relationships. A friend who served as an assistant curate in Sunderland joined a football team to keep fit. He was amazed at the people he got to know through this, particularly men from tough backgrounds who would normally have been profoundly distanced from the life of the Church. Over the years, he built strong friendships and was able to bear witness very naturally to his faith.
Sport can offer a place of meeting. It is interesting to note that, while one third of the world’s population are on the internet, two-thirds are engaged as participants or spectators in sport. And it can give us a common language, as anybody who has listened to a football phone-in can testify. Moreover, these encounters can be of genuine equality because of the capacity that sport has to dissolve boundaries of class and culture.
There are sections of the population with whom the Church is massively struggling to connect. Sport can provide an inroad and a place of equal encounter like nothing else.
Second, sport can be a model for gospel living. A significant issue for any church leader — especially one working in deprived communities — surrounds the content of our proclamation. How do we communicate the all-embracing wonder of the gospel in language that connects with ordinary lives? How do we answer the questions on people’s hearts with the person of Jesus? Obviously, sport cannot provide all the answers; but it can offer some useful illustrations and points of entry.
For example, Christians have a strong vision of human health and wholeness, and of the physicality of the saving work of the incarnate Jesus. For many people, especially in urban areas, physical and mental well-being is an important issue, and sport can give some sense of what it means to be whole.
Or, again, as Christians, we have a vision for the potential for human life. Sport can enable young people to break through barriers, use gifts, and achieve goals that point to their God-given potential. It is easy to rant about the high wages paid to footballers, but where else can working-class men (especially black men) break out of the cycles of mediocrity that blight the lives of so many?
And, third, sport is a place where we can grow teams and develop leaders. A huge issue for any urban priest is identifying and developing lay leadership. In fact, this is, in many ways, the golden bullet of sustainable urban ministry. Over the years, we have deprived many urban areas of local leaders, and outsourced jobs to middle-class people who live away, imposing on many communities a culture of dependency.
ON THE sports field, all have a part to play. That points us to St Paul’s description of the body of Christ, in which all have a part to play and all have gifts from God to perform it.
A good sports team is therefore a model of a healthy local church in which everyone is called and everyone participates. It is a place where leaders will emerge naturally, whose leadership potential can then be developed in the Church and wider community.
Christians can use sport to fight poverty, to unlock potential, to spark unlikely relationships, to grow leaders, and to speak a language of hope on the estates. Sports ministry can make a genuine and lasting difference in renewing the urban church. The opportunity is there, and it is there for every church.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley. This is an edited extract from a talk delivered at the Ministry of Sport Conference, held last month at Bishopthorpe. It was organised by the Archbishops’ Sport Ambassador, the Bishop of Sherwood, the Rt Revd Tony Porter. Read the full address at blackburn.anglican.org/bishop-philip.