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Preaching the Word in a World Cup season  

13 July 2018

The recent story of England’s national football team has lessons for England’s national Church, says Philip Lockley

KARL BARTH once advised preachers to read the Bible and the news together. His point was a principle of interpretation: God’s story should always be related to the world’s stories. This is the way in which the gospel remains relevant but also “definitive”, as all the stories of the world are found to be encompassed by God’s redeeming narrative.

England’s footballers have had their own story of saving hands and unexpected victory this month. Much has been made of the journey of the manager, Gareth Southgate, journey from penalty scapegoat in 1996 to masterminding a first ever World Cup shoot-out win. “Redemption” was the media word of choice for this story, even as the New Testament word for “sin” offers even richer parallels when translated “Missing the goal”.

Yet if preachers are torn between a choice of news stories this week, let them choose the England team, regardless of its ultimate failure to win the World Cup. This is because there is more in this narrative than individualised rescue and salvation: the stuff of classic evangelism. Preaching the tale of the England team offers an opportunity to talk more deeply about what it means to be a Church for this country. Relating this to God’s story is the stuff of mission.

MORE than once during this World Cup, Mr Southgate has urged his players to “write their own stories”. On the face of it, his phrase drips with secular sports psychology, insisting that personal destiny is defined by nothing but individual effort. This way of thinking can seem anathema to everything that Christians living under God’s sovereignty and grace believe.

Southgate’s phrase, however, has had its greatest power in freeing a new generation of players from an inherited narrative of failure. For years, the institution that they represent and embody — the England football team — kept losing in the same way. Witness the familiar sinking feeling experienced by millions when England conceded a late goal against Columbia, then missed a penalty.

This time, however, the story was different. Afterwards, we learned how players had been prepared for their task in radically obvious ways: learning the habits of penalty-taking; having their characters shaped for this moment. No longer were they defined by a singular strand of an institutional losing story. Instead, their personal histories were shaped by an England set-up open to gathering new and traditional wisdom on doing their best, together.

If this still seems a long way off the language of the Christian Church, then we have probably forgotten what it means to be disciples.

Discipleship involves training, preparation, and the honing of habits. St Paul’s use of the athlete analogy in 1 Corinthians 9 points in this direction. Subsequent Christian history fills out the picture with the development of catechesis, and the novitiate in the monastic tradition. Discipleship has always taken place within teams — also called communities. And it continues throughout the Christian journey, so that the character of the believer is formed for the time of trial, whenever it comes.

Being disciples within an institutional Church can lead us to inherit the institution’s narrative. And, in the Church of England’s case, this narrative includes a significant strand about losing — losing numbers, losing status. But it is God’s story that we proclaim afresh in each generation, not the Church’s tales of woe. Recalling this should encourage the Church to nurture habits that free every disciple to write his or her own story as part of God’s story.

Such habits could include training for tasks that many might dread: being with the afflicted; sharing all we have; and talking about God in public. The wise preparation for these challenges is perhaps radically obvious: consistent prayer; study with scripture; being in communion through the eucharist; and life with others.

AS WE form habits for these outward-looking tasks, it is worth recognising the other lesson that the England story can teach the Church. This is that we are seeking to spread the gospel in a country hungry for a new narrative, eager to belong to a bigger, more hopeful story. A striking feature of successive England games has been how many people want to watch them in community — in fan-zones, in pubs, and on packed sofas. Lives more commonly lived on individual devices have re-encountered the collective experience of joy, sorrow, and a greater whole.

There are few better words for this than “religion”: what binds people together. But, of course, this national religion cannot save: it can only inspire. The Church has an alternative saving story that offers much the same experience, and more.

It is for preachers to take this inspiration and relate it to God’s redeeming narrative of love for the world. And it is for every disciple to realise that there is an appetite out there for transforming stories — stories like their own with God, written in freedom from the past, embracing a hope-filled future.

The Revd Dr Philip Lockley is Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford.

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