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The beautiful game still has much to teach us

10 January 2020

Football has its problems — but there is much that should inspire and challenge churches, says Peter Crumpler

THIS football season is a poignant and emotional one. Brentford FC, the west-London team I have supported for more than half a century, is leaving its Edwardian ground after 115 years.

The Championship club is moving a couple of miles down the road from Griffin Park to a gleaming new purpose-built stadium, still close to where I grew up.

As the last match in May draws closer, I’ve wondered whether football has something to offer the Church about encouraging diversity, commitment, knowledge — and (whisper it) enthusiasm.

The Times columnist Matthew Syed gave an insight into diversity at the club when he recently took his five-year-old son to a match. He wrote: “As we walked back I noted two women in hijabs in the front row cheering loudly.

“There were black faces, brown faces, women, men, young and old. The majority of the crowd was white, but you could nevertheless glimpse that this is a club positioned within the web of one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country.”

Much of this developing diversity has come from the club’s grass-roots links. It runs projects involving, among others, young carers, deaf children and adults, and the mentoring of young people.

Ben Ryan, of the think tank Theos, places sports clubs alongside churches as “powerful agents for social cohesion”.

The challenge for churches is to build stronger links with communities, and to be open to new partnerships with people who are very different from their existing congregations. Churches running sports projects is one kind of initiative which is proving successful — an echo of the church-run clubs that founded many of today’s Football League sides.

COMMITMENT levels in football are high. “I’m Brentford till I die” is a common chant coming from the terraces. The lifelong devotion of fans is taken as normal. Few supporters — of any club — change the team that they followed in their youth.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, writes in Praying for England (Continuum, 2008): “In a commitment-shy society, club supporters swim against the tide. They know the cost of discipleship: they give sacrificially, witness to their faith and are persecuted for it by rivals.”

This comes at a time when worshippers can drift away from faith or easily change their church allegiance or denomination. Recent research suggests that the transfer of Christian faith through generations is weakening.

Can churches do more to affirm and celebrate publicly the service and commitment of existing churchgoers, besides encouraging newcomers? Messy Church and other initiatives have brought generations together to learn, but do we need to do more to enable parents and other relatives naturally to live out their faith in front of their children and grandchildren?

Fans’ involvement in the game is deepening. In The Game of Our Lives (Penguin, 2014), David Goldblatt writes: “Crowds have acquired a stage set of collective tics, individual movements and glances as they continue to check and use their phones throughout the game, texting, surfing, calling, tweeting and increasingly taking pictures and filming video.”

The sport has become much more interactive: fans are engaging with each other and their clubs through a range of digital and broadcast media.

The amount of information that is available and garnered by fans has increased massively — including some that is needed to inform pre-match and in-match betting.

Sermons and services could have greater impact if they became gateways to further exploration. Social media’s interactivity enables congregations to discuss issues arising from the sermon on the church’s Facebook group or similar, and in midweek groups. Clergy and congregants could share resources to deepen the discussion.

Of enthusiasm, Dr Wilcox writes: “It is a sobering experience for a parish priest in a working-class community to see the same men who sit so impassively in the rearmost pews in church at baptisms and funerals, then singing, embracing or weeping on the terraces of the local football ground. They may not easily ‘get in touch with their emotions’ at home, at work or in church; but they can do it at the match.”

And these days it is not just men or the “working-class”: football crowds have increased in diversity.

GOLDBLATT places football beyond other features of British national life: “The Church, the theatre, festivals and soap operas — football has acquired a place in British culture that exceeds them all, for it alone is the equal of each in their own domains of ritual, performance, ecstasy and national narrative.”

In church, the passion, the deep engagement with the Spirit, cannot be fabricated or ordered on demand. It can come, individually or to a congregation, often in response to much prayer and worship.

But, beyond this, if dull predictability is the enemy of expectancy, maybe the wider introduction of congregants’ telling their experiences of living out their faith during the week could prompt a deeper reaction. These could inform sermons and intercessions, and prompt others to action.

English football is far from perfect. It faces significant challenges, including racism, homophobia, gambling, and more.

But there are some features of the beautiful game from which the Church could learn.

The Revd Peter Crumpler is the SSM Officer for St Albans archdeaconry, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.

He talks more about the issues raised in the article on The Church Times Podcast

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