A FRIEND who recently started at a sports club described what a beautiful experience it was, full of community and joy. “Church should be like that,” they said, wistfully. It got me thinking. There are plenty of sedate activities in church. But what if we followed the example of a nearly forgotten Anglo-Catholic slum priest from more than a century ago, and took a risk on something such as boxing that would help us connect with the real lives and aspirations — and entertainments — of working-class people? We might see the art and poetry and heroism that are at the root of the noble sport.
We need to go back in time to the late 19th century. Fr Arthur Osborne Montgomery Jay was given a pretty unappetising challenge: to be the priest of the roughest, dirtiest, and most depressing parish in London — Holy Trinity, Shoreditch. His mission was to minister to the outcasts, the lost, the lonely, and the “rough as they come”.
To begin with, it was unpromising. Early services were held in a filthy stable — quite appropriate, really. But, from early attendance numbers of fewer than ten, the ministry began to take hold. Just ten years after his arrival, Jay had raised enough money to build a church, social club, lodging house, and — most important — a gym in the basement of the church.
Jay was a self-confessed “man’s man”; coarse-tongued, and frequently tactless. His boxing initiative was a revelation. It turned what had been a vice — bare-knuckle, brutal, street fighting — into the art that is boxing: boxing with rules, and a code to stop a fight when an opponent was in danger of real harm.
It was muscular Christianity made flesh. Over time, the hard men came, and the gang fighting diminished. Men who would never have crossed the threshold of a church began to feel at home there, and even to go on a Sunday and join the singing. Boxing was a liberation, and Jay’s club produced local heroes such as Scrapper, Donkey, Old Squash, and Lord Dunfunkus.
The ring was handy in other ways, too. Music hall acts practised there, and trapeze artists. And the church grew and grew.
From our perspective there are, perhaps, complications. Jay was a man of privilege, educated at Cambridge. He had, to say the least, rather uncharitable views of the people he ministered to. He was unashamedly doing to the poor, rather than working with them. He saw it as a kind of missionary work, and that is something that I, at least, feel uncomfortable with. But we need to be wary of reading history too critically through a modern lens.
His High Church ways drew criticism, and there was much hoo-ha about holding boxing in a church. This has a rather contemporary ring. When Southwark Cathedral hosted a fashion show, the usual suspects cawed about desecrating holy ground. Similar voices were raised against boxing. You might say that today’s fashion show was yesterday’s boxing match: both arguably too unholy for holy spaces.
JESUS’s followers were rough-and-ready men. They were fishermen, working in a tough environment. I imagine that they were pretty physical, and that it wouldn’t have been uncommon for physical clashes to break out. And then there is theology to be taken into account: St Paul talks about fighting the good fight; Jacob wrestles with an angel, and is injured but transformed.
If we take the incarnation seriously, then our bodies are as important as our minds, and the building and disciplining of them in boxing is a way of honouring that incarnational truth. Boxers (today, women as well as men) are heroic figures, and the contest is a test of just about everything a person has. The end result is defeat — or redemption.
Jay refuted the claim that boxing and holiness were at odds. He robustly defended boxing, pointing out the way in which it brought discipline to otherwise chaotic lives. It was, he said, a liberation. That is quite a claim, but one that strikes a chord with me. I grew up in a family that loved boxing. I knew people at school who went on to box professionally.
I love boxing, too, and it seems to me that — if we want church really to reach out to working people’s lives — we need to be more in tune with the things we working-class people do. Perhaps (just a thought) we need less quiche and more boxing gloves.
It works on another level, too, which was what got me thinking in the first place. My brother-in-law was talking about a boxing club in East Yorkshire. It is run by an ex-pro boxer, and starts at 5 a.m. each day, so that men, usually working in manual jobs, can train before they go to work. You don’t need to be good at boxing, but you do need to give it your all. Everyone is welcome, and it feels like a family. You don’t need to believe certain things; it affirms life, just as church is called to do.
What would it take for church to be like the boxing club? Lightness of touch, a sense of fun, and a willingness to learn something from the muscular Christians of yesteryear. Start from where people are at — transform that, start there.
If the world has been touched by the holiness of God, that has made it holy. And that includes boxing rings in church, jumble sales, and even bingo. Why not?
The Revd Steve Morris is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in the diocese of London.