CHURCHES would do well to “stick to Christmas” rather than engage with the World Cup, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has said.
Speaking to the Church Times on Friday, two days before this year’s tournament began in Qatar, Bishop North said that he found himself unable to get excited, owing to the host country’s human-rights record.
“Normally with the World Cup, I get passionately excited — I become like a ten-year-old boy again,” Bishop North said. “But, this year, I cannot get any way excited at all. This is, I think, a thoroughly unjust sporting occasion which is sullying football.”
In a post on the Church of England website on Friday, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, the C of E’s lead bishop for sport, said that “while we are mindful of the serious questions which surround it, we will engage.
“In doing so we can pray that sport will be a force for good — and get behind our team, without endorsing those elements with which we profoundly disagree.”
The Church of England has released advice to churches about how to engage with the World Cup, including suggestions that they screen games, perform football-themed nativity plays, or host mission events that relate to football.
Bishop North said, however, that he thought that doing so would be a “mistake”, given Qatar’s “treatment of overseas workers” and its persecution of LGBTQ people. “I don’t want to see churches livestreaming football matches in stadia where hundreds of overseas workers have died,” he said.
In November last year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that 50 foreign labourers were killed in work-related incidents in Qatar during the course of 2020, and that more than 500 suffered serious injuries. Other estimates are higher, putting the total deaths of migrant workers in Qatar in the 12 years since the tournament was awarded to the country at 6500.
In 2016, Amnesty International accused Qatar of using forced labour to help build a new stadium in Doha. England are scheduled to play their opening match against Iran in the stadium on Monday.
AlamyQuayside in Doha, the capital of Qatar, as the country prepares for the opening of the tournament on Sunday
Earlier this month, Frances Kordonowy, from International Justice Mission UK, wrote that the World Cup should be a “wake-up call” about labour exploitation around the world (Comment, 4 November).
Bishop North emphasised that it was “up to local churches what to do”, but that his advice was to “stick to Christmas” and not attempt to use the World Cup as an opportunity for evangelism.
He did, however, say that it would be “common sense” for churches to attempt to avoid holding a carol service at the same time as the final on the afternoon of Sunday 18 December.
For himself, though, he said: “I’m going to try and stand slightly to one side of it. . . The whole thing is so morally tarnished as to undermine the spirit of football.”
The Revd Peter Crumpler, a self-supporting minister in the diocese of St Albans and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster, agreed that this World Cup poses “difficult ethical issues”. He, too, felt none of the usual pre-tournament excitement.
He defended churches, however, that decide to engage with the tournament. “I think for the Church to ignore it would seem odd,” he said on Friday. They should engage with it “with care, pointing out the real reservations about the tournament”.
He referred to a campaign by the anti-persecution charity Open Doors to draw attention to the treatment of Christians in seven countries represented at the tournament: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico, Cameroon, and Qatar itself.
On Monday morning, Bishop North defended the right to criticise the tournament, after a speech on Saturday in which the President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, accused Qatar’s critics of hypocrisy.
Speaking on Thought for the Day on Radio 4, Bishop North said that this was “a line of thinking that is used frequently in contemporary discourse . . . that if your own life, or the life of the institution you represent, is in any way flawed, then you should not criticise the actions of others.”
But Bishop North said that, by this logic, nobody would be able to speak out against injustice, “for who can honestly say their lives are blameless?” Instead, “where there has been the humility to confront and amend those errors, then that gives the authority to speak out”.
In a Q&A published on the Church of England website last week, the UK’s national director for sports chaplaincy, Matt Baker, observed that “people are not so excited in the build-up to this World Cup as they would be normally.”
While agreeing with this description of the national mood, Mr Crumpler suggested that this might change if England do well.
Bishop North said that, were England knocked-out in the early stages, “I would not shed a single tear. Normally, I’d be up the wall with excitement about the World Cup, but I can’t be about this one.”
Englad’s World Cup campaign got off to a promising start on Monday, however, when they beat Iran 6-2. Two of the goals were scored by Bukayo Saka, who plays Arsenal and has spoken openly about his Christian faith (Features, 13 August 2021). England are due to play their second group match against the USA this evening.