“THIS is chaos,” the commentator exclaimed.
Four men were grappling in a wrestling ring, leaping balletically from the ropes and slamming each other to the floor. Several times, it looked as if one was going to fall into the baptismal pool beside the ring, although the danger was deceptive — the chaos was carefully choreographed.
Later in the service, half a dozen men would be dunked into the pool, though not in a chokehold, but in the arms of the Revd Linda Maslen, the Leader of Fountains Church, Bradford, a city-centre resource church in the diocese of Leeds (News, 19 July 2019). Helping her was Gareth Thompson, founder of GT Ministries Pro Wrestling (GTM), an organisation that combines wrestling performances and training with evangelism.
This was the inaugural service, last Saturday, of Wrestling Church — a new monthly evening of worship, teaching, and wrestling in Fountains Church, run with GTM — in which the performance was integrated into an Easter service.
The climax of the wrestling portion was a “casket match”, in which fighters attempted to manoeuvre each other into an open chest beside the ring and close the lid. Mr Thompson contested the grudge match as Gareth Angel, his on-stage persona, clad in a pair of shimmering green trunks, and a black vest emblazoned “eat, pray, wrestle, repeat”.
After a series of plot twists, including betrayal by a Judas-like character, Angel’s nemesis, Jack Johnson, seemed to have triumphed when he closed the lid of the casket on Angel.
But then the coffin was found to be empty, and Angel reappeared — bathed in purple light and with an operatic backing track — in order to body-slam his way to glory.
GT MinistriesThe baptismal pool next to the wrestling ring in Fountains Church, Bradford
After the jubilant crowd had settled, Mr Thompson returned to the ring (in a change of clothes) to expand on the story to the audience-cum-congregation of 125.
Then it was the turn of the catechumens to take to the ring. There had originally been five candidates for baptism, but, on the night, a sixth man decided to take the plunge.
Most of those who were baptised on Saturday had first had contact with the church through the free meals offered at Fountains, and then started attending GTM performances held in the building.
“It sounded so off the scale that there had to be a little bit of God in there,” Ms Maslen said, describing her reaction when Mr Thompson first suggested holding wrestling events in the church.
Besides putting on performances, GTM runs a wrestling school in the church, open to all ages and genders. “It gives them some discipline; it talks to them about exercise, about eating correctly, about handling anger,” Ms Maslen said.
Trainees do not necessarily have to be fighters, but can learn how to be referees or commentators, or play other roles in the production. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or a Christian to take part, but, Ms Maslen, said: “Because Gareth and others are people of faith, that starts to shine through.
“It’s a gradual move of people getting to know us, beginning to see how Jesus impacts and influences us, and, from there, them moving into their own knowledge and love of Jesus.”
Ms Maslen herself has become a character in the storyline, with an ongoing feud with Jack Johnson. During a previous event, she entered the ring and slapped the antagonist. “I was surprised by the kudos I got,” she said. “It made me very approachable, and opened up so many different conversations.”
All the fighting is precisely choreographed. “There’s all these little tricks that give the impression of it being ten times more painful than it actually is,” said Mr Thompson, who has been wrestling for more than a decade.
Although the wrestling is perhaps more akin to theatre than to combat sport, some in the regular congregation at Fountains were concerned that the events might promote violence.
But Ms Maslen and Mr Thompson see the simulated fighting as a way to tell stories. Driving the project, Ms Maslen said, was an answer to the question: “What would church look like for a community that is really into wrestling?”
She sees the Wrestling Church crowd as a “new congregation”. “There’s a big heritage of wrestling in Bradford,” said Ms Maslen, who was born and grew up in the city.
GT MinistriesThe Revd Linda Maslen baptises one of the congregation at Wrestling Church
Mr Thompson agreed: “It’s always had its roots in the northern working class. . . And the community just love it. They love swinging their handbags and getting involved and, you know, cheering on the good guys and booing the baddies.”
The storytelling element of wrestling linked to its social engagement, Mr Thompson suggested. “A lot of people just want to get completely absorbed in something as mental as wrestling to forget about what’s going on at home, to forget about how they’re going to afford the next meal.”
He sees the societal benefits of wrestling as going hand in hand with the spiritual. During the service, when explaining the symbolism of the Easter story as it played out in the ring, he linked the forces of evil with social issues: “bad childhood circumstances, addiction, unemployment”.
Speaking on Monday, “a bit stiff” after his exertions in the ring, Mr Thompson — who previously worked for Christians Against Poverty — told me that he made those links because he could see people in the congregation who, he knew, had suffered from such issues. “I want them to know that God didn’t intend for them to go through that stuff.”
All six of the people baptised on Saturday were men in their thirties and forties, which, Mr Thompson said, was a demographic under-represented in the Church of England. There are women involved in Wrestling Church as well, and a crèche in the church makes it easier for families to attend.
One woman who attends the wrestling school had previously told Mr Thompson that, although she was a Christian, she found church “really difficult”. “At the wrestling events, it’s different: I feel like this is home now,” she told him. “I feel like this is my church.”
As Ms Maslen pointed out: “We’re probably the only church in the UK that has its own wrestling ring.”
The next Wrestling Church service will be held in Fountains Church, Bradford, in June, and will be live-streamed on the GTM YouTube channel.