THE “joyous” England women’s football team were an “inspiration”, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, said on Friday — but he warned churches against moving service times to accommodate the final of the Women’s World Cup.
The match, between England and Spain, is due to kick-off on Sunday at 11 a.m. UK time — at which many church services will be taking place.
Bishop North, who is an avid football fan, told the Church Times that England, who are nicknamed the Lionesses, were a “very skilful side, but I think it’s their character that is so inspiring . . . the way they stick together and show such resilience.”
However, he wouldn’t be able to watch the match live as he was covering a parish service in Darwin on Sunday morning.
“It’s a slightly boring clash, but there’s way around it,” he said, citing the availability of BBC iPlayer, and alternative service times.
“Eight o’clock services will suddenly be busy around the country as people get their churchgoing in early,” he said; and he suggested that “priests should be encouraged to preach speedily on Sunday morning so people can get back in time for kick-off.”
Moving service times was potentially unwise, however, he said. “I think stability around service times is very important: in growing a church, people need to know when church is on.”
In a statement to the media, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, who is the C of E’s spokesperson on sport, said: “My congratulations to the Lionesses on their fantastic achievement, and I know lots of people will want to watch the match live. That is fine from the Church of England’s point of view.
“Others will prefer to go to church and avoid knowing the score until they can watch the match on catch-up, and that is fine, too. Church services happen at different times in different places, so people can choose one that is right for them.”
Bishop North said that the clash highlighted a “constant competition between Sunday sport and church”. He admitted that, were he a 12-year-old boy again, “given the choice between going to church and playing football, it’d be a tricky decision.
“We should live in a world in which a 12-year-old can do both, and that’s why a multi-congregational model is proving so helpful for so many churches,” he said. Services on a Sunday afternoon or evening, as well as mid-week, were proving valuable for church growth.
In spite of the concerns raised by Bishop North, a number of churches around the country are moving their services in order to make room for the football.
The Vicar of St Mary’s, Sunbury-on-Thames, the Revd Andrew Downes, wrote on social media that the church was planning on “shortening our main morning eucharist . . . and then live streaming the game with bacon rolls and fizz.”
And the Revd David Biggs, who is Priest-in-Charge of St Oswald’s, Sowerby, said: “Lots of our young people requested we watch the match, so we’ve moved the service half an hour earlier.” He added that the church had “invited in the community for a family-friendly space to worship then watch the game.”
Not all were in favour of making changes. The Priest-in-Charge of the Batley benefice in West Yorkshire, the Revd Jonathan Bish, wrote: “Church is more important, and even if some people do not come that Sunday, it sends a terrible signal if we act as though a sporting event is more significant that the worship of almighty God.
Mr Bish added that the problem was solved “if churches have more than one service on a Sunday”, suggesting that this was “a good argument for having more than just the 9:30/11 a.m. eucharist available.”
And the organist and master of choristers at Porstmouth Cathedral, Dr David Price, wrote: “Church is more important, and this question should not even be asked.
“What kind of message does this send to children whom some of us are trying to instil a sense of loyalty, commitment, and dedication. Thank goodness in this instance this is the school holidays.”