“We’re all doing church now!”
It seems that at the moment we are all ‘doing church’. I have been struck by the number of people with hobbies, interests, and activities, who during the lockdown talk about what they do as “their church”- and that they cannot wait to get back to it.
An example recently was with the BBC’s flagship film programme ‘(Mark) Kermode and (Simon) Mayo’s Film Review’ on Radio 5 Live and now on BBC 4 where they were lamenting not being able to go to the cinema – which they regard as “their church”. As a real film buff myself, I can sympathise with them, until the Cineworld, Odeon and Empire cinemas open up again.
However another ‘church’ recently re-opened and that was the return of live football, in Germany -their Bundesliga action similar to our Premier League started up this past weekend- and many, like myself, have felt quite deprived at not being able to go and support (or watch on TV) our team. I have always felt that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Football. Here’s why.
But first, a confession. From the age of 11 I have been supporting my local team (September 2021 will in fact be my 50th anniversary of first watching the club) -Charlton Athletic- you may not have heard of us but we are a South London club ( I was born in nearby Woolwich), we used to have the biggest ground in the country and we have won the FA Cup. In 1947. Apart from a number of glorious years in the Premier League, we have been, like now, struggling, and if the English Football League gets it way, we are likely to get relegated to League 1.
So, I have supported ‘The ‘Addicks’ (don’t ask!) through thick and thin (mostly thick) and been a Season Ticket holder there for over 30 years, and through that time I have noticed how similar the ritual of supporting your team and a game can have some parallels with going to Church and honouring the only Lord:
- You generally go to the same place at the same time on the same day each week- a ground rather than a church
- You have a form of liturgy in how you support or worship your side which you share with others believe as you do. Fans generally live in the same community -rather than a parish
- You usually wear something to show who you believe in- your colours rather than a cross
- You sing songs in praise of your team- chants rather than hymns
- You go to sometimes incredible lengths to support your team, including spending extraordinary amounts of your time and money to support them- money on season tickets rather than Giving, and time travelling there rather than volunteering
- You praise your team in an ecstatic state when you score or win something (not likely if you support Charlton)- hands up in the air if you score rather than in recognition of the Lord
Now I have to give a huge health warning here. As important as football and your own team is to you, you know that it is a false religion- your own team , believe it or not, is not the greatest, and despite what every fan will tell you, it is actually just a game, and as a Christian you should know that it is Jesus and not a mere football team who you should be truly devoted to.
That said, football is an incredible force. Take Charlton away from me, and I would probably be a different and a lesser person. I have had some of my most enjoyable experiences in life watching us play-I have hugged people I have never known, in celebration. I have ended up in parts of the country in places I never expected to go to, I have made and met life friends who I share nothing with other than the fact that we support the same team and are bonded together through that. The one thing you do not do as a football fan is change the team you support.
I remember going to a funeral some years ago. For over 20 years I have sat at our ground with Lucy and Hannah and their father Bernard. The sisters first sat there when they were probably 12 or 13 and have now matured into two wonderful women. Bernard died suddenly and apart from his lovely family one of his greatest loves was Charlton. At his funeral he had the Charlton flag on his coffin and the opening music to his service was our theme song ‘When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)’. That’s how much football can mean to communities and individuals.
There is another very important connection between Christianity and Football. A host of football clubs came into being through 19th century church Rectors, Ministers and Priests who believed in what became known as ‘Muscular Christianity’ i.e. to encourage healthy minds and health bodies- in short, to stop young boys getting into trouble.
For example, Everton football club were founded by St Domingo’s Methodist Church (there is still a church adjoining their Goodison Park ground). In London, Fulham FC were originally the Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC. Manchester City were formed as a result of a side put together by two Church Wardens at St Mark’s church in East Manchester who were trying to curb local gang violence. On the south coast, Southampton FC were originally St Mary’s Church, Southampton whilst in Scotland, Celtic FC was founded at St Mary’s Church Hall, Calston in Glasgow.
The challenge for Christians though is this: how do we get the hundreds of thousands of people-especially the men- who go to football each Saturday to come to Church to praise and worship with the same passion and the same exuberance as they do at Old Trafford, The Emirates, St James Park and yes The Valley (Charlton).