Own Goals and Open Goals

If the Church of England is to be compared to a football team then it includes a few star players, some who really don’t know what side they’re on and a few with an unfortunate inclination to score own goals. The no-doubt well-meaning individual who penned the unhappy document Making The Most Of The World Cup Final 18th Dec 2022 is clearly among the latter. With its memorable instruction that, with the Final at 3pm UK time ‘it may be best to avoid that day altogether and host a carol service on Saturday 17th instead’, it has, quite predictably and understandably, made the press for all the wrong reasons. It has given the impression that the Christian faith, which for two thousand years has out-fought, out-thought and out-lived empires, kingdoms, dictatorships and innumerable forms of anarchy, has finally met its match (pun intended) in football. Oh dear.

Let me offer some thoughts.

First, I think this memo reveals little faith in local church leaders. An organisation that once saw its role as giving the world the Word of God now seems to aspire to nothing more than producing memos for its employees. Church leaders with their fingers on the pulse of society – and there are many – have been considering what to do on the 18th for weeks, if not months. Speaking for myself, I’m preaching at two Christmas services on that day at my local church, Christchurch Chorleywood, and have entitled them ‘The Game of Life’! I think it’s pretty evident that those churches keen on reaching out don’t need to be told what to do; those churches that don’t care about reaching out are not going to bother anyway. We can really do without unnecessary guides, particularly when they give comfort to those who believe that the church is finished as an organisation.

Second, and far more seriously, it reveals a lack of faith in the gospel. I’ve always assumed that it was an essential element in both the Old and New Testaments that God’s people shouldn’t bow before the gods of the age (I can’t help but think there’s a commandment on this somewhere). Although this document talks about ‘making the most of the World Cup Final’ you can’t help but detect a view that, when opposed by the power of football, the church may as well not bother and make other arrangements for Sunday night. Is this really what our faith has now been reduced to? The message of Christmas squeezed out not by prosecution or persecution but by ninety minutes of entertainment? Sadly, I feel behind this document is some sort of shrivelled version of the gospel, which is a very long way from the Bible’s glorious message of a new relationship with God, forgiveness from the past, new life today and a hope for the future.

Finally, I think there’s a lack of engagement with the issues raised by this event. On the one hand the World Cup offers a challenge to the church. Football celebrates skill, intelligence and teamwork, and offers a hope of victory. And those who follow matches find excitement and a sense of involvement in a fraternity – a community – that takes them beyond themselves as mere individuals. These are all things that we should be producing in our Christian churches. Let me be blunt: is it any wonder that people seek fulfilment in football rather than in Christ?

Yet the World Cup demands a challenge from the church. This present monstrosity with its cost of 200 billion dollars and deaths amongst constructors that are to be measured in hundreds, if not thousands, demonstrates that football is frankly already too big for its boots. Years ago Bill Shankly rather gave the game away when he said revealingly, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ For many people football has become a religion. This is, of course, bad for them because, ultimately, football cannot answer any real need in life. Yet, and here I speak as a football lover, it is also bad for football as a sport. It’s an important theological rule that nothing destroys a good thing more quickly or more effectively than making it god. Enthroning something as religion, whether it’s sex or soccer, is a disaster. Indeed, there are many football fans and commentators who have felt that in this World Cup, big business and bling have rendered the ‘beautiful game’ unrecognisable.

Ultimately, I feel the need for something far more profound and challenging than this document. There’s always a temptation to believe that if the church follows the culture it will gain approval and acceptance. Here, as elsewhere, the reality is the opposite. The church that mimics culture will earn nothing but contempt. This World Cup offers the church the opportunity to be seen as something different, something that offers a brave new way of thinking and a far better hope. Let’s not be intimidated by the World Cup but instead let’s return the challenge in the best and boldest way. This World Cup offers the church an open goal – let’s not give away an own goal instead!

Written by: Revd Canon J.John

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