Church and Sport

17th October 2015 Article – The Irish Times by Gordon Linney


Soon the rugby world championship will be decided and the winners will receive the Webb Ellis Cup, a trophy named after a pupil at Rugby School in Warwickshire who is associated with the origin of the game. The story goes that one day in 1823, William Webb Ellis lost patience with the kicking game of football, took the ball in his arms and ran towards the opposing touchline. In that moment the seed was sown and the game we know as rugby union came to be and the name Webb Ellis immortalised.

What is perhaps not so widely known is that in later life Webb Ellis was ordained and served in the Church of England, most notably as rector of St Clement Danes on London’s Strand, the church said to feature in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons(“say the bells of St Clements”).

Webb Ellis as a person is significant not only because he was someone for whom sport was important but also because his religious faith was even more important and he gave his adult life to it as a priest. In his day the churches were hugely involved in promoting sport. It is said for example that the famous Everton Football Club founded in 1878 has its origins in the local Methodist Church community which needed a winter sport to complement summer cricketing, a practical working out of Christian care for the whole person, body, mind and spirit.

Some years ago Graham Daniels, director of Christians in Sport (and a former team mate of David Moyes), spoke of the mockery he experienced at Cambridge United in the mid-1980s when he spoke publicly about his faith. “The culture in football was very macho: hard-drinking, hard-living hard men,” he says. “It was difficult. You would be perceived as weak, or a bit simple.” Wayne Rooney the Manchester United and England player has openly acknowledged his Christian faith but when asked about it at a press conference, one of the Football Association’s PR handlers stepped in with Alastair Campbell’s famous line: “We don’t do God”. What are they afraid of?

Sport is an important part of people’s lives and can be a positive influence on young people growing up but so too can religion properly understood, taught and lived. The notion that sport is everything, as some people seem to think, is profoundly mistaken because it can never equip us to deal with the deep questions about meaning and self-worth. Self-worth is hugely important especially for young people who so often are told by the advertising industry what they lack in terms of appearance and achievement. The Christian faith tells them of their unique worth and how special they are as individuals. Parents might consider which would be more important for their children in later life – knowing and understanding the Lord’s Prayer for example or the offside rules in soccer or rugby.

In her book On the Way Olive Wyon writes: “When a man ignores the ‘spiritual life’ it means that, however brilliant, well intentioned, decent, a man may be, he is really only half-alive; his life is incomplete, unfulfilled; for he has not found the clue to the meaning of life. He is unaware of the need for ‘wholeness’ or ‘integration’ which is felt by so many people, even without any reference to what they would call ‘religion’. It is our conviction as Christians that man was made for wholeness – that every part of his nature is so ordered that it cannot find fulfilment unless all is co-ordinated and integrated into a whole; this can only happen – even in a very general and imperfect way – as the whole personality is unified to serve one end: ‘Who keeps one end in view, makes all things serve.’ In other words; we have been created for God, and we are lost, empty and restless until we come to our senses and come home to our Father.”

Sport and the Church can compliment and respect each other. Both are important pillars of any community. If children and indeed adults can allow themselves to get in touch and understand from a spiritual end, this must and will help them handle the ups and downs of Sport and indeed the successes and failures of life itself. It helps to put life in perspective. It must be in the best interests of our children for our local clubs to introduce in a dignified and respectful way, a way for our Children to come in touch with their spiritual selves and to learn their own indididual self worth. Incidents of suicide are prevelant in our communities. Surely a Spiritual understanding, a meaning of Christianity, the value of meditation in a quiet church, the value of speaking in confidence to a member of the local clergy are all avenues that can help young and old to cope with heavy worries in the world we live today. Does this not make sense? Surely it does looking at our own individual parishes and people……