At the end of last week there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the press and on social media about the relative importance of the final of the women’s football World Cup (which England lost to Spain 1–0) and church service times. Kaya Burgess at The Times posted a report under the headline:
Skip worship and pray for the Lionesses, says church
and quoted Libby Lane, the bishop of Derby, as saying:
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.
The reaction to these comments from many Christians and clergy was not warm. ‘Why do we have a bishop for sport?’ asked one. ‘I can’t wait to hear from the bishop for “Going to church on a Sunday”‘. After some pressure from C of E comms, Kaya changed the headline to:
You can change Sunday worship plans to cheer on Lionesses, says Church
The story continued with four examples of people doing just that from a range of places around the UK.
I thought this story was fascinating, since there are multiple layers of issues wrapped up in it. The first and most obvious is the relationship of the church and its leaders to the media, and some basic issues of media training. Some of those commenting on the story leapt to Libby Lane’s defence, saying that the headline, and even the story as a whole, misrepresented what she said. But here’s the basic question about dealing with the media: why say something that is so easily ‘misrepresented’ (if that was what happened)? I have done quite a bit with the media, including appearing on both television and radio, locally and nationally, and I don’t think I have ever once been misrepresented in this way.
Part of engaging well with media of any sort is anticipating the ‘elephant traps’ into which they want you to fall, and speaking in a way which prevents that happening. I noticed that Kaya Burgess was quoting from a ‘statement’, and had not conducted an interview—so there is even more reason to get this statement right. I suppose the statement could have been made as guidance for diocesan clergy (but why would you do that?), though she is quoted in her capacity as ‘bishop for sport’ (why do we have one?!). Whenever the question of football comes up, my go-to comment is that the number of Christians in a church on any Sunday morning far, far outnumbers those attending football matches at every level combined that weekend. Whenever I say that, those interviewing me practically fall off their chairs in disbelief.
Here are the sums: C of E regular attendance is around 850,000, and (according to the work of Peter Brierley) this represents less than a quarter of all attendance, which would then be at least 3.4 million, or around 6% or the population. Research from the Bible Society tells us that weekly attendance is around 7%, and those attending at least monthly is likely around 10% of the population. During football season match days, total attendance at matches of the first four divisions is 720,000. In 2020/21, a record breaking 26.8m people or 40% of the population watched a live Premier League match at some point during the year—which is still lower than the 27.5 million identifying as ‘Christian’ in the latest ONS survey of religion. So the Christian faith is still far more popular, in terms of commitment and affiliation, than football!
So a great strategy for any bishop talking about football would be to say that ‘Since involvement in church is more important to people than football, perhaps the match should be rescheduled to fit around church services’. That would make an interesting headline! Or what about saying, as one friend of mine suggested: ‘Church going is a privilege and joy and we get to meet with God when we worship together.’
But it does raise the question of why say anything at all? Why did the Archbishop of York feel the need to publish a video wishing the Lionesses ‘good luck’? What is the point? Why say anything if you cannot say more than this? Bishop Lindsay Urwin noted:
The tendency to need to say something on everything has been around a while. I remember a media course I was sent on for new bishops. It must have been early 1994. We were told that we must be ready to give a 45 second comment on anything. Much as I love the sound of my own voice, even I suggested that such a policy was probably a bad idea.
Surely the point of commenting at all is to challenge some lazy preconceptions, say something intriguing, and (heaven forbid) perhaps even talk about Jesus, faith, and discipleship! But saying something anodyne, which has more than a whiff of wanting to sound popular and conformist, just sounds rather needy.
Part of the dynamic here involves some strange assumptions about both bishops and football. The assumption around bishops is that they speak for the whole church, which they clearly do not. I have no idea why Libby Lane felt able to pronounce ‘from the Church of England’s point of view.’ Unless she was citing canon law, or something else that has been widely agreed, I don’t see how she can do this.
Even in the Church Times, there appears to be a consistent assumption either that bishops speak for the Church, or that people in the Church of England are just waiting with bated breath for their bishops to pronounce on something before they know what to think or do. Hence the headline on this issue: ‘Other service times are available, Bishop tells fans worried about World Cup clash.’ Gosh, what would we all have done without this helpful clarifying statement?!
One of the current challenges for the Church of England is precisely the opposite: the views of bishops often do not line up at all with the views of either clergy or members of the C of E. As one cleric commented on this pronouncement by Libby Lane:
I find myself increasingly conscious of a widening spiritual chasm between myself and many of my fellow CofE clergy, bishops far-from-immune. Often it feels like we’re not even trying to do the same job.
And this sense of disconnect applies to large sections outside the C of E too, as Niall Gooch comments on UnHerd:
Consider Christian leaders’ public political stances: anti-Brexit, pro-action on climate change, “anti-racist”, sceptical of border control, liberal on crime and punishment, and so on. Regardless of where you stand on these matters, it is hard to deny that, to the outsider, the churches’ political views look a lot like standard soft-Left politics laundered through the language and aesthetics of Christianity.
The faith often seems to have embraced a new mode of bourgeois respectability — not the old-fashioned kind, which was focused on keeping up appearances around dress and sexual propriety and social standing, but a new iteration, where correct political positions are the key to appearing Good. No wonder then if this all appears unattractive to those mystified or bored by the current preoccupations of the bourgeoisie.
What is even more galling for the 75% or 80% of Christians who attend churches other than the C of E is that, not only are bishops assumed to speak for Anglican clergy and congregations, C of E bishops are assumed to speak for all Christians! Perhaps we need a little more education of journalists about what is really happening in churches in the UK.
The other odd thing is the media assumption of uniform interest in football, and adulation of footballing stars. There was a time when this was, in a much more obvious sense, our national sport. After all, more than half the population tuned in to watch the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, even though you could only see it in black and white. But there are many more things to be interested in now, and interest in sport has suffered the same fragmentation as other features of our national life. So it should be no surprise that an average of only 4.6m tuned in to the Lionesses semi-final victory against Australia. The claimed uniformity of interest is media hype—or bias.
This then leads us to the issue at the heart of this discussion: does Christian discipleship make demands of us, and should weekly attendance at gathered worship in our local faith communities take priority over other interests? My favourite comment on this came from someone in quite a different ‘tradition’ from me, but made the point eloquently:
Our principal act of worship takes place at 10.30am…For those wishing to watch the match without turning down the lavish invitation the Lord makes to share communion at his table, there’ll also be a celebration of the Holy Communion at 8am lasting around 45 minutes. All are welcome, and there’s no charge to enter. And we’ll warmly cheer on England in the World Cup Final once our obligations to the bread of life and the cup of salvation are honoured.
As Niall Gooch notes:
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at these stories, but there is perhaps a serious point to be made about how British Christianity—not just the Church of England—so often appears to be apologising for making any demands at all on its adherents.
In fact, the statement about Sunday worship on the C of E website is rather good, and it includes this quotation from William Temple:
The fundamental business of life is worship. At the root of all your being, your intellectual studies, the games you play, whatever it is, the impulse to do them well is and ought to be understood as being an impulse towards God, the source of all that is excellent. All life ought to be worship; and we know quite well there is no chance it will be worship unless we have times when we have worship and nothing else.
Perhaps it is telling that this statement comes from a previous age. By contrast, the impression given by Libby Lane’s comments was that gathering for worship with other Christians on a Sunday was an optional extra.
Even a cursory glance at the gospels makes it clear that Jesus was unafraid to make demands of those who would follow him. Matthew gathers together some of his most challenging statements in Matt 8.18–22, but in fact they are threaded all through the gospel, from start to finish.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7.13–14).
His invitation is sometimes quoted as telling us that ‘my yoke is easy’ (Matt 11.29) but the word here is χρηστός, which has the sense of kind, the yoke put on an animal by a kind master, enabling the animal to work well and effectively. It is a yoke that does not chaff as we go about the hard work of being a disciple of Jesus.
We don’t want to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of those who are on the fringes of faith, or wanting to explore, or who are at critical junctures in their transition in both life and faith. That is why it is sensible to have a flexible approach to ensure, for example, that teenagers with sports interests are still able to be part of Christian fellowship as they grow in faith. And Jesus never tells us that we must ‘come to church’ at a particular time!
But in terms of our missional engagement, it seems to me (both locally and nationally) that those churches which are clear and honest about the serious demands of faith are the ones that are growing. I wonder when the Church of England’s communications strategy will catch up?
There are two other interesting issues which need exploring, but which I don’t have space to deal with at length here.
The first is the quasi-religious function of sport in Western cultures.
The second is the value of a missional pragmatism which can turn these moments into an invitational event. Here is an interesting comment made online in response to the article:
We moved our service time back to our normal 10:30am (normally 11am in the summer) slot and did an all age communion service based on Zaccheaus. We then continued our worship with fellowship, food and watching the football. I’d love to see more discussion shaped by the truth that true worship is 24/7 and how our gatherings and services are not all that worship is.
We had 15 guests come to our service specifically because it was continuing into food and football. We had a number of church folk bring friends/family along at a rate greater than normal. We had a good time. I’m struck in Acts by the many different ways the church gathered. The hospitality and fun they enjoyed. I’m aware too of the linking by Paul in his letters to sports events and culture in a way that implies personal engagement. As a pastor I’m constantly fighting people have a spiritual/secular divide in their lives.
Plenty of food for thought here—but note how different this is from giving the impression that gathered worship of the people of God is optional or less important than football.
Second additional note
Tom Watts asked ChatGPT to compose a statement. I thought the result was too good not to post.
Statement from Bishop [Name], Church of England:
“While the World Cup final is undoubtedly an event that captivates people’s attention worldwide, the Church of England places its primary focus on the spiritual well-being and worship of its congregants. We understand the excitement surrounding such global events, but our commitment to Sunday worship remains unwavering. Our worship services provide a sacred space for reflection, community, and connection with the divine.
We encourage our congregations to consider balancing their commitments, ensuring that both their spiritual growth and enjoyment of the World Cup can coexist harmoniously. While individual parishes may decide on adjusting service times within reasonable limits, we urge everyone to uphold the sanctity of our worship gatherings and the values they represent. Our doors remain open to all who seek solace, inspiration, and fellowship, regardless of external events.
In times of celebration and fervor, let us remember the importance of nurturing our faith and coming together in worship. May our actions reflect the values of unity, compassion, and respect for all aspects of life.”