Football Crazy

Now that World Cup Fever is over, and the world’s football is safely back in the hands of a President whom most rational people suppose to be a crook, it is probably time to look back on the ecclesiastical side of this madness.

Let it be said, at the outset, that I am not, and have never been, a football enthusiast. I happily leave the rancorous partisanship and the need to be up at 3.00am to watch matches in far flung places (as I leave women priests) to those who like that sort of thing. But what was amazing in the run up to the recent farrago was the willing involvement of Lambeth Palace.

With regard to the Sunday of the Queen’s Jubilee (clerical recipients of the information pack on how this event might best be celebrated in the People’s Church, please note), when the ABC was due at a service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor to celebrate the event – the time of which service was certainly not changed to accommodate Sven Joran Eriksson – the Palace (Lambeth, that is) let it be known that changes of service times across the CofE had the approval of the Archbishop.

‘Worship comes first, of course, but this comes around only every four years, so we can afford to be flexible,’ said a spokesperson.

I (frail vessel that I am) was subsequently quoted in The Times (dear Ruth Gledhill was having a field day!) as saying that no one at St Stephen’s had approached me about a change of service time, and that even if they had I would have declined. Almost immediately I received a priggish email asking ‘If the majority of your congregation had asked for a change of time, would you still have said No?’ My and answer, of course, was that I would.

(What I did not tell my self-opinionated correspondent (or Ms Gedhill) was that the question was wholly hypothetical. The Sunday in question was not only the Queen’s Jubilee Celebration (we had a Parish Party the night before), but also the Sunday after Corpus Christi – when we always have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction at the end of Mass. It is a popular occasion: witness the fact that two young couples (regular worshippers all) had chosen this day for the baptism of their infants.)

My ‘adversary’, in The Times line-up, was a worthy evangelical from the Bradford diocese, who saw fit to appear in the accompanying photograph in an England football shirt and dog collar (one can only speculate about where he had left his anorak). Mr Hartley had taken the matter to heart.

‘His sermon will be titled “Make Jesus the centre-forward of your life”’, reported the delighted Ruth. ‘He has moved his usual Sunday morning service to Sunday afternoon and has written a hymn to the tune of Match of the Day. His hymn includes the lines: Before I met the Saviour Jesus / My life was full of holes / I couldn’t do the good I wanted / I couldn’t score the goals .The hymn does not – my mind at least – come up to the standards of John Mason Neale, nor the tune to those of JB Dykes. But to a congregation on a diet of Graham Kendrick, it probably passed muster.

(I will let you into a secret. At meetings of the editorial board of New Directions (largely unknown to our August Editrix) Frs Low, Kirk, Gardom, Hawes and Middleton, together with Messrs Richardson and O’Brien are given, from time to time, surreptitiously to circulating frivolous rhymes and ditties on issues of the day. Our Schoolmistress sometimes spots the subversion and confiscates the papers in question, in the interests of further concentration. But even Mrs Low would be bound to admit that they show a greater poetic ingenuity than the Revd John Hartley. And as an ex-Methodist, I can only venerate the extempore.)

I wish Mr Hartley well – he is obviously doing his best by his own lights. But what his change of service time – and the Lambeth Palace endorsement of it – clearly demonstrates is the loss, by the Church of England, of what can best be described as critical mass.

You can change the time of your main celebration on Sunday, on an ad hoc basis, only if you are not expecting a significant number of strangers, newcomers or irregular attenders. And it is only a rational tactic then if the discipline of your regular congregation is such that they will not avail themselves of other Masses at different times. (An RC commentator made that point eloquently in Ruth’s article)

The CofE is obviously now such an exclusive club that, on a parochial basis, it can easily notify all its members, in advance, of a change of schedule And it is clearly so doubtful of the loyalty of those regular members that a change of their schedule is out of the question. The Church of England knows where the loyalty of its members lies: obviously it lies elsewhere.

The paradox of all this is that this ‘cosy club’ attitude to Anglican belonging is being peddled by Lambeth Palace and others (including the curiously clad Mr Hartley) as a strategy for evangelization. Of course, it is nothing of the sort.

The tragedy of the CofE is that it has, for too long, been run by those who mistake capitulation for evangelization. For too long we have been led to suppose that those who are autodidactic adepts of the arcane vocabulary of the internal combustion engine are therefore naturally resistant to the speech registers of the Christian liturgy (on no evidence but our own lack of confidence; and our own inability to be equally fluent in both). For too long we have acquiesced in the notion that those who dance to the sounds of Ricky Martin or Robbie Williams cannot worship God to the sound of Palestrina or John Ireland (on no grounds other than our own superstition; and our own inability to enjoy them all). Worse still, we have preached diversity and acquiesced in uniformity – in a bland sub-cultural consensus that can save no one because it cannot interest anyone.

In short, if Anglicanism is to survive – and obviously there are doubts about the desirability of that – it needs to have the confidence to be itself and confidently to demand that others be so. The craven attitudes of some over the period of the Queen’s Jubilee and the World Cup simply demonstrated how few people in this Church believe that it has anything useful or definitive to say.

Are we surprised?