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/ 8 December 2016

What Can Church Learn From The Olympics?

The Revd Emma Smith, Associate Vicar at St Luke’s and Christ Church in Chelsea.

The Revd Emma Smith, Associate Vicar at St Luke’s and Christ Church in Chelsea, discusses how this year’s sporting highs have inspired people across society. She recalls the history of sport and the church, and what the parishes can do to reach people, for whom, physical activity is their main outlook on life.

The Olympics earlier this summer had people – like my family –glued to their televisions and devices, as the world’s media reported daily on the successes and failures of the strongest, fastest, most graceful and most powerful examples of humanity in their quest for perfection. Sport and religion have not always had the easiest of relationships, and yet both lie intertwined at the centre of our being, for as human creatures; we are both physical and spiritual beings, and Christ himself shared both with us.

Playing, watching, following or supporting sport is a source for many, of comfort, hope and excitement. A chaplain recently told me, that following first Wimbledon and then the Olympics on hospital ward televisions, it offered many seriously ill patients an inspiring means of rising above their own discomfort and anxiety, to share with admiration and sympathy in the joys and frustrations they were witnessing.

Sport draws people of different ages, backgrounds, experiences and nationalities together in shared interest and enthusiasm. Perhaps ironically, a radio interview following Wales’ successes in Euro 2016 claimed that in Wales, the supportive communities building up amongst football and rugby fans were in some places filling the gap left by the decline in religious practice.

The Bible is unusually silent on the subject of sport. St Paul uses several sporting images, from running, boxing and training, to convey his message. None of them tells us what he actually thought about sport; one assumes that (then as now) preachers cast about them for metaphors which would speak directly to their hearers, and (then as now), sport was a prime example to which most people could easily relate.

The lack of Biblical clarity has related in a swinging pendulum of Christian thought about public sports. The early Christian Roman emperors banned them for their close connections with pagan worship, and the Puritans frowned on them as frivolity which distracted from the goal of serious work and holy living. By contrast, the chivalry and honour of medieval tournaments, and the wholesome fair play and character-building of Victorian “muscular Christianity”, were seen as excellent examples of Christian living.

It has been fascinating this year to see visible signs of religious affiliation and practice amongst some of the Olympic athletes and to remember that for them, faith plays an important part.  Phrases have been reported such as, “God is the secret of my success”, or even, “Jesus is my doping!” The Church of England, too, has entered keenly into the excitement; the Church Times reported recently that the Archbishop of York had sent Adam Peaty a congratulatory tweet about his gold medal. The Diocese of London is, through the Sports Priority of Capital Vision 2020, linked with parachurch sports ministry organisations, who encourage churches to develop links through sport with their local community.

Here in Chelsea, we have been privileged once again to offer our support and hospitality to the Summer Kidz Sports Programme run by Epic. We have dropped in regularly to chat with children and leaders, and have heard that, as part of their impressive and wide-ranging programme, every morning begins with a compulsory sports or physical activity session. This builds teamwork, co-operation and self-worth as well as skill and fitness, and the group as a whole were a delight to visit.

Despite the Bible’s lack of explicit clarity and the Church’s historic uncertainty, it seems hard not to see sport as an integrated part of our incarnate humanity.  The sight of the Refugee team invited to participate and process at the Opening Ceremony was a vivid reminder of the way in which sporting events can go some small way towards healing the terrible suffering and divisions between us.

Yes, there are many things in the sporting world, from cheating to corruption, which shock and sadden us, but perhaps this is because sport represents a microcosm of human existence, with both the glories of creation and our fallen nature played out on the world stage. As we run our Christian race, there is much we can learn from the single-minded dedication and fair play we see in the athletes, sportsmen and women before us, as well as from their energy and joy in achieving their very best.

“This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14).

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