Message from Tim Hastie-Smith, 2 July 2024

Published: Tuesday July 2, 2024

The church has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with sport. Unable to deny the popularity and power of sport, it has tended to regard it as either a bit of a distraction from the important work of being a Christian, or a slightly trivial yet fun way of building bridges with those ‘outside’ the church.

And, in a way, this struggle with sport encapsulates the Church’s eternal challenge of embracing the full spectrum of humanity and helping us to be fully integrated, body, mind and spirit humans.

So, for some, the great summer of sport; Wimbledon, Euros, Cricket World Cup, Olympics, is a time of joy. For others misery. And in an increasingly binary and individualistic culture it can sometimes be hard to remember that the fact that I don’t personally like something, doesn’t necessarily make it bad or wrong! This makes the decision of the Bishop of Gloucester’s Council to fund a diocesan-wide children and youth focussed sports ministry that makes God’s love known through sport and activity and seeks to establish new forms of church in 2020, a particularly brave, thoughtful and humble one.

The initiative came to be called Sportily, it grew, not from the pressure of a particularly loud special interest group, but from the work and consultative reflections of the Diocesan LIFE (Leadership, Imagination, Faith, Engagement) vision, building on the work of Psalms, and the detailed consideration of Bishop’s Council.  And as Sportily emerged it did so, not by the relentless driving of a few enthusiasts, but through the constant, curious and creative questions of a diocese that does not pretend to have the answers but is willing to take Kingdom risks as it seeks to make the love of God tangible and transformative, that all might know fullness of life.

So, almost four years on, the curious questions continue to be wrestled with, and rigorous monitoring and evaluation are used to seek to understand that we are witnessing. At the basic level sport/activity is a human good, and by enhancing the wellbeing of those who might otherwise miss out: good is done. And since Sportily has been particularly active in some of the most needy communities in the diocese the good that has been done has been felt most keenly. At the same time there is exploration of how God is worshipped and honoured through the use of the body. ‘When I run, I please God’, says Eric Liddle in Chariots of Fire. So what does that mean for those who find traditional models of worship at odds with who they are? For those who find sitting quietly in a context that is listening and reading-based a challenge? Can God only be worshipped in liturgical ways? How is our body to be used to worship God? Are we really open to a church landscape of varied configurations? Or are we held captive by our own experience, and prevented from appreciating that other aspects of the landscape are equally valid and important.

The challenge is that as soon as one thing is praised, resourced or honoured, the knee jerk human reaction is so often (and embarrassingly), but what about me? Why are you neglecting the thing that I care about? You will recall the old social media meme. When I express a love of apples, I am abused by the pear lobby and the orange brigade and the strawberry club. If you invest in sports ministry you clearly hate the Book of Common Prayer, for example. This is the mindset of scarcity. There isn’t enough for all of us. Support of ‘this’, by implication, means neglect of ‘that’. It is certainly not a body of Christ mindset, where there is room for all, and variety and diversity are a strength, not a weakness.

And what about the belonging, believing, behaving model of faith engagement. Sports clubs and teams are about belonging.  The place of belonging becomes the place of faith, nurture and growth. What will this look like?

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons, so far, from Sportily, is that the places where the ministry is flourishing are the places where there is the closest relationship with the local parish church and where the prevailing mood is one of openness and trust and where there is no sense of being threatened. Also striking is the openness of schools, and local councils, and health and welfare professionals to the work of Sportily. Gratitude that the Church is stepping into a space where there is enormous need. Too often non Church organisations express surprise that the Church is interested in making a difference for non-church people. Sadly the Church is seen by many as a club, only interested in its own.

These are still early days but perhaps one measure of Sportily’s greatest impacts will be a new steam of Church leadership beginning to emerge that can help to play a part in church renewal. Christian leaders who don’t look like what we assume Christian leaders should be. (Jesus faced this problem constantly!) When will the ranks of those being ordained priest and deacon, include some from Sportily? Already the number of children and young people and families impacted by Sportily place it in a league of its own. Only time and continued humble learning will reveal its eternal impact.

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