Friday, 5 July 2013

Is Winning all that matters?

In sport, is winning all that matters? Two stories this week have raised this intriguing question. The first was the 10 year anniversary of Roman Abramovitch’s reign at Chelsea. His millions turned a fairly good to average Premiership side into one that won all the major trophies at some point over the past 10 years, even the Champions League through their perhaps lucky but certainly plucky displays in 2012. In a recent interview on Sky TV, Matthew Syed pointed out however that this success has been built on dirty money. Abramovitch’s fortune was made when he and a group of other oligarchs made a deal to support Boris Yeltsin in return for the cut-price acquisition of much of Russia’s mineral wealth. Resources that should have gone to support the people of Russia ended up in the hands of a few wealthy moguls. The discussion on Sky was intensely revealing. Syed raised significant moral questions, which seemed to baffle Sky’s usual pundits, who could only see the football success Abramovitch had brought. So what if he’s a crook – he wins trophies, and that is all that matters.
The other incident is Warren Gatland’s decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll. The argument used by Gatland is a) that BOD has not been at his best in this series and that other centres fit into his game plan better, and b) that there is no room for sentiment in sport – decisions have to be made with the head rather than the heart, there is no room for sentiment in sport, because after all, winning is all that matters.
On the first argument, the call must be marginal at best. True BOD made a bad pass at one stage in the last game, and fell foul of the officials’ interpretation of the breakdown in the first test, but other than that, he has more tackles than anyone else in the last game, has not missed a tackle in the series so far. There is far from a cast iron case that he needed to be dropped on rugby issues alone.
It is the second argument is the one that interests me though. Is there really no room for sentiment in sport? Is winning all that matters? If so, is it worth playing if you lose? Who wins if one side win with dishonour and the other loses with honour?  Do values such as teamwork, history, respect, camaraderie, sportsmanship really not matter one jot compared to winning? It was this attitude that led to Neil Back’s infamous cheat on Peter Stringer in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final or ‘Bloodgate’ when Dean Richard’s Harlequins tried to win with fake blood.
There surely is a place for sentiment in sport. Not an over-riding one, sure. If BOD had been not up to scratch, than fair enough, drop him, but with such fine margins, surely there is an argument that one of the greatest players in Lions history, one of the best over the past 15 years deserved one more shot at glory. To lead the Lions in what is probably his last international would have been a fitting way to end one of the great rugby careers. To deny him that chance, is surely an act of disrespect and dishonor in the name of the mantra that 'winning is all that matters'.
Sport is so much more than winning. It is worth playing in itself, as a celebration of our physicality, interdependence and joy in life. It is worth doing as well as we are able. Yet winning does not trump goodness, respect and fairness. This week has seen sport loo a bit grubby and less magnificent than it can be. I truly hope that Warren Gatland and Roman Abramovitvh are not the future of sport.  

Sunday, 26 May 2013

German Football - Recovering the Drama of Sport

German football is all the rage these days. The age of Spanish tiki-taki is over, supplanted by speed in turning defence into attack, direct running into space, the ball delivered into those spaces by deft flicks, backheels, outside-of-the-foot passes – football played at pace, great to watch, with skill and panache, executed by the young Turks (or Poles) of Dortmund, and most effectively by Bayern M√ľnich.  

I had the privilege of being at the Champions’ League Final on Saturday (and it was a privilege). What struck me was not just the style of football but the difference between German and English fan culture, and the reminder of what English football lacks these days. Despite having been to what must be over 400 football matches in my life, this was different.
Germans are famous for their organisation, and it seems to have been applied to their football as well as their industry – to BVB and FCB as well as to VW. I’ve been to a few Wembley finals: a play-off with Bristol City, Man United beating Villa in a League Cup & losing to Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League Final, and a few England games too. In each of those matches, the atmosphere was frankly a disappointment. Clubs have some fans who like to sing and others who don’t. Because clubs sell tickets to fans randomly, the ‘singers’ get scattered around the vast stadium. As a result hardly any songs get going, and those do are out of time and soon fall flat. In this game, the Bayern ‘Ultras’, the rowdy, but generally well-behaved singers were all deliberately grouped by the club on the top shelf behind the goal, making a heck of a racket. Borussia Dortmund had ensured the ‘Unity’ fan group were placed as a block behind the goal, the centre of the famous Dortmund ‘Gelbe Wand’. In front of the main singing group behind the goal were three ‘Vorsinger’ – fans in the ubiquitous yellow shirt who spent the entire game with their backs to the action, conducting the singing and co-ordinated gestures of the fans, alongside three drummers beating time to the fans. The Unity group in the centre was flanked by the ‘Jubos’ (Young Borussians) to their right, and another group to the left. Whatever the Vorsinger did, the Unity group did. What the Unity group did, the Jobos and the rest of the Dortmund fans soon joined in, in a rapidly spreading sequence. Within seconds of the Unity group starting to jump up and down, the entire Dortmund end, 30,000 people were bouncing up and down in a sight that made you fear for the stability of the stadium itself.
There were no anti-opposition songs. This is a surprise for any English football fan, where you expect a fair amount of abuse and taunting of the opposing club, or individual players (usually John Terry). Similarly, there were few songs about individual players on either side, just songs supporting the team. The songs continued virtually the whole game. United away games are the closest I have seen to this, but it is still pretty rare in English football, where interest wanes considerably throughout the game. I know this was the CL final, but this seems to be pretty standard in a lot of German football.
When the UEFA-sponsored pre-match entertainment was on, some choreographed ‘battle’ between a red army and a yellow one, with flags and plastic arrows involved, the Unity group turned their backs, disdaining to watch mere entertainment that was nothing to do with football.

The result was a quite remarkable atmosphere – by far the best of any Wembley or Premiership match I have ever been to. Why? A number of factors stand out:
Perhaps the main thing is that due to the famous German 50+1 rule, where the majority of the voting rights to Bundesliga clubs has to remain with the members (fans), the clubs are clubs belonging to their fans, not businesses owned by distant moguls offering entertainment to spectators. Hence the organisation – the clubs work with the fans to make sure the singers sit together, the more rowdy and boisterous are encouraged rather than distrusted. The equivalent of a ‘Unity’ group in an English club would most likely be given police escorts to the ground, dispersed around the stadium, and treated as criminal suspects (and not surprisingly they sometimes end up behaving like them).

Virtually the whole crowd stood.  The introduction of all-seater stadia has killed the atmosphere in most English football grounds. I remember a Bristol City away game at Leeds a few seasons ago, where all the City away fans stood for the first 20 minutes, resulting in a feisty, loud, enjoyable atmosphere. A few zealous stewards then insisted on us all sitting down, ejecting a few who resisted. The result? The singing stopped, the atmosphere died. Home crowds from the Emirates to Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge are pretty mute these days, which is why I much prefer away games to home ones – at least at away games it tends to be the harder core, usually standing, a smaller, concentrated group intent on making a noise.
Sitting to watch is what you do at the theatre, not a football match. At the theatre, you don't interrupt, jeer, shout or sing - you just shut up and watch. And maybe this is the clue to it all. Football matches are meant to be a different kind of drama in which the fans are not just the audience, but get to play a part as well as the players. They are not mere passive spectators, but active participants who make a difference to the outcome of the game and the sense of occasion. Modern football, where clubs have been turned into businesses (as chronicled in David Conn’s excellent Richer Than God) and fans into spectators has often lost this element of the drama, diminished what was once a much more raw, alive, bristling experience into a sanitised, sedated performance, in which the fans’ vital part in the drama is excised. It is like a Greek tragedy with the ‘Chorus’ omitted, Hamlet without Horatio, King Lear without Cordelia. Fans are meant to be part of the play, playing a vital role in the event, and the Germans have found a way to bring them back onto the stage.

The English often feel a bit superior to the Germans when it comes to football – after all we invented the game. But now maybe it’s time to sit (or stand?), listen & learn.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

What Christians do

We start and end each day with prayer
We teach our children to pray
We read the Scriptures daily
We publicly confess our failures to each other & to God weekly
We share bread & wine together when we meet
We meet together with our local community of fellow Christians 
We work hard, for God, not for our employers
We give away a proportion of our income, often 10% or more
We do not swear
We do not get drunk
We don't do drugs but experience the energy of the Holy Spirit
We remain faithful to our wives and husbands
We encourage those who are not married to stay celibate and develop deep friendships
We try to meet the needs of the poor as far as we are able
We support other Christians elsewhere in the world
We try to share our faith with whoever is willing to listen
We honour our dead with burial in hope of Resurrection
We try to be honest in all our dealings
We look for ways to love our neighbour as ourselves
We express our gratitude for our daily food each time we eat
We listen for God's voice to us each day

And that's just for starters....

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Why we need women Bishops: A complementarian case for female episcopacy

The debate on women Bishops often follows familiar tracks. On the one side there is the argument from equality or justice. Men and women are and should be equal; therefore they should have equal rights to posts within society and within the Church. There is therefore no reason why women should not be ordained bishops, as they can do the job just as well as men.

On the other side there is the complementarian case. This starts from the position that men and women are different and ‘complementary’ to each other. The argument is then often used to suggest that it is appropriate to reserve some roles for men and others for women. This usually ends up with denying the possibility of women being ordained bishops, or even priests or preachers.
Does complementarianism always lead to a denial of the validity of female church leadership? I want to argue that when you take complementarianism seriously (mind you, I don’t really like the term - I want to suggest another which I will come on to in a moment) it actually leads you to the conclusion that women bishops are, at least in our culture, right, proper, and necessary.

The biblical texts on the issue have been trawled over many times and so I don’t intend to do so here. It seems to me that we have to start from theological reference points, which the whole of Scripture give us rather than individual proof texts. The key ones seem to me those we find at the beginning of the Bible, which orientate us in all our thinking about gender:
Genesis 1.27: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ This is of course is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.

Genesis 2.22 – 24 ‘the man said this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh.’
These texts suggest that fundamental to our nature as human beings is the fact that we are created male and female. In other words, it is impossible to be human without being one or the other. There is no such thing as a genderless human being.[1] Humanity comprises both, and is in a sense incomplete without both. This leads to what I think is the central theological reference point, which is that men and women need each other. We are interdependent. I mentioned a moment ago that I am not very happy with the term ‘complementarian’. It seems a trifle weak and passive. I much prefer the term ‘interdependence’. A Christian anthropology tells us that we are not isolated individuals completely self-subsistent in our own autonomy (as post-Cartesian thought has taught us to think we are) but instead we need God and we need each other. And that latter idea is expressed most radically in our need for the ‘other’, across the central distinction which runs through the whole of humanity: that of gender.

This is confirmed in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11.11 -13, where Paul writes ‘in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, but all things come from God.In this passage, often referred to in the debate, Paul argues that, in the Genesis story, woman did indeed come from man, in that Adam was taken from Eve (as is stated in 1 Tim 2.13 – another key verse of contention), which might imply a certain priority to maleness. However, he also argues that subsequent to the original creation every man comes from a woman – his mother. In other words, there is no such thing as a man who has come into being without the help of woman, nor a woman who has come into being without the aid of a man. It is Paul’s way of making the point that men and women are interdependent. They cannot exist without each other, are incomplete without each other. They are drawn to each other. And there is something missing if there is any one gender in sight.
We sense this of course every now and again. One might enjoy a ‘boys night out’, or a ‘girls evening’, but most of us wouldn’t want that all the time. We all experience a certain fascination with the opposite sex. In other words, something remarkable happens when men and women come together. Men need women, and women need men, and this of course is not just about marriage. Single people also need proper friendships with the opposite sex and in a sense are incomplete without those good, healthy relationships. The other gender offers something which we cannot find within our own gender, and that expresses a fundamental theological truth: that we are not independent, but interdependent on that which is different from us.

Male and female do offer something different to one another. Now of course we instinctively feel that, but it is notoriously difficult to pin it down. Once we start to try to define male or female characteristics, we find ourselves quite quickly running into trouble. We might suggest that men are tough and women are gentle, men are rational and women are emotional, men are strong and women are weak. The minute we say those things however, we can think of all kinds of examples where it is the other way round. This kind of typecasting never quite works. The difference between men and women are real in that we sense and instinctively feel them, and yet they are undefinable and mysterious. Maybe it is important that we can’t define these differences or we would begin to define, limit and stereotype each other in terms of them. Persons would lose their individuality and uniqueness in a lazy pigeonholing of others. Of course that difference is expressed physically in the different shape of male and female bodies, but there is also something emotional and psychological that is hard to tie down but is there none the less. This is a point that Karl Barth insisted on strongly in his thought on gender, saying that trying to define this difference was to go beyond what revelation allows us to say.
This is an argument for mutuality in Christian ministry. Christian ministry needs both men and women. Now, cultural circumstances may have an impact. Jesus found a way of holding together the interdependence of men and women in his group of disciples in a very patriarchal society in the first century towns Roman Palestine. There was perhaps a certain scandal associated with female leadership and so different roles were found in the early churches to express the interdependence of male and female. In other cultures around the world today, it also might remain appropriate for men and women to play different and distinct roles.
However this is the important point: It is not that we in the 21st Century west have finally understood the equality of men and women, in  way that that those primitive people in the Bible didn’t quite get. As I see it, this is not fundamentally an issue about equality or justice, not least because Christian ministry is not about status (as if Bishops were the CEOs, the goal of every ecclesiastical career), but about service – it is about going lower, not higher. The issue is the need the Church for both male and female insights, wisdom, and contributions to Christian ministry. Women should be bishops not because they can do the same job as men, but because they can offer something different and equally valuable. The house of Bishops needs women and is impoverished without them. Of course the same would be true if we had an all-female house of Bishops as would be true of any all-male or all-female church, party, or group.

This is perhaps a new way of recasting the debate. Complementarian arguments are frequently used to justify denying episcopacy to women, but it seems to me that when they are taken seriously they actually lean in the opposite direction.
At the heart of Scripture we find this radical interdependence between men and women in the pre-fall created order and in therefore the Church. We need to find ways of expressing that in culturally appropriate forms. To ordain women as both priests and Bishops, alongside men seems to me absolutely the right thing to do in our culture, to express this mutual interdependence and to ensure the full rounded contribution of both genders to the church and its leadership. Although we like to think we are independent, men need women and women need men and the church needs both.

[1] Of course, there is the phenomenon of intersexuality, but this is the exception that proves the rule – intersex people live at the border of the distinction, but do not eliminate it.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Is Multi-Faith a Different Faith?

In Heathrow airport recently, I saw a small yellow sign, pointing to the 'Multi-Faith Chapel'. Having a little time until my flight left, I wandered in that general direction, round various corridors, through a 'Relaxation Area', with people lying on what looked like sun loungers (only there wasn't any sun), until I found the centre of religious life in the vast sea of humanity known as Terminal 4. It was a small, square, rather drab room with not much in it. A table in one corner held a number of books: various copies of the Qu'ran, some Islamic tracts, a scruffy copy of the New Testament in Polish, a Gideon Bible and a few other assorted religious texts. A small cabinet had some prayer mats, there was a sign telling you the direction of Mecca and a distinctly scratched table which looked like it had been bought from a car boot sale, with a laminated sign saying 'Table/Altar for Christian use' containing some copies of the Bible. The walls were bare except for a poster with symbols of all the major World religions on it - a cross, a crescent and the rest.

It was distinctly underwhelming. It had very little sense of 'holiness' or prayerfulness, such as you might find in a church, mosque or temple. It felt like a spare room upon which little attention had been spent. And more importantly, a room very few people would use.

I was recently told of a venture to build a large multi-faith centre in east London, and the more I heard of it, the more I wondered who on earth would ever use it. Christians go to churches, Muslims go to mosques, Jews go to synagogues and Sikhs go to Gudwaras. Who goes to a 'multi-faith centre'?

The multi-faith chapel or centre is not a church, nor a mosque, it is a temple to religious pluralism, which is a distinct religion all of its own. Religious pluralism is a product of the secularist domestication of religion.  The idea that Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. are all examples of the general species called 'religions' is only about 150 years old. In Christian theology it stemmed from the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher who, although a Christian himself, saw Christian faith as one example of an underlying thing called religion. Defining 'religion' is notoriously difficult due to the fact that they differ so much from each other. Some believe in one God (Islam, Judaism) some in a more complicated three-in-one God (Christianity), some in many gods (Hinduism), some in no God at all (some types of Buddhism). All are systems of contested belief, but so are Satanism, Atheism and Marxism. Come to think of it, why not add those to the multi-faith Chapel?

Religious pluralism asserts the similarly contested belief that there are such things as 'religions', which are all equally valid (or invalid) and can safely be put to one side (or a drab, unwanted room in the corner or an airport), while the real business of life goes on elsewhere. No wonder real Christians, Muslims and Jews feel faintly patronized.

It reminded me of the great complex of pagan temples at Baalbek in Syria, a supermarket of pagan pluralism where one could chose who to worship - Jupiter, Bacchus, Minerva or Hermes. Ancient Paganism was effectively pluralist, which is why such a complex could be built. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are not. They each make pretty uncompromising claims to be true. That doesn't mean they have to be at each others' throats - in fact religions on the whole get on pretty well in the UK - just ask most local vicars, rabbis or imams. A belief that God will reveal truth at the end of time, breeds a healthy reluctance to force faith on others, and to converse and sometimes convert by persuasion not by pressure.

Gilbert Meilaender, the German ethicist, writes of different religious communities: “Each should help his children and friends strive for virtue as we fashion our smaller communities of belief and seek to transmit the vision which inspires us... And perhaps out of such sectarianism will arise some smaller communities whose vision is so powerful and persuasive that new moral consensus will be achieved among us.” While adding the need for good friendship and conversation between religious communities, that seems to me a much more realistic approach to inter-faith relations, that respects the particularity of each one, than forcing each into a wider secularising agenda. Any religion worth its salt claims to be true, and so cannot agree with the pluralist agenda. Religious pluralism is not a compromise between different faiths, it is a different faith.

Christmas Message 2018 - God's Glory in human life

During Advent we have been reminded of the tension between waiting patiently for the coming of Christ, and the urgency of knowing that ‘the...