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Religion and sport: a new normal

Religion and sport: a new normal

On a fairly regular basis we are contacted in the Sports Chaplaincy UK office by someone in the media who has discovered sports chaplaincy.

Whether this is radio, TV or print there is an interest in the fact that sport, particularly professional sport, for all its trappings of money, fame and sometimes idolatry has embedded in it a growing number of chaplains serving the players, staff and supporters. An inevitable question follows – why, in a ‘secular’ age, is sport chaplaincy in Britain seeing such growth?

At present 75% of football clubs in the top four divisions of English football have chaplains, more than 90% in the Scottish equivalents as well as a constant stream of appointments being made in rugby union and league where demand is outstripping supply. Furthermore, at the London Olympics of 2012 multi faith chaplaincy teams were in operation at venues in London, Eton Dorney and Weymouth. The question posed by those interviewing is of significance because this is all set against the backdrop of the 2011 census where the number of people with no religion had increased across all age groups from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.

There are three answers to this question. 

First, sports chaplains understand their role as being pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive. In other words, a chaplain is not there as an evangelist but to be present to care for and support individuals through the vicissitudes of life. This may be a member of staff facing bereavement or a family terminal illness, an athlete dealing with long term injury or approaching the end of his or her career or a young player coming to terms with the fact that they are not going to be offered a professional contract.

Second, professional sport by its very nature creates a highly competitive and charged atmosphere. There is an often unmet need for sportsmen and women to have someone to speak to in confidence who is independent from club or country. Chaplains are not funded by the club and not concerned with performance. They have a more holistic approach to a player’s life, relationships and wellbeing. For both these reasons, good sport chaplaincy is well received, and as athletes and staff with a positive experience move between clubs within a sport (and sometimes across sports) they often become advocates of sport chaplaincy, championing it for the first time in new environments.

Third, whilst pastoral care is appreciated by those of all faiths and none, the spiritual landscape within sports clubs has also shifted decisively in recent years, particularly in football.  Since the advent of the English Premier League in 1992 there have been a growing number of foreign players who have arrived in the UK with faith as a central tenet in their lives.  With a greater emphasis within football on equality and diversity, religious faith in its various forms is recognized as important in an individual’s life. Football is starting to acknowledge that such spiritual needs must be catered for. Earlier this season this was evidenced when the Charlton Athletic player Tal Ben Haim was allowed to miss a Championship match in order to observe Yom Kippur. Where appropriate chaplains have initiated the provision of space for religious observance, notably Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City, and several clubs now offer players and staff opportunities to pray or worship at different times during the week.  With a more open attitude to faith questions of a spiritual nature are more regularly asked by those who previously would not have seen any relevance to faith and thus a sports chaplain is well placed to support on that journey. 

Theologically, what shapes the service of primarily Christian chaplains in settings that are religiously plural?  Our pastoral and spiritual approach to ministry is grounded in a Christian biblical understanding of the incarnation. Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14 (“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood”) resonates, as does the apostle Paul’s time understanding and speaking to the prevailing culture in Athens in Acts 17.  In that way, the attitudes and practices of sports chaplains could be considered simply as a model for faithful Christian service in a plural religious context. At a recent training event for new sports chaplains one delegate (an ordained minister in the Church of England) reflected that the training offered to sports chaplains should be taught in all churches and not limited to a sporting context. For him, it demonstrated what it meant to live by faith beyond the four walls of a church building. 

Perhaps he is right and perhaps the interviewers’ question could be turned on its head. In some ways at least, sport reflects the prevailing social context – it is as multi-cultural & multi-faith as Britain as a whole. Why is it then that the ‘no religion’ box on a census gets more and more ticks, while the tide of secularism seems to be withdrawing in sport?  Could it be that churches and other religious institutions have failed to adapt to their social and religious contexts, and that chaplaincy represents a new normal for public faith?

Matt Baker is Pastoral Support Director in English Football for Sports Chaplaincy UK – a post supported by the Premier League, Professional Footballers' Association and the Football League – and club chaplain at Charlton Athletic Football Club

Image by John Martinez Pavliga from under the Creative Commons Licence

Posted 18 December 2014

Sport, Communities

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