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The double–edged assets of faith and sport for social cohesion

The double–edged assets of faith and sport for social cohesion

Both churches and sport are powerful agents for social cohesion but they are also dangerously fragile, writes Ben Ryan. 15/11/2019

Over the past year, as we’ve been travelling around England for our research on social cohesion, it has been impossible not to be struck by the very obvious fact that building strong communities is desperately hard work. Where it works it relies, more often than not, on the work of local organizations with a stake in their community, and in which that same community takes pride. When people talk about the groups that matter, they talk about the “heart and soul” of a place – something intrinsic, authentic and with an ineffable association and rootedness in the community.

The problem, simply put, is that there aren’t many of these about. Our research has focused particularly on the role of churches and faith groups in a context of civic breakdown and declining membership in community bodies. That story is not without its challenges, but on the whole has shown remarkable efforts in often difficult situations, as you can read in some of our other blogs on this project [1][2][3]. Yet it has also been striking to me the extent to which sport often plays a similar role, albeit one subject to different narratives, and in some ways one that is just as fragile. 

That sport can be compared to religion is a pretty thoroughly played out cliché. Fans become congregations sharing in a common performative ritual every weekend. Star players and managers become messiahs. Chants and songs take on a more ribald version of hymns and prayers. Stadiums become cathedrals (it would be churlish and immature to make a joke about Arsenal’s stadium being quieter than the average cathedral on a Saturday afternoon, so I won’t make it. At any rate, it’s actually very loud when they start booing their own players).

More to the point, beyond the level of cliché, sports clubs and churches share (or at least potentially share) those assets that policy makers, concerned with trying to forge stronger communities, most look for. First and foremost, both share a rootedness in their local community. They matter to people in a way that few other institutions do. If a club or a church closes, it isn’t just a loss of a place to go but an erosion of something of the character and soul of a community. When they act in their communities, the rootedness provides a sense of authenticity and organic character that differentiates it from schemes imposed from elsewhere.

They share too that rare ability to bond disparate groups. In fact churches, according to the 2015 Social Integration Commission were the best, and sporting events second best, among all bodies at acting as social melting pots. A recent story about racist abuse at a Haringey Borough football match that caused the team to walk off the pitch, and the responses from supporters, illustrated the extent to which clubs have often consciously come to see themselves as a rare agent of racial unity, symbolic of the diversity of places in which they are based. Not many other institutions (though churches are one) can claim the diversity of membership of a sports club.

Both also contribute (or certainly often contribute) something practical to their local areas. That may be in terms of community charitable activity, or simple economic clout. A glowing report from Ernst and Young credits the Premier League with a £3.3bn contribution in tax, a £7.6bn contribution to the UK’s GDP and 100,000 jobs. That’s about five times a bigger economic contribution to the UK than the steel industry, with three times as many jobs. Not bad for just 20 teams at the top of the pyramid. The same report credits it with significant social impact, including links with more than 15,000 primary schools and positive statements from various campaign groups including the LGBT campaign group Stonewall.

Faith groups cannot compete financially, in terms of direct contribution to the local economy, but by the estimates of the 2016 Cinnamon Faith Action Audit, faith groups provide £3 billion worth of support, across 210,000 social action projects, meeting 47 million beneficiaries.

Not everything is that rosy of course. To study social cohesion is to be struck that institutions that matter, and can lay claim to being the heart and soul of a community, can also by the same measure easily become problematic, and if they fail, devastating to those same communities.

On the first point, while the hypothetical football club or faith group might meet the criteria for being agents of integration, they often fall short of those ideals. In principle, for example, both share the ability to draw in broad demographics. In practice though, no one ought to be under any illusions that such identities and memberships can be just as divisive as they are uniting. Violence at football games has decreased markedly since the 1970s and 1980s, but no one should forget that football fandoms can be tribal and divisive as much as a source of unity. Different classes and races may happily intermingle on the terraces of Rangers’ Ibrox stadium in Glasgow, but that doesn’t change the fact that anti–Catholic sectarian chanting remains commonplace and fairly central to their identity as a club, just as anti–Semitic chanting is experienced far too often by Tottenham’s Jewish supporters, and homophobic chants by Brighton fans. 

Similarly, it is absolutely true that some churches have not always been easy agents of social cohesion. Faith can divide as well as unify, and while churches do more social action work in common with other faiths than ever before, of course there are dangers of sectarianism, and ongoing well–known fears over proselytism, homophobia and historic abuse scandals. Particular circumstances and histories can undermine social cohesion, and these scandals or problems are all the more devastating because such institutions actually matter to people – the sense of betrayal and collateral damage is bigger than in other institutions.

This too is why the fragility of these institutions ought to be so worrying. The struggles of declining membership of churches are well documented. A great many churches from different denominations have been forced to close, leaving holes in the fabric of local communities behind them (this does depend on the denomination in question, as overall from 2008 to 2013 the number of churches increased, but more than 800 Methodist and 300 Anglican churches closed according to one study). Given the vast wealth in the Premier League it is easy to think that sports clubs are a more durable and reliant agent for local communities. In fact, recent events have shown them to be anything but. Austerity cuts to local authorities led to thousands of grassroots football clubs closing between 2012 and 2015. In two of our case studies, Bury and Bolton, long–standing professional football clubs that have been pillars of the local community have been (and remain) in danger of being shut down, not for lack of local support or passion, but because of gross financial mismanagement. Two south London clubs, Millwall and Dulwich Hamlet (in the second and sixth tiers of the footballing pyramid respectively) have been in the press in recent years after property developers almost forced them from their stadiums so that they could be replaced by lucrative luxury flat developments instead. Only concerted community, political and media pressure prevented it in both cases.

This points to a final note on social cohesion. Policy makers are looking for local agents who can help forge communities. Faith groups and sports clubs can both serve that function, or they can undermine it. Last year’s documentary Sunderland Till I Die on Netflix featured the Catholic chaplain capturing the paradox exactly in a prayer, ‘Dear Lord, help Sunderland because the success of our football club leads to the prosperity of our city’. That is not simply an economic statement, but a statement of community – as these bodies flourish so do the communities. When they fail, the damage can be devastating. In both cases it is what makes them such powerful potential agents that also makes their fragility so dangerous. In societies in which collective institutions have diminished dramatically, the fragility and weakness of those groups that remain ought to be deeply worrying. This is all the more true when neither exist primarily for the purpose of building communities. To be sure, both can do so, and there are good reasons, theological, sociological, historic and simply capitalist, for them to contribute in some ways, but neither has as its ultimate purpose to build something for the local community. A football club does not, fundamentally, exist to help the people of Haringey confront racism, but to be a sports club, and to play football. A church does not exist, first and foremost, to run foodbanks, but as a worshipping community whose faith manifests itself in social action. This fact is often seemingly ignored by those who seek to simply instrumentalize faith groups or other institutions for their own purposes. It ought not to be, because if these groups are to continue to serve the purpose of policy makers, then both their fragility and their sense of purpose need to be taken far more into account.

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Image: Steve Daniels / St Matthew’s Church behind the Whitehouse Ground

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is deputy CEO and executive director for Engagement and Strategic Development at Medaille Trust, and formerly worked in policy for the CofE and as head of research at Theos.

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Posted 15 November 2019

Church, Social Cohesion, Sport


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