Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 29th July 2012
29 July 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
No one living in or visiting London can be unaware that we are now hosting the Olympic Games. It is an event that is unlikely to happen again in this country for many years, the last one was over sixty years ago in 1948 and the one before that in 1908, so in all probability another set of games will not happen here in London in the life time of most people in this congregation. It therefore seemed to my colleague Canon Jane Hedges, who is in residence next month, and me, that for such a unique event for this country it might be appropriate to think about some of the issues relating to the Olympic Games in four Matins sermons from today and the following three weeks. And I want to raise our eyes above the disruption to traffic and travel, which so clearly irritates many Londoners, and to think rather about the Olympic ideals.
The present Olympic Committee says that the first of the ideals is excellence, some of the most gifted athletes and sportspeople in the world competing against one another to produce the excellence that leads to a medal. And that dimension of competition to reveal excellence is of course an essential element in all that is due to happen here in the next few weeks. But excellence does not automatically mean a medal, and perhaps we should put against the emphasis that will be on the tally of medals for each country a remark of no less a person than Baron Pierre de Coubertin, normally credited as the founder of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, who said that ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.’ That is probably a good corrective to have to what might otherwise become an obsession with medals.
But what about that fundamental matter of competition and how can we set that in the context of Christian Faith and belief in God. Clearly competition is necessary in a sporting context and it would be foolish to rail against it, but competition is normally contrasted with co-operation, and co-operation is a notion that probably has a more Christian ring to it. Of course effective co-operation is a critical part of the team sports in the Olympics, so it is not an absolute choice between the one and the other, but what can we make of the idealising of competition?
Well, let us recognise at the outset that competition can have its down sides and some manifestations of it in sport can be disturbing. I do not say that from any sort of position of moral superiority. The one sport I used to play quite a lot of when I was younger was not an Olympic sport but the old English activity of cricket, often for me played in the context of clergy cricket. And I have to say that when I think of the emotions raised in some of the clergy matches I have played in; ‘Christian’ wouldn’t have been the most obvious word to describe them.
For cricket is, after all, like all sport by its very nature, competitive, and where does competition feature in the notion of God? Well, much Christian talk about God as creator can be simply sentimental, the sort of stuff that can so easily come out at a primary school’s harvest festival, but in fact what God has created is something vastly more complex than simply a world where we can be fed from the fruits of the earth. It is, for example, a world where, through endeavour, hardships and disappointments can be overcome, it is a world where skills can be nurtured through advice and endless practice, it is a world where failure can either produce despondency or resolve, in a word it is a world where character can be formed. And if God be God then he is at the heart of that character-forming process, wanting to draw out from all people the full potential they have within themselves, and sport is a context for that as much as any other area of human activity. It is not just a question of character only being formed in the eternal battle between good and evil, although of course that is the anvil where some of the most impressive characteristics can be forged, but character can also be formed in the battle between good and good, in the case of cricket good batting and good bowling even, as anyone who has watched batsmen face some of the fastest bowlers in the world can see. Sport is a context for character formation, and to set that in the wider context of God’s creative purposes for the world is to see those creative purposes as more complex than they are sometimes presented as being in the church.
But what difference will it make to a sport to see it in that light? Of course sport is about more than character formation; it is about harnessing skills, developing them, and simple enjoyment as well. God-given skills, God-given development, and God-given enjoyment. But one area where that God-given nature of things might make us look at things differently is the place of pride.
Pride is sometimes considered a vice, and of course it can be, but there is also a proper pride in achievement. I still remember the glow of satisfaction I felt when batting against a slow bowler, hitting him for six and looking down the wicket to see him wearing an England sweater. It happened years ago and my satisfaction was only slightly dented by the knowledge that he was selected for England for his batting rather than for his bowling. But there is a proper satisfaction in achievement which might even be described as pride. So where is the transition between reasonable satisfaction and intolerable and offensive pride?
Obviously part of it is to do with public boasting, of which perhaps in a way I have just been guilty, but I suspect it is also something to do with the distinction between skill and application. The application of skills so that they find their greatest fulfilment, that is surely a source of proper satisfaction, but it will stop short of intolerable pride when we recognise that whatever skills we have are ultimately God-given. In the context of great sportsmen and women I venture to suggest that while the successful application of those skills is grounds for proper pleasure the skills themselves should be a cause for gratitude rather than for pride. If, before a successful sportsperson trumpeted successes they paused to thank God for the gifts he had given us in the first place I suspect that would make a difference to how they thought about ourselves. The Christian writer Harry Williams once wrote that being important isn’t funny at all, but thinking you are important is simply hilarious. Perhaps that can also be related to being good at sport.
So I believe we can look forward to the Olympics and the competition; we can certainly respect those who referee or umpire parts of the game as they seek to ensure that the competition is contained within the proper rules of the game, they have quite a task, but above all perhaps we can all rejoice in the world that God has made that can produce such excellence through competition. In fact putting everything in the context of thanking God can make a constructive difference to how we live all our lives, including our participation in or simple enjoyment of sporting excellence.