Lessons for the Church from the Olympics
Saturday 20th October 2012
The experience was on a national scale: the Olympics, both ‘warm-up’ and Paralympics, were experienced by many as ‘amazing, fantastic, unbelievable’. Competitors and crowd alike constantly described their experiences like this. Those were the ‘in’ words. Challenges went out to the sporting world especially that of football to take note. What could we all learn, the Church too?
On the final Saturday Ruth and I were in the Olympic park witnessing the finals of people playing blind football, high jumping with their one leg, racing round the track in wheelchairs, you name it. We did not see those swimming without arms. We did see how different people with very different abilities from different nations and faiths, from ‘GB’ and round the world were living joyously together. Isaiah would have cheered with delight at his prophecy being fulfilled. In their different way the ‘able-bodied’ Olympics had been just as extraordinary both in feats, highs, lows and endeavour, very much in the same spirit. 70,000 volunteers conveyed the sense that something very special was going on. Truly, these were wonderful events, seen in the flesh or on TV. I was deeply moved. Others, not usually avid sports-people, maybe you, found they were too. “Bliss was it in those days to be alive and to be young was very heaven”. People truly felt they were living abundantly.
What lesson might the churches learn from such national and personal experiences? What was this six week crescendo of spirit all about? These were experiences outside Church amongst common and uncommon, ordinary and extraordinary people united together doing their best in the present, competitors acknowledging others who in the recent and distant past had trained and supported them, crowds ecstatic and dejected over competitors, everyone sharing common humanity, integrating mind, body and spirit . For me it was in ordinary human terms about an inner sense of personal and community harmony and oneness, peaceful, exhilarating and passionate. In religious terms I’d even say it was for me an experience of the Spirit, even the Kingdom of God on earth. Heaven lies about us not only in our infancy. I think religious people should be bold and recognise and name it as such.
Where does the Church fit in? Christians and people of different faith contributed by volunteering, leafleting, chaplaincy and prayer. What further does the Church learn from this Olympic breadth and depth of experience?
‘The Olympic Mass’ at the church I attend was a valiant and enjoyable effort from Vicar Jeremy. More searchingly though, how does the Church (including the one I attend) display such warmth, acceptance, unity, exhilaration and satisfaction; such passion, harmony and Spirit? Many ways are attempted and achieved. Each to their own, we cannot all do or live everything. The church I attend does not have the tradition, say, of exuberant Caribbean worship. We have what we have. It has its choir and its wealth of church music, with its devoted members in person and family inspired for the last 34 years by its director of music. For some, that answers the question supremely. In this church we have recently the heart-warming setting of the pews imaginatively put into the round, in recognition of how crucial is the context for worship. A sense of uplift and harmony, of integration and profound reality is available.
However, what would really inspire me − and I am not alone − is additional: it is bold, authentic and open theology within church worship that would satisfy my mind and would offer me a harmonious and integrated experience, similar in part to the Olympics. Such experience I find hard to come by. Instead, I frequently find confusion and incoherence, tolerated usually without question. The Olympics made sense and ‘added up’ in a way our particular dominant theology does not. Take for example the Bible. In the present generation, readings are concluded with ‘This is the Word of the Lord’ rather than previous years ‘Here ends the lesson/reading’. Is the Bible really the word of God − all of it? Is not Jesus the Word of God for Christians? And Jesus himself is regularly spoken of as synonymous with God which I don’t think anyone really believes. Such loose language I notice in my own experience is also unhelpful to good inter-faith relations, particularly Christian and Muslim. Likewise the name ‘Son of God’ for Jesus, an honourable title taken for example by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus: its meaning is rarely questioned. Then take our two recent readings from Mark. Firstly, Mark 9:47 declares that we shall go to hell if our eye causes us to sin and we don’t pluck it out! Secondly, Mark 10:11 says ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her’. How absolutely imperative it is that such language be explained and assertions arising from the context of the first century are explained for our 21st century, avoiding puzzling children and damning adults! We don’t know how many people have quit the church as a result of such experiences, or in anticipation never come. In every case questions and opportunities for questions and explanation are essential along with respect for different interpretations.
The Spirit of God blows where it will. The Church should always be open to this Spirit to nurture integration and harmony of mind, body and spirit worthy of God and humanity. The two Olympics gave us a formidable lesson.
Richard Tetlow The Revd