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U.K. churches shrink and football grows

United Kingdom | Religion & Society

THEY ALL ROSE AS ONE, in song, dance and adoration. Occasionally an individual would stand up, hands aloft in supplication, voice singing praises, mind lost in wonder and awe. At the third time of asking, all those in the collective were taken to new heights of hero-worship for the high priests, eleven of them in front, and a single moneyed one behind in a loftier seat.

The cathedral was a cavernous structure, one made to maximise the offerings on show, and to get the most out of the devout. We could have been forgiven for thinking we were at Sunday worship, but the cathedral was Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea, a top London club, the occasion a Champions League game, the day a chilly mid-week evening, and the gathering 41,000 football fans. I happened to be in that gathering, two weeks ago.

For me, the game was not particularly exciting – yes, it had plenty of goals, but the 5-0 scoreline was too one-sided. The thrill, therefore, was in observing the sheer fanaticism of it all. They engaged in communal singing, like in worship. On the night, the away fans chanted spiritedly like a visiting choir doing its best to lift the local congregation.  And lift the crowd, they did. We’d just been treated to somewhat comical crowd management – at the entrance to our stand (why do they call them stands in an all-seater?) was a bar pumping out beer by the litre one side and to the other a notice: “No Alcohol Beyond This Point.” I suppose fans could not carry beer on them, lest they spilt it on neighbours. But they carried the alcohol inside them, by guzzling a lot.

Britons worship football, and questions are being asked whether it is replacing divine faith. The statistics tell a story: 60 years ago over half of people in the UK would go to Church. Today, 15% go once a month, and less than 800,000 on any Sunday. In England, football attendance last weekend would have topped 900,000, not counting Scotland, Wales, or TV viewing. 

Time was when Britain led in Christianising the world, all while kick-starting the Industrial Revolution, scientific discovery, military prowess, literary excellence, Christian mission work, and giving the world the English language, capitalism, football, tennis, golf, rugby, and cricket. Today England exports Premier League football.

A Kenyan colleague related how, on a trip to China, they were being hassled at border control. Suddenly, a Chinese official spotted one of the Kenyans wearing an Arsenal shirt and quickly waved the group through. The mutual recognition came not from the Roman Catholic fingering of a crucifix with “Hail Marys”, nor the Islamic intoning of “salaam alaikum” or “Allah akbar”. No.  It was the red and white of a football club in far away London.

As English football grows, English churches shrink. In 1998 I took a walk in the Muswell Hill neighbourhood of North London with an elderly relative from Uganda. We branched off at a church, and were shocked to find that it was a watering-hole, the altar long having become the bar. The old man never stopped lamenting the sacrilegious audacity.

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