A lesson for liberal religion from the world of sport – a meditation for the year to come

Daniel Willems dances on the mud
Before I begin I want to say this I think it is important for liberal religion to be able to articulate a theology that keeps a place for some kind of instantaneous breaking in of grace but what I might mean by that will have to wait for another day. Today I want to concentrate on the other end of the theological spectrum, namely, the need for careful, disciplined preparation.

Throughout this Olympic year I've been wondering whether I can say anything useful about the relationship sport has with religion. The first obvious place to look, obvious for me at least, is St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians written sometime around the Easter of 55 AD. In it he famously said:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

It has long seemed to me St Paul was on to something very important here, namely, that there is a family relationship between religion and sport. But reading St Paul is to someone like me somewhat like listening to the Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds output - though it displays many moments of great genius every album contains within in it some, shall we say, less than great songs. To be sure those less than great songs often contain a wonderful melody or other moment but they never quite fully deliver the up their full promise. So, if I have a concern with Paul's words here it is that, instead of continuing to *look* at the relationship he noticed, St Paul slipped too easily into *thinking* about it and in so doing imposed upon it a rather narrow theory that people engage in religion and sport for simple, single, ultimate goals - in the case of religion a completed personal salvation or, in the case of sport, the winning of a laurel wreath or in our own times a gold medal. We all know that sport and religion are both about much, much more than this - a recognition summed up in the commonly accepted maxim that it's the taking part that counts.

Today I'd like to keep us looking at the relationship St Paul noticed by first of all recounting an everyday sport-related experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I was cycling back along the river from Waterbeach to Cambridge in the pouring rain and the path was, as you might imagine, very muddy at various points along the way. Suddenly, I felt my back wheel beginning to slip from under me. Now, since my early years I have been cycling - I even spent a spell involved in amateur time-trialing - and so, deep within me, is the embodied-knowledge that when you begin to feel your wheel slip on a muddy surface you must keep your speed up and not touch your brakes at all. If you do you *will* come off and take a tumble, but if you don’t, there’s a real chance you’ll stay upright. There's no guarantee of this of course, as my own recent fall reveals, but experience shows how one can turn the odds significantly in our favour.

The key thing to notice is that this embodied knowledge cannot be gained in an abstract, theoretical, once and for all fashion. You may initially hear the basic theory from an experienced cyclist in a once and for all fashion (analogous to, say a good sermon) but you only *get it into your body*, such that it become instinctual, through repeated experience - by skidding, breaking and falling off, skidding, breaking and falling off, skidding, breaking and falling off. One day your wheel will begin to slip and you find that you simply did not touch the breaks and that, lo, you remained upright and safely on your way. The simple fact to observe here is that learning how to do any kind of sport skillfully always requires from a person a long period of disciplined preparation and practice.

So what is the family resemblance with religion? Well, if you speak to any minister of religion they will tell you of the many hours that are spent dealing with some very difficult pastoral situations with many people who have no religious practice or who are not, or who no longer are, connected with any church and who have found themselves in some kind of crisis. One, all too common, reaction of such a person is anger because the minister or the church concerned cannot, in that moment, offer them up some kind of instantly satisfying answer and/or cure. So, when someone comes to me, or this church, as their wheel is slipping it is often too late for me to stop them falling. The best I and my colleagues can do is make their landing as soft as possible and then to help that person back into the saddle and begin a process of getting some kind of disciplined religious practice into their body. But that takes time and hard work - something not liked by all too many people.

Here we can return to the illustration of my wheel slipping in the mud. If you have never spent time embodying a religious practice then when the wheel that is your life starts to slip on the mud - i.e. there is a crisis in your life - most people do the equivalent of jamming on the brakes and there follows, as sure as day follows night, the inevitable unpleasant and painful crash. It may not come upon them instantly and it may never be obviously visible on the surface but the painful tumble will most assuredly occur.

One of the great powers of religion is found in the way it helps us embody practices which help us ride the bicycle that is our life in a skillful way so that, when our wheels slip (as they inevitably will) these practices will have planted deep within us effective responses that give us a fair chance to keep upright and on our way.

The academic Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster gave an excellent illustration of this on "Thought for the Day" on Boxing Day. She told the story of an old Jewish man who had lived a continent apart from his sister for many, many years. One day he received the news from his Rabbi that his sister had died. The Rabbi asked him how he felt. The man replied that, since he had had no contact with his sister during that time, he was fine, he didn't really know her or, or so he thought, feel close to her. However, when the Rabbi began to say with the man the traditional Jewish prayers of mourning, prayers which include the rending of garments, the man suddenly began to weep, expressing the deep feelings of affection and grief that he had forgotten he had.

With this release of emotion there also came, of course, the associated opening up of a space in which the man could not only come to terms with his loss but also begin to move on in a healthy, creative and wholesome way. This process was only made possible because the prayers he prayed with the Rabbi were one's which were deeply embodied by both them. The religious practice they shared was what enabled them to embody something that bears a family resemblance to not putting the brakes on when your wheel slips.

It is simply the case that within so many churches rooted in liberal Protestantism we have lost sight of this family relationship with sport and we no longer create fit, liberal bodies which can help us to go on skillfully and meaningfully in what remains a difficult and muddy world.

We have all too often made religion too much a matter of theoretical "right belief" (orthodoxy) and have forgotten about the pressing need for "right practice" (orthopraxy). We rely too much on the intellectual content of the sermon and not enough on the liturgy that supports it and gives it meaningful context and, because of this, we are today profoundly bad at getting our religion into our bodies. As a pastor to a liberal religious community I have to say that this is why so many of us are particularly vulnerable at those muddy moments in our lives when our wheels begin to slip. It is worth remembering that our forebears were not so disabled and that they most certainly were able to embody their radical, liberal faith in the world. Our situation is parlous but, I'm pleased to report, all is not yet lost for, as we heard from our General Assembly's Chief Officer, Derek McAuley (who worshipped with us last week), we are currently out (pun intended) in the world promoting the equalisation of marriage to include couples from the gay community.

Anyway, the repeated liturgy of our morning service with it's repeated opening words, Lord's Prayer, hymns, the prayers for the collection and after the address, the Prayer of Peace and the benediction, are all ways of getting something of the liberal religion of this church into your body. (Here's a link to today's order of service and the various repeated elements it contains.)

In the evening the repetition is even more obvious. Apart from the prayer in the middle and the candles of joy and concern we share with each other, the service, with its twenty-five minute mindfulness meditation in the middle, is exactly the same each week. It is a service explicitly designed to get something - essentially the message contained in St Paul's hymn to love found in 1 Corinthians 13 - deeply into your body. (Here's a link to the evening order of service and also the words for the mindfulness meditation it contains.)

In the prayer book I wrote with John Morgan there is yet another liturgy on offer. However, for those who do not find congenial the form our prayer-book takes I have to hand (and have used myself) half-a-dozen other prayer and meditation practices that I can put your way. (Here's a link to the prayer book. and also to John's other excellent book of daily devotions Awakening the Soul.) 

Lastly my support for Claire Henderson Davis' current project - one explicitly concerned about embodying our religious practice - is yet another example of this. (Here's a link to the poster advertising Claire's event.)

Even though all these practices are necessarily always open for critique and change (that is what this address is for as is the time of conversation which follows it and our Wednesday evening conversations) I hope and am confident that in this coming year we will continue to develop as a liberal church which recognises that the fruits of its religion are simply not available to anyone who does not get that same religion deeply into their body in some way or another.

Consequently, as we are about to start another new year, I would encourage each one of you, if you are not already doing it, to make some kind of New Year resolution to take up a regular, disciplined religious practice. As my colleague and co-author John Morgan wisely reminds us in his own book of daily devotions:

In the end, it won't matter how much you have but how much you have given. It won't matter how much you know, but rather how much you love. And it won't matter how much you profess to believe, but rather how deeply you live the few enduring truths you claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline. 


In the period of open conversation after the address our minister Emeritus, Frank Walker, reminded us of a relevant story concerning the great nineteenth century Unitarian James Martineau and the Catholic layman Baron Friedrich von Hügel.  Martineau apparently once told von Hügel about a visit he had made to Germany. During that visit he said that he spent some time with the cultured elite in Berlin and thoroughly enjoyed it. Their liberal ways of thinking were, to him, most congenial. Later on during his visit he went to stay in a rural part of Bavaria  There he was not among a cultural elite but common, everyday working folk. Martineau didn't enjoy this as much as his time in Berlin but he did say to von Hügel that when it came to dealing with the major events of life, such as death and dying, the rural Bavarians revealed not only a great resilience but also a deep embodied knowledge about how to proceed whereas those in Berlin were often at a complete loss when faced with the self-same issue.

For those interested in the general subject of embodied religion there is a new book from Cambridge University Press called The Physical Nature of Christian Life - Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church by Warren Brown and Brad Strawn.

A happy New Year to you all.