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.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not against football. Actually soccer is a God-given gift, and talent needs to be exercised, as the scriptures say. I even try a bit of footie myself. The problem, from my perspective, is the virtual substitution of faith with football. Incidentally at the airport, the gentleman in front of me at a sports shop (there I go again) saw a little boy and said: “My son is about this age. Can I have a Rooney shirt for him?” Inside me, I was screaming: “But do you want Wayne Rooney to be your boy’s role model? He’s a bit of a spoilt brat (and his team had conceded six goals that day); he is said to...” I thought it wiser to keep my counsel, my moralising, to myself.
All is not lost on the UK’s faith front. There are ministries like El Shaddai Christian Centre, pastored by a young Zambian, Ramson Mumba, in London’s Golder’s Green and various other locations around the country, that really pull crowds. Ugandan-born John Sentamu’s commission as Archbishop of York in the Church of England is energising. The Alpha ministry under the pastoral leadership of Nicky Gumbel has gone head-to-head with the negative trends, advertising on public transport, and using less moralistic approaches to share the essentials of the Gospel, and it is winning.
Back at Stamford Bridge, the visiting ‘choir’ is turning up a cacophonous noise. I will not be returning there, whether football continues to grow. But, like other believers, I can only be thankful that the Church in the UK is not like the England football team. Otherwise the manager would have been sacked long ago.