Back from holiday on Arran, we finished off with a night in Liverpool and the Liverpool vs Manchester City game at Anfield this afternoon. Holidays are disorientating. My mind goes all over the place. I managed to read four novels in the week, but spent most time playing with my two year old grandson whose speech grew enormously. You can almost see the synapses joining up in the brain as he puts language together with self-consciousness.
But, that's all incidental. My mind has been, as I said, all over the place. The novels – all by Patrick Gale – made me think about family, church, ethics, storytelling, humanity, God and other interesting stuff. But, it was someone else whose words teased my imagination and made me muse on church, football and leadership. I haven't had time yet to read the full text of Elisabeth Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the end of last week, but one paragraph near the beginning did grab my attention:
A great creative organisation is like any successful community; it's a place of honesty, integrity, and an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm. It's a place that demands personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination. It's a place where opportunity doesn't have to wait for a board meeting; a place that stimulates self-expression and encourages collaborative endeavour.
Here she is speaking about the culture of an independent creative media business. But, I wondered if the same could be said about the church – even if only thinking ideally. Even though people in the church are always complaining that if we were more like a business we would do things better, I also have experience of business and the rhetoric in business is not always matched by the reality.
But, whereas honesty and integrity should be fundamental to a church community, 'an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm' sounds strange. Yet – and I have often argued for this – curiosity is the 'key to the Kingdom' and something Jesus seemed always to be wanting to stimulate. If you don't believe me, just read the parables and use your imagination.
Perhaps if the church were characterised more by curiosity and enthusiasm (for its core purpose – as Murdoch seems to go on to suggest) it might become a more attractive and less intensely conflicted body. It might also bring into sharper relief the importance of 'personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination', understood theologically as the purposeful driving motivators of those who claim any sort of allegiance to the church. Purpose puts conflict in its rightful place – which is not at the forefront of every conversation.
Move on from this to Anfield this afternoon. I know: this is weird.
I am always deeply moved to see, hear and join in with over 50,000 people singing 'You'll never walk alone'. I grew up with it. I don't often get to see Liverpool play these days, but when I do I get choked as the music starts when the teams come out. Why?
I have sometimes heard it said that if church were more like a football match more people would come. There is a common purpose (but also a common enemy – the opposition); there is a communal anthem (but not everybody joins in); the participatory event lasts for a limited time and the rules are clear (but some people, having paid a fortune to be there, still behave like morons); there is a measurable outcome at the end. So far, so good.
But, there are also loads of people who couldn't run down the garden path who scream indignantly, offering their advice to the athletes on the pitch and criticising their competence, credibility, intelligence, fitness for the job and parenthood. I heard one woman say she was bored with the match – despite it being fast, creative, draining on the nerves and frequently exciting. In other words, perhaps the footie experience is a bit like church in that the 'worship' brings together a broad range of people around a single event, allows expression of a wide range of emotional responses to what is being witnessed, is necessarily participatory, involves a shed load of activity aimed at claiming allegiance and commitment (financial as well as time and emotion), and makes space for whiners, moaners, hypocrites, the hard-to-please and the self-righteously arrogant. As well, of course, as the gloriously optimistic, the blindly proud, the wonderfully realistic and the hopefully celebratory.
I'm not staking my life on this stuff. I just thought about it on the way back from Liverpool to Bradford. I love Liverpool, I love the media, I love business, and I really love the church. No illusions about any of them and loads of fantasies about all of them. But, ultimately, I just love the fact that all of them involve real people with real lives, real contradictions, real glories and real stories. And – this might sound a bit obvious – I love the fact that when thinking about the church particularly, I refer to a narrative that presents a warts-and-all picture of a broad community of real people whose curiosity has been teased and who, despite all the other stuff, can't help being grasped by the wonder of it all or the enthusiasm of purpose which it excites.
(And Liverpool should have taken all three points. Scrappy defending for Man City's first goal and a terrible back pass for their second allowed a draw. But, Liverpool's passing game is getting better – and I would be more optimistic for Liverpool's season than City's on the evidence of today's game.)