Faith Matters

The refugees on my church’s cricket team

How we stopped seeing a destitute “them” and started seeing wicket keepers and off spinners.

I’ve spent more time playing sports in the church than I did as a university student. My seminary had a soccer team. We played other seminaries in Scotland. One year the feared Presbyterian team Faith Mission, largely made up of Northern Irish players, was paired with the Glasgow Roman Catholic seminary and withdrew for theological reasons—leaving our path to glory uninhibited. My first parish had a soccer team, too; the local boys’ club was famous for having produced a string of players for the national team, so it was never clear whether the soccer field or the sanctuary hosted the true local religion.

Church of England dioceses compete for the Church Times Cricket Cup, so for my first ten years or so in ministry I could be found among the callow curates, sneakily calculating how we could book a Monday afternoon and evening off to take on our fearsome rivals in the early rounds. (We never reached the later rounds.) I never determined whether it was best to think of this as appropriate clergy fellowship and healthy physical exercise—as opposed to keeping it a secret from those who be­lieved my life was laid down sacrificially in the cause of weekday pastoral care.

My best-known predecessor at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Dick Sheppard, came from an era when cricket was widely seen in England as the fourth C (along with Christianity, commerce, and civilization) that brought blessings to the empire and not just to the imperialists. A famous photo shows him donning cricket whites and pads and offering a forward defensive on a makeshift pitch in Trafalgar Square. So it was not a complete surprise when, shortly after I began as vicar, I received an invitation to join a St. Martin’s team. The competition had the same features that I recalled from diocesan days—regressive boyish indulgence, attempts at magnanimous sportsmanship, and a hearty visit to the pub afterward. It also provoked the same bewilderment, among more earnest congregation members, that this was considered a good use of the vicar’s time.