SERMON: Christian Cricket by Martin Thornton
From A Joyful Heart: Meditations for Lent
Apology is necessary to those who do not understand cricket, more especially perhaps to possible readers from across the Atlantic Ocean. I much enjoy the great American ballgames, their particular brands of football, ice hockey, and basketball. Golf, tennis, swimming, and athletics are thoroughly international, while Saint Paul’s askesis analogies are confined to running and boxing. Why not use one or other of these less esoteric games as analogy for the organization, function, individual-corporate interplay, and liturgical devotion of the Christian church? The answer is because, as illumination and insight into all this complicated theology, the cricket analogy is unique and unsurpassed.
There are many other illustrations and metaphors to explain the corporate aspect of the organic church; the body of Christ, the family of God, the household of faith. For less Biblically based analogies we may think of an orchestra, composed of many players and instruments forged into an harmonious whole. Or of a democratic government, a cabinet, with each member representing a particular department, yet all fitting into a ruling organism. The principle involved is always that membership of the church, in however humble a capacity, involves active participation and not spectatorship. A congregation is not an audience, nor is it a monochrome assembly line; it consists of woodlice not ants. It is the subtle interaction between unique individuality and corporate organism, between uniquely personal gifts and loyalty: every creature of God is unlike any other, and yet none can survive by itself. If we are not ants neither are we hares.
Reflection indicates that, given these foundation facts, only cricket will do. Any athletic/askesis analogy for the church has to center on a team game. Incidentally, where Saint Paul rather falls down is in his individualistic concern with running and boxing, but then he did not know about cricket. He more than makes up for the deficiency with the sublime illustration of the body of Christ. But what actually is a team game? It is one with creative interplay between individualism and corporate organism, satisfaction with personal skills and success and the good of the team as a whole.
Many so-called team games veer emphatically to one side or the other. We speak of club or national teams in athletics, swimming, tennis, and golf, but these are really questions of individual enterprise, one against one, with a team score added up at the end. On the other hand we speak of individual skills in football or hockey, yet any such individualism is mostly swamped by the total team effort.
Cricket restores both balances. Each member of the team has not only his personal place on the field of play but his own quite specific job; he is batsman or bowler, in-fielder or out-fielder, slip-fielder or wicket-keeper. And the bowlers and batsmen vary in style and technique; slow, fast, off-break, leg-break, righthand, lefthand, top-spin, or seamer. Batsmen are openers, middle order, defensive, or attacking. Yet the emphasis is still on the team; you can play gold without a team, you can play football with little individuality, but you cannot play cricket without both.
What does all this add up to in the sphere of practical liturgy? Lay-assistance at the Eucharist is more than a selected few being servers, lectors, or choir, and it is more than an intelligent following of the service in a wretched book. To play cricket one has to know the rules by heart without referring to the book every five minutes; deacons preparing for ordination to the priesthood are advised to learn the liturgy by heart, book or no book, and nowadays when all are assistant ministers that goes for everyone. Preparation for eucharistic worship becomes a quest for one’s proper part: are you a batsman or a bowler or a wicket-keeper? Are you a contemplative or is your discipleship centered on discursive mediation, or have you special intercessory gifts? Find out first, in everyday life and prayer, and consciously bring those gifts and attitudes into the church and lay them before the altar. Are you none of those things but a practical Martha? The church accountant, or the cleaner, or the churchyard keeper? Bellringer, evangelist, or pastor? Very well, bring all those things to the foot of the cross, for we are dealing with the team, including groundstaff, scorer, caterer, and secretary. All the practical chores are part of the eucharistic offering.
The analogy helps again. For it will not be a successful team on Sundays unless all its members prepare for and practice their particular personal contribution throughout the previous week: eucharistic preparation is not so much a personal penitential exercise on Saturday night as a putting of the whole of life into a eucharistic context. So there has to be prayerful net-practice, accepting one’s own skills, developing them and bringing it all to the match, to be placed at the disposal of the team. Preparation for public worship is private prayer.
We bring our gifts and graces but also our sins and frailties. We come to the altar naked, without pretense or apology. Everything is taken up by Christ onto the cross and into glory.
Elsewhere I have likened spiritual direction of individuals by a competent guide to coaching. Prayer is unlikely to develop satisfactorily according to attrait without assistance from another; not teaching, or learning, or understanding, still less commanding, but coaching — the development of personal God-given gifts and the eradication of faults and weaknesses, and sins. Seek such direction, not only, or primarily, for one’s own satisfaction, for one’s own spiritual progress, but for the benefit of the team. The opening batsman does not slog away at net-practice to improve his own average but to lay the foundation of a good score by the whole side.
In no other team game is individuality so conspicuous, both for good and bad, which points to some valuable teaching about aridity; the inevitable periods of spiritual dryness, dullness, boredom with prayer, general fed-upness. First and obviously, personal feelings in the daily exercise of the liturgical match are insignificant compared with the performance of the team. It is miserable to be out first ball, to have terrible bowling figures and to drop half a dozen catches. It is not much fun to feel spiritually dulled on a great festival, to let one’s mind wander off at all sorts of impious tangents, to get sick and tired of this particular setting and these particular hymns. But in both cases, never mind: “Play to win,” says Saint Paul in the New English Bible. So long as your team does well, why worry? It is a comforting thought for an unfortunate yet inevitable occasion.
All sportsmen come in and out of form. It is an inevitable consequence, but only in cricket are one’s out-of-form periods so painfully conspicuous. After a brilliant team move the forward at football can muff a simple finishing shot, and do the same thing again and again, but it is soon forgotten with sympathetic understanding. Not quite so with a batsman whose recent scores are 0, 5, 2, 0, 1. For there it all is on paper, in the scorebook and next day in print. All Christians suffer the equivalent aridity, of being prayerfully out of form. It is a wretched state, but one which a modicum of experience and maturity learns to cope with. Perhaps we should be more open with each other, with those in the same team, on such occasions? A sympathetic team seems to work better in cricket than it does in the local church, which is a pity.
There is a subtle distinction between being out of form, playing badly, and being slothful or cheating; the latter is sinful, the former is not. Yet thousands of faithful Christians worry themselves to distraction because of aridity. They feel that their prayer is feeble, their worship lukewarm, their oblation distracted, and probably it is. It is not sinful but part of the game. For most of us seven capital sins are enough. Let us not copy Ronald Knox in his light-hearted mood by trying to invent an eighth: praying badly.
There is a moral aspect nevertheless, cheating, sharp practice, intimidation; these are sins, so is positive sloth, letting the side down not by being out of form but by not trying, not pulling your weight. Such sloth can be a subtle thing, for it can extend outside the actual game to lack of practice, to a slackness in trying to overcome faults. If you are a bad fielder, always missing catches to dismiss the opposing batsman, you have a duty to the team to practice, to seek spiritual direction, to seek advice, to undergo coaching. To repeat, the necessary preparation for the Sunday service is daily prayer on weekdays; the duty of all members of the team, if it is really to be a team, is to find time and energy for net-practice. It is not sufficient to turn up for the match itself and hope for the best. Daily prayer, the constant struggle against sin, is no optional extra, no private concern but a responsibility to the team: consequently, cosmic-wise, to the world. Weak worship is not sin, but sin breeds weak worship, so it needs to be eradicated — because of the team. Anglicanism is very wise about sacramental confession, but it overdoes the subjective aspect; like Guinness, it is good for you. But it might become necessary to consider such glorious, joyous, lightsome discipline, for the sake of the team. Of course we are back again to athletic fasting: do not live so that you cannot chase the ball on the boundary, and it is bad for the team if you go in to bat half drunk.
It is so sad that modern cricket, especially the first-class variety, has succumbed to original sin according to Chesterton’s definition: the devil fell through taking himself too seriously. Cricket has fallen through thinking itself too important to be enjoyed as a game. But there was a time when unfair play in any context was described as “not cricket”: those were the days. Let it be hoped that this moral element will not be entirely lost.
Cricket, like Christianity, is also of social significance, which is not quite the same as being concerned with corporate organization. Or perhaps it is the more light-hearted aspect of that corporateness. Compared with most genuine team games, a cricket match takes a long time, always several hours, sometimes several days, but it embraces meals taken together, social meetings in the evening, and tour travels. I used proudly to poke fun at the typical American church complex, with its offices, kitchens, lecture-rooms, refectory, and lounge. It looked so like a plush club instead of a working church, its values and perspectives looked out of due order. But wisdom and experience have humbled me. The Episcopalians have got it right; the altar is in the middle of the church which in turn is central to the parish complex. those churches have properly extended into the lightsome element, like a cricket team on tour.
There appears a disturbing element. A cricket team is a team because it is restricted to eleven players, no more, no less, plus a few necessary helpers and administrators. Saint Benedict taught that the ideal liturgical congregation was about thirty; given more you go off and set up an altar elsewhere. This raises the problem of achieving true fellowship, organic koinonia with the sort of crowds a cathedral attracts. Should we not think again at the shallow Anglican idea that a good congregation is synonymous with the biggest possible crowd of sheep surrounded by a huge herd of goats. Parishes with a regular congregation of thirty do not know how lucky they are.
Finally, I wonder how many non-playing enthusiasts know what it feels like to go in to bat? To play for one’s team but strictly as an individual with total responsibility? On the one hand, here is a moment you have been waiting for, here is your chance to prove yourself, to play your innings with all the skill and enthusiasm at your disposal. On the other hand it is a terrifying experience; will you survive the first over, or the first ball? Doubtless the hardened international player of professional phlegm can carry the occasion off, but for lesser mortals it is not so comfortable. How better to describe the emotion than by the classic phrase of Dr. Rudolf Otto: Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the numinous experience which subtly combines fear with joy, comfort with terror in the presence of the Holy. Yes, you want to play your innings, you want to experience the presence of God, but it is very frightening.
Cornwall is renowned for its medieval churches, often small and remote, which nevertheless attract large numbers of tourists summer by summer. Most such churches display a visitors book, in which one is invited to sign, and these usually contain a column headed “Remarks.” With respect, the remarks or impressions are not very original: “Well kept,” “Beautiful,” “Quaint,” or more likely, “Peaceful.” I cannot but be reminded of Jacob at Bethel: “How fearsome is this place! This is no other than the house of God, this is the gate of Heaven.” “Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
So let us go into bat, let us go into the house of God to assist at the Eucharist. Let us enter with naked honesty, taking with us the Eucharist. Let us enter with naked honesty, taking with us all that we have on behalf of the team, our gifts and skills, our sins and frailties. Let us anticipate the joys of communion with God and the team, but not, please, entirely because it is all so beautiful, peaceful, and quaint. Let us also enter because it is fearful, awesome, frightening: Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Meanwhile I look forward to seeing, just once, in the remarks column of the visitors book of a remote little medieval gem, bedecked with Easter flowers: “How dreadful is this place. . . .”
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