Rugby and religion have been two of my constant interests. In fact they have been, variously, my consuming passions.
I started playing rugby when I was eight and carried on until I was thirty-one. I first became interested in religion at school and think that I am still am. I couldn’t say for sure whether, over the span of my life, I have spent more time in churches or rugby clubs. Both rugby and religion have delighted me and left me feeling let down.
It’s rare that rugby and religion, or faith, share the same common ground, focusing on and seeking to referee the same issues. Over the last week or so they have, for both rugby and religion have been seeking to adjudicate on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality.’
At the end of a bitterly contested week the response of the rugby community, the global rugby community, and its’ leaders, has been both decisive and inclusive, the response of the religious community mediated through her leaders has been decisive yet exclusive.
I am, of course, referring to and comparing the way that the Australian (and possibly English) Rugby Union have dealt with homophobic statements by a leading player, with the justification by the church for excluding same-sex spouses from attending the Lambeth Conference.
Last week one of Australia’s leading players, Israel Folau, tweeted that for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” Sadly, it seems as though one of England’s leading players Billy Vunipola, who acknowledges that he likes ‘a few beers,’ has rushed to support Folau.
Folau, in particular, is pure box office. He has played for his country at both Rugby Union (on 74 occasions) and Rugby League. He has also been a professional Aussie Rules player. Australia, don’t forget, is one of those nations where football (association football) is a minority sport. Vunipola is a star of the English game, a key man for both club and country. England play well when Vunipola plays well.
The Australian Rugby Union have acted decisively by sacking Folau, whilst the Rugby Football Union have arranged to meet with Billy Vunipola. Both governing bodies are proud of the part that rugby has played in promoting LGBT equality.
Thirty years ago when I was a rugby playing church goer LGBT people would probably have felt ill at ease in both the rugby club and the church. Nowadays rugby prides itself on its inclusivity. Gareth Thomas, who captained both Wales and the British Lions, came out as gay whilst playing. He was fully supported by his friends, his union, and the rugby community at large. Nigel Owens, the openly gay referee, was the man with the whistle in the 2016 Word Cup Final. Nick Heath is a leading commentator. All of these, alongside many others, are welcomed as equals in rugby clubs up and down the land.
Are LGBT Christians welcomed in churches up and down the land? Are LGBT Christians (and non Christians for that matter) more likely to receive an unconditional welcome in a rugby club than a church?
Also last week the Archbishop of Canterbury talked of his pain at the ‘necessary’ decision that he, as the man in the middle with the whistle, had to take to exclude same-sex spouses from the Lambeth Conference. The justification for the decision was the requirement to secure the highest possible turnout. The quality of the conference, it seems, is to be determined by the quantity at the conference.
Apparent (pretend) unity and the appeasement of the conservative voice appear to be the driving impulses. In order to maximize numbers exclusion is deemed to be a painful necessity. Can this be right? What sources (because I can’t find any) would justify such a model of Christian Ethical Reasoning? But more importantly what further harm could the Archbishop’s decision inflict on countless others? Does the Archbishop not realize that he is legitimizing exclusion and discrimination at every level solely in order to achieve a high turn out at the Lambeth Conference?
The former Scotland international Scott Hastings, who has described himself as ‘a fellow rugby commentator and proud father of Corey Hastings and his husband Daniel Hastings’ last week wrote to endorse the views of Nick Heath who warned that Folau’s views could ’cause harm to hundreds of thousands of people.’
If Heath and Hastings are correct in their analysis of Folau’s views, then the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be troubled by his decision to override his prior commitment to ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the Church.’ If a well attended Lambeth Conference is our highest and most noble aspiration then the Church should be deeply concerned at the decision made by our man with the whistle.
Legitimizing homophobia should always run contrary to the values of the church (of England), especially since the Archbishops have called for a ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church.’ There is nothing radical or inclusive about the decision to exclude. There is also nothing necessary about the decision to exclude. But, there may well be something harmful and dangerous about the decision to exclude. If Heath and Hastings are correct then Archbishop Justin should for the greater good, the good that exists beyond the Lambeth Conference, revisit his decision.
Stuart Barnes, another rugby pundit, stated in his Sunday Times article that ‘the problem isn’t either man, it is the message.’ He doesn’t regard Folau or Vunipola as bad people but rather as people who have been badly schooled in and through the church. I can’t help but believe that Barnes, a self-confessed unbeliever, is correct, for the place where these two box office rugby stars learnt to discriminate was not the rugby club bar but the church pulpit. How tragic and sad is that?
For the long-term good of all the Archbishop should change the message rather than focusing on the numbers, for when all is said and done, so what if the Lambeth Conference is poorly attended? It’s the quality of the thing that counts not the numbers.
Rugby and religion have been my two consuming passions. Over the last week or so rugby’s global leaders seem to have shown far greater theological leadership than their churchy equivalents. How ironic that the rugby club can now be regarded as a place of radical new inclusion, whereas the church remains an exclusive club.
Please Archbishop Justin focus on the message and not the numbers.
‘Hundreds of thousands of people’ are depending on you, don’t let them down.