Faith & Reason: Lord, which side should win the World Cup?

Football has as big a following as religion because both are equally absurd, argues Andrew Brown.

THERE has been hot competition for the post, but with only a year left for an outsider to pop up on the rails, I think we are in a position to name the most squirm-making prayer of the century, contributed to the Church Times by the Rector of Southover, the Reverend Peter Markby. "Lord, I wonder which side you want to win the World Cup? Is it the country that most needs the psychological boost of a win? Is it the team with most Christians in it? Perhaps it is the team that has worked hardest to develop their footballing gifts?"

On its own this would be a strong entry. The fact that he describes them as "very adult prayers" and suggests a competition for primary schools to come up with equivalents that children can understand absolutely guarantees him the prize. I had wanted to write a piece contrasting the way in which an interest in religion is taken to be superstitious nonsense, while an interest in football is held to be a sign of rationality: Mr Markby has ruined this plan, since he shows that it is perfectly possible to combine both forms of enthusiasm without deviating into any sort of adulthood.

But it is still extremely strange that when people babble on about God a little puddle of embarrassment forms all around them, whereas an interest in football is now the mark of an educated man. The process reached some kind of milestone this year when both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster excused themselves from a demo against Third World Debt in order to watch the Cup Final. The objection to this is not that it was sinful - who can doubt their capacity to absolve themselves for this, or even each other if they're feeling ecumenical, but that it's perfectly ridiculous.

The last outbreak of popular religiosity before the World Cup was the death of Diana, but there at least there was some sense that her life and passion, as both were mythologised, had some kind of moral or social message. People believed that she embodied interesting and important truths about being human. But football is a sort of celebrity for the masses. Just as some people are famous for being famous, football is popular for bring popular, significant for being significant.

Theology, at least sometimes, or in some lights, actually asks questions to which there might be interesting answers. I know this can be difficult to believe. For years I have known that when someone prefaces his remarks with "let us reflect on this theologically" he is going to abandon even the pretence of an obligation to make sense. But I do know two or three people to whom these strictures do not apply. It is impossible to imagine any question which might be answered by attendance at a football match. Perhaps it is like the Orthodox liturgy: what matters is that it should be celebrated every week and, so long as this happens, there is no need to ask what anything means. The noise, the company, the communal singing are all in obscure ways necessary to God.

Actually the link between Orthodoxy, football and theology goes deeper and further back than that. The last reasonably civilised state to pay as much attention to sport as we do was Byzantium, where the chariot racers in the Hippodrome were divided into two main teams, the blue and green. The whole city was divided into followers of one or the other, and regular riots attended the progress of the league. The two factions gradually became political tribes as well, thus acquiring even more excuses to massacre one another. Emperors had to back one or the other. Finally, since Byzantium was a state that took Christianity seriously, the blues and greens began to take sides in the great theological disputes of the day.

Under the emperor Justinian, the blues were identified with Monophytism, or the doctrine that Christ had only one nature; and the greens with the ultimately Orthodox viewpoint that he was both perfectly human and perfectly divine. Nothing could seem more arcane, yet the effects of these pursuits persist to this day. If the eastern provinces of the empire had not been oppressed for their Monophysite beliefs, they might not have welcomed the Islamic invaders as they did.

I suppose we're still a little better off than the Byzantines: at least the supporters of different football teams do not wander through London abusing each others' eucharistic doctrines. That only happens in Glasgow and to a lesser extend in Belfast too. Perhaps football does make a better religion than religion does, just because it is so utterly absurd.