Almanack: With God in their squad

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The Independent Online
'KNICKERS to the Vicar]' brayed the tabloids. 'Close of Pray]' Never mind Brian Lara's knock: the end of the Rev A R Wingfield-Digby's career as chaplain to the England team was undoubtedly the cricket story of the week. But there was precious little discussion of the group he is paid by, Christians in Sport. Almanack contacted their HQ to find out what they get up to.

The evangelical organisation was founded 15 years ago by Wingfield-Digby, Cliff Richard and the tennis commentator Gerald Williams. But there is no Mr Big - at least, no mortal Mr Big - lurking in the background. CIS, whose six full-time staff are based in Oxford, is funded entirely by charitable donations. Its original aims included the appointment of chaplains at all football league clubs and the establishment of a national network of Christian sportspersons. Great progress has been achieved in both directions and CIS has further ambitions.

A recent internal Christians in Sport development report identifies five 'departments': High Profile; Student; Participant Athletes; Local Churches and Youth. It has always been an objective of the group to provide pastoral care for what it calls 'high-profile, top-level sportspeople'. This provides the celebrated shoulder to cry on, and access to religion for people whose lifestyle means that regular Sunday attendance at their local church is impossible.

Christians in Sport can now call on an impressive line-up of stars: as well as the cricketers who rallied to Wingfield-Digby's support last week, Kriss Akabusi, Bernhard Langer, Cyrille Regis, Gavin Peacock and Va'aiga Tuigamala have publicly thumped the tub for Christians in Sport.

Stuart Weir, Andrew Wingfield-Digby's co-director at CIS, explains how the organisation works. 'We have a mailing list of about 7,000 people now,' he says. 'But most of our work is done by volunteers - one who takes time off from the oil industry to travel with British athletes, a vicar who travels with the European golf tour, and so on. And hundreds of volunteers at local levels.'

Why does the group target high-profile sports stars? 'Well, I'll give you an example,' Stuart says. 'Kitrina Douglas, who's one of the top women professional golfers, said to me, 'because we play on Sunday, we can't get to church. You bring church to us.' ' Performers also need solace from the demands of fame. Gavin Peacock needed support when his goals against Manchester United and in the FA Cup semi-final transformed him into a celebrity. 'His whole season just exploded when he scored those goals,' Stuart recalls. 'The pressure was enormous - and that's something that we're concerned with. I helped him with his fan mail.'

In return, Christians in Sport gets role models committed to help them spread the word: in a sense, it's a great marketing ploy. 'That's obviously right,' Stuart concedes, 'but we believe that Christianity is true because it's true. It's no more true because a footballer happens to believe it.' Or a cricketer, come to that: so perhaps Raymond Illingworth's pugnacious behaviour doesn't count for much in the cosmic scheme of things.

(Photograph omitted)