Keith Elliott at Large: Heavenly body provides divine service to sport: Wingfield Digby highlights the good work of crusading Christians as publicity grows after his sudden removal as England's vicar

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The Independent Online
IF Christians in Sport really does have a direct line to God, then He will tell me which of these buttons to press. I am standing outside the organisation's headquarters in an Oxford office block, but there are only three intercom bells that will open the automatic door and none has a spiritual ring.

Oxfam? Bupa? Neville Russell, chartered accountant? I plump for the first.

'First floor, in the accountant's office,' a disembodied voice says. So much for divine guidance. Are the faceless men already setting up heaven as the latest tax haven?

Fortunately, Christians in Sport is not as serious as its location. True, there are videos of I Corinthians, Expository Lectures, but the heavyweight stuff is swamped by all the sports films, from Denis Law and George Best to Seb Coe. A noticeboard in the middle office of CIS's three rooms bears a scribbled Post-It saying: 'A deepening experience - a mission where the evangelism is a complete waste of time, but the workers have a jolly good laugh.' Maybe this won't be an afternoon of Bible classes after all.

And it isn't. The Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby probably wrote that note. He also enjoys a pint, playing cricket on a Sunday and notoriety. Unofficial chaplain to the England cricket team for the past two years, he recently attracted back-page tabloid headlines such as 'Knickers to the Vicar' and 'Illy bans God'. The whole thing came as a complete surprise to him - 'I didn't know until the media told me' - but Ray Illingworth, mindful of his potential place in a Celestial XI, has since been on the phone, apologising for the publicity and assuring the co-director of Christians in Sport that he is still welcome in the changing-room.

On the principle that all publicity is good publicity the whole affair, apparently blown out of a chance remark, should continue the rise and rise of an organisation that Wingfield Digby has been running since 1984. But he is less sure. 'I hate the fact that I have become a cause celebre. We are very low-key and in the background, and I hope this will not affect what we are doing.'

So what are they up to? Well, CIS is a lot more than a divine recruitment agency for ethereal teams of superstars. While evangelism is on the hymnsheet, its main work is helping Christians who play sport at any level to enjoy what they are doing and not feel guilty about it. While sportspeople such as Kriss Akabusi, Bernhard Langer, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Gavin Peacock have 'come out' and publicly declared their faith, those playing at less exalted levels - particularly the young - find it less easy.

'It's as if there is something soft about being a Christian,' says Wingfield Digby, a former Oxford cricket Blue and captain of Dorset. 'But it can be very difficult, especially for the young, who are often ridiculed about it.'

This may be why the organisation has recruited Steve Connor, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears, to oversee its youth programme. Connor, who played alongside Refrigerator Perry, has slimmed down from his fighting weight of 270lb but he's still an awesome sight. You would do better teasing Nigel Benn's trainer Jimmy Tibbs about being a Christian.

Yes, they're everywhere, these Christians in Sport, from fishing to football, from canoeing to rugby. So how does Wingfield Digby reconcile the violence endemic in sports such as boxing and rugby to a turn-the-cheek ethic?

'Our official line is that we should play hard but within the rules,' he says. 'We hope that the Christian will have more self-control, and will flip less. But equally we understand that they are human, and will have failings.'

And does it work? CIS can certainly put up some impressive testimonials, from Alan Knott and Vic Marks to Richard Nerurkar and Cyrille Regis. In fact, 40 League clubs have chaplains and Leeds, the first club to do so, have had one since Don Revie's reign.

But the main thrust is to help those who chew their nails about whether they should play on a Sunday, or even whether sport is too worldly if you believe in God. (Jehovah's Witnesses think so. Next time they knock on your door, talking endlessly about Brian Lara may be the thing to keep them away for ever.) 'We try to help people make up their own minds. But Bernhard Langer wouldn't make much of a living if he didn't work on Sundays,' Wingfield Digby says.

Keith Elliott returns on 8 July

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