We’ve been watching some of the Football World Cup qualifiers in the last few days, as well as the Autumn Nations series of Rugby Union. On Sunday we were with friends at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff watching an unconvincing Wales team beat Fiji, largely because Fiji were reduced to 14 for much of the game as a result of a red card, and down to 13 for 20 minutes because of two yellow cards.
Having said that, it’s always great fun watching them play, the crowd are amazing, and there were some standout moments. We felt drawn in to the occasion, cheering, singing and shouting until we were hoarse; smiling at the Fijian family behind us as they cheered for a Fiji try; standing up to see the action at the far end of the pitch, just out of our eyeline.
It got me thinking about Rugby, Football (Soccer) and Church, and a possible analogy between what kind of play is going on in sport (Set piece / Open play) and what kind of expression of worship is going on in a church service.
For example – a set piece could be a free kick, or a corner in soccer (or a minor set piece would be a goal kick or throw in). A set piece in Rugby is a scrum or a line out or a penalty. How you work with the set piece depends on where it is on the pitch, what stage of the game you’re at etc. Goals and Tries often come from set pieces. You admire the skill of the free kick taker as they propel the ball so that it loops into the penalty area, just out of reach of the goalie, for an attacker to launch themselves into the air and head the ball into the top corner of the goal.
But then there’s open play – the moment in a game of rugby when your heart is in your mouth as the ball spins from the scrum halve’s hands along the line to the centres, one of whom places a kick that will fly with pin point accuracy and be caught by the winger who dodges the defending players and touches down another try. There will be mistakes and loose balls; crunching tackles and sidesteps; rucks and mauls; (don’t ask me to explain) …. It can be exciting or it can be tedious, but always with the possibility of something surprising that will turn a game around.
In Church, a set piece could be a sermon or the communion prayer, with shorter set pieces being a reading or someone leading some prayers. You admire the way that the preacher takes a passage from scripture and draws from the text something beautiful, something that sums up in a few words what you recognise as exactly what you would say if you could. You watch the person presiding at the Holy Table, and see the way their words and actions go through the drama of salvation and include us in the story.
But I sense in the worship the possibility also of open play. Contributions that come from the interaction in the moment and from the participation and involvement of the congregation. The smile between two friends who haven’t seen one another for a few weeks; the exuberance of the child running around the outer ring of chairs, as if it’s a racetrack; The voice behind me as we sing the opening hymn, lifting the praise to a new level; the moment at the end of the service when someone tells us about their life between Sundays – we’ll be praying for them this week especially; the invitation from the preacher to respond to the reading from the Gospel with our own experiences, that earth everything into daily life. The tears of someone recently bereaved who in their vulnerability allow us also to open our lives to one another.
On a bad day, we leave disconnected, uninvolved, feeling that we were just spectators when we wanted to be more a part of things. But on a good day, the interplay between set piece and open play can seem almost magical and we leave inspired, uplifted, amazed; buzzing with the mysterious feeling that we have somehow been involved in the action ourselves, and been touched by a presence that defies logic and planning, and brings us back next week for more.