It’s time for the Euros. And for the first time three of four home nations, as well as the Republic of Ireland, have qualified for the tournament. Only Scotland haven’t made it through.
Fans will wear team or national colours, have their faces painted with the flag of the patron saint, and sing their national anthem. Modern sports have become an arena for the symbolic performance of national and regional identities. Symbols help to reinvigorate and reconstruct a national identity, through reference to historical events – real or imagined, central characters and key characteristics. For example, the myth of the Knights Templar – England’s crusading heroes and vanquishers of far-off others – will be brought to mind through symbolic dress. It doesn’t need to be true for it to be a useful tool to foment patriotic fervour. For me, this is a problem.
Is this what it really means to be English, or Welsh or Irish? The symbols of our identity are important, but aren’t they intended to be representative of something deeper, something more profound? What happens when the symbols take on a life of their own, and the meanings they once conveyed are lost?
This is arguably a part of the present identity confusion of the British nations. We know what the symbols are – that bit is easy – but we struggle to define what they mean. You could list several things symbolic of Wales, for example, but you might find it harder to define Welshness. There is a problem when the space between the symbols and their meanings opens up. Worst case scenario is that the meanings atrophy and die, while the symbols survive.
We’re not immune from this in the Church, either.
According to Peter (1 Peter 2:9), whether we are Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh, there is another nation of which we Christians are a part. It is a holy nation, a set apart and peculiar people. How should we ‘perform’ that national identity?
When we untether symbols from their meanings they begin to drift apart. It would be disastrous if all we had were the symbols of our faith, and no substance. Templar-style myths won’t do, heart-warming fairy tales are not enough.
There are some symbols inherent to New Testament Christianity of course: the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the prime examples. But where we are called to make use of symbolism it is essential for us to understand what these symbols point towards. This is why, for example, the apostle Paul calls on us to examine ourselves and to be discerning of the Lord’s body before taking the bread and wine. He is cautioning us not to let the symbols drift away from their meaning.
Let’s beware not to allow our identity as Christians – members of that holy nation – to be reduced to empty symbolism. Don’t focus so much on singing the right songs, wearing the right clothes and waving the right banners – all the things that football fans do – that you forget that being a member of that nation is about way more than that. Don’t let the meaning drift away.
Sport: what’s the point: join the threads team, Christians In Sport, CVM and SPCK publishers in London on 29 June for a discussion on faith, society and sport. Get your tickets here.