I have two congregations. On Saturday morning I pray passionately with up to 100 fellow Jews at Maidenhead Synagogue. On Saturday afternoon I am equally fervent with 18,000 fellow supporters at Reading Football Club.
At first glance these may seem totally unrelated activities, but there is a remarkable correlation. It may even carry a message for those whose places of worship are not as overflowing as they would like.
Think of the rituals: getting ready for church, putting on one’s prayer shawl at synagogue, taking off one’s shoes on entering the mosque, or getting out one’s scarf, bobcap or team shirt for the match.
They all help us to “get in the mood”, physically encourage us to turn our thoughts away from everyday concerns and immerse ourselves in a world apart.
Think of the memorabilia we collect, be it a crucifix, picture of Jerusalem or worry beads, football annuals, souvenir programmes and signed items. They are incidental to the main activity itself — the service or game — but help us to extend its atmosphere so that it permeates the rest of our week.
Think of the music: the sacred hymns of old that resonate, alongside new compositions that inspire, while fans are lifting up their voices together in chants traditional and impromptu.
In both cases the songs serve two purposes. First, to express our longings, be it for spiritual sustenance or winning the match. Second, they create a sense of unity among the attendees, who often come from different social backgrounds and might never meet, save in that particular setting.
I have sat in awe as bare-chested men who regard personal singing as “cissy” are transformed, once they enter the turnstiles, into angelic choirs raising their voices in unison. It is an eternal covenant to ensure that their team will never walk alone.
What camaraderie! What devotion! No need for an organ and nobody has a hymnbook. They chant together in the sure belief that the players depend on it. How can we persuade our mumbling congregants to sing with such gusto and certainty?
What underpins all these external manifestations is a deep faith. For fans, it is a blind and unconditional faith, following the club home and away, in sunshine and rain, through victory and defeat, whether promotion or relegation looms.
The same dogged persistence might apply to many worshippers who attend every week, whether they feel religiously inspired or not, whether last Sunday’s sermon was insightful or insipid, whether the choir was majestic or dismal. It matters not. There they belong and there they will go.
In both cases it might be argued that it is a faith that transcends objective facts. Prayers often go unanswered, yet still we go and utter new ones; the players may underperform, yet still we go and cheer them on. We not only believe, but we want to believe.
As for the football children, they can rattle off detailed statistics about the team’s form and the background of players, which puts religiously schooled youngsters to shame when compared with their knowledge of the Bible. Are our teachers missing something?
It is noticeable too how each institution is expanding its remit in the same way, trying to reinforce their relevance to existing members and broaden their appeal to new ones. Many places of worship have activities that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, be it cafeteria, film club, food bank or drug rehabilitation centre.
Meanwhile, football clubs are becoming alternative communities. Births, marriages and deaths of fans are announced on the screens before a match. Silences for local or national tragedies are observed.
As the World Cup approaches, will God be there with the fans? As the rabbis of old put it, God is wherever we let God in.