I’m coming to this debate fashionably late, but still unfashionably irritated.
The organisers of the Belfast Marathon mooted the idea of shifting the 26 mile race from its traditional May Day Monday to the first Sunday in May. (I say “traditional” as I can remember one girl in my Lisburn primary school who never came into class that Monday as she lived in Belfast and her Dad took her down each year to see the marathon.)
Various good reasons have been voiced to move from the Monday back to the Sunday.
- Running on the middle day of a long weekend allows more far-flung competitors to travel to Belfast on the Saturday and return home on the Monday.
- There is less normal traffic on the roads on the Sunday than the bank holiday Monday, so the traffic disruption would be less. This reduces the cost and pressure on the PSNI.
- With the centre of Belfast difficult to access by car during the morning of the marathon, traders in the city centre feel they would lose less business if the worst of the marathon passed on Sunday morning when they’re already closed. (Northern Ireland Sunday trading is generally only between 1pm and 6pm.)
Local church denominations have collectively struck back at the plan, suggesting that the closure of roads to allow the safe passage of the marathon would disrupt normal Sunday services at many of the churches found along the marathon route. Presbyterian Moderator Stafford Carson was joined by Church of Ireland Bishop Miller in speaking out.
Belfast City Council have postponed any move away from the Monday until 2012 at the earliest, and promised a period of public consultation before re-examining their options.
The churches’ approach really annoyed me. (And I’m an active member, so this is coming from a frustrated insider!)
They’re not wrong. If the marathon did switch to Sunday morning, they’d definitely find that buildings were cut off from vehicles, and some Christians would choose not to take part. Some of those people choose not to take part in lots of other events that occur on Sundays.
But it seemed like such a all-embracing negative approach to take. And one taken so forcefully to the doors of the local media who featured interviews with senior clergy.
Where was the balance? Where was the outward looking church that wasn’t self-obsessed with its own comfort?
What I expected the churches to say would have included ...
- While they’d regret that some Christians might not take part, they appreciate that many already fly across to London to run in its marathon on a Sunday. I’ve never heard of minister preaching against anyone running the London marathon, though I’ve heard at least one pray for a member of the congregation who was running it!
After all, the Church of Ireland put out a press release to highlight the Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry Richard Henderson who was took part in the London marathon on Sunday 26 April “to raise funds for Christian Aid through the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal and for local and Anglican charities”.
- Many people find that a Sunday morning is the only day they don’t need to rush into work, and do their long training run while the roads are quiet in the build up to the big event. So the churches may realise that there’s little difference between pounding the streets for 18 miles while training two Sundays before the Belfast marathon and running the full thing on a Sunday along with lots of other sweaty competitors.
- While it might be inconvenient to be cut off from church buildings, it would be an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that church buildings aren’t the priority. After all the old hymn says: “The Church is not a building, The Church is not a steeple, The Church is not a resting place, the Church is the People!”
- Many people could instead walk to a nearer church: one that they perhaps normally drive past on the way to their normal Sunday morning congregation. People could meet in each other’s houses, perhaps gathering with older house-bound friends who can’t get out to church.
- Some churches cancel evening services on Easter Sunday or if Boxing Day falls on a Sunday) to suit members. And Easter Sunday morning services are some of the most poorly attended of the year – something put down to family get-togethers and caravans - despite the importance in the Christian calendar. So when it suits churchgoers (rather than runners), some denominations already have form!
- Most crucially, the churches could volunteer en masse to help steward the marathon. What could be closer to a demonstration of practical Christian faith than handing out water to thirsty runners and cheering them on their way?
Presbyterian congregations are all busy writing mission plans at the moment. Maybe some still have time to slip in these ideas before it’s signed off?
Heaven forbid that civil society should challenge Christianity and be pushed away and rejected out-of-hand rather than the opportunity be taken to engage. You could always ask yourself where we’d find Jesus?
Update - Lila Gribben gives another, thoughtful, perspective over on her blog.