Rowan Williams returning to playfulness

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced he will step down at the end of the year. He has been leader of 77 million Anglicans for a decade during a particularly fractious period.

So who can blame him for wanting a different kind of life?

Why is he moving on?

I returned to his own writings for some hints and clues.  In his insightful 2000 book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, he speaks about how we have become, in his words, a “non-playful society.” In an essay on “Charity” he writes,

The skewed character of work in our society is intensified all the time by the lack, the thinness or the impotence of the remaining social rituals that embody charity.  In such a situation, these surviving practices that point to the social miracle bear too heavy a load, and buckle out of shape, becoming prolongations or displacements of, or compensations for the destructive-compettive activities of non-playful society. Things are not helped by the intensity of media attention: sport, from football to chess, is defined in the media as what-professional-others do. For the professional, there is need, spoken or unspoken, not only to win within the terms of the game, but also to win in terms of the rewards that publicity can confer, the odd and fragile ‘goods’ that are supposed to go with celebrity.  For the mass audience, this has largely ceased to be their ritual: it is something enacted for their entertainment, rather than an activity that might affect their own modes of behaving and understanding themselves. (p 62-63)

As I watched the NCAA tournament last night, part of the annual spectacle we Americans call “March Madness,” I was struck by how deadly serious these young men were. They played basketball, but there was little that seemed playful about it. There is truth in Williams’ observation that as sports becomes ever more serious and commodified the rest of us are deprived of the rituals of playfulness, except as spectators (and consumers.)

Williams has lived long enough with celebrity under the glare of the media. He has done his part.

But we have not heard the last from him. He is one of our finest theologian, an astute social critic, and a first-rate poet. Freed from the burdens of the primate’s office I expect he will grace us, both church and world, with new contributions.

But perhaps what he seeks most is play.

Nebraska Football and a Parable of Sports and Priorities

I am a big sports fan, but I often feel guilty about it (so it’s OK). I recognize in NFL football or the fever of Red Sox Nation some of the same scary crowd impulses that are present in big nationalistic rallies (think Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph of the Will, with a difference to be sure.)

I recall Karl Barth’s critique of big sports under the term chthonic, relating to the earth deities of ancient Greece whose cults often practiced ritual sacrifice.  And as a guy with a head injury, I am especially alert to the dangers placed on the NFL gladiators we send out week to week to do battle for us to enjoy vicariously.

For many, sports takes the place of church, in some cases quite literally.  The church management guru of a generation ago, Lyle Schaller, once commented in my presence that in America, NFL football was a significant problem for attracting men to Sunday worship, especially on the West Coast, where the 1:00 Eastern Time game was shown at 10:00 Pacific Time there.

Still, I have always been an athlete and continue to enjoy watching talented men and woman engage in competitive sports.  Can one take this too far?  Sure, and nothing sums up an outsized passion for sports better that a joke I read on Facebook this morning from my old friend Jerry, a former student of mine from 30 years ago when I was a seminary chaplain.

Jerry, as anybody who knows him knows, is from Nebraska, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, and a huge fan of their football team, the Huskers (from Cornhuskers. ) Recently, in one of those silly Facebook apps that asks you your favorite five sports teams, he put Nebraska football with three names (Nebraska football, Huskers, “Big Red”) as his first three, and then, since he now plies his ministerial trade here in the more civilized confines of New England, he put the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots as fourth and fifth.

Jerry is also a bit of a character and will exchange banter with the best of them. So when he put up a new profile picture wearing a Nebraska cap, I couldn’t resist commenting, “Nice picture, Jerry, what’s the N for, New Mexico?”

That started a flurry of comments about his love for Nebraska football that ended in him sharing this joke which I offer to you as a parable about sports and priorities. It is an all-purpose sports joke and, mutatis mutandis, could well be told about the Red Sox, Patriots, Packers, U of Michigan, or Manchester United, for that matter, if they have season’s tickets there:

A man had tickets for the Nebraska-Texas game. As he sits down, another man comes down and asks if anyone is sitting in the seat next to him. “No,” he says, “The seat is empty.”

“This is incredible,” said the other man. “Who in their right mind would have a seat like this for the Nebraska – Texas game, the biggest sporting event in the world, and not use it?”

He said, “Well, actually, the seat belongs to me. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she passed away. This is the first Nebraska-Texas game we haven’t been to together since we got married in 1957.”

“Oh . . . I’m sorry to hear that. . . That’s terrible. But couldn’t you find someone else – a friend or relative, or even a neighbor to take the seat?”

The man shakes his head. “No. They’re all at the funeral.”

Thanks Jerry.  Go Big Red!